Skip to content

Translating the 'untranslatable'

Translating the untranslatable Blog

Over the last few months, I have become curious about the rise of a rather interesting word: Hygge. Embodying the Danish concept of cosiness and conviviality, of staying indoors in winter by a warm fire with a hot chocolate... it is clear why this term has gained such popularity.

An Oxford Dictionary 2016 finalist for ‘Word of the Year’,  there is no direct translation for hygge in English, and it has often been used to define the Danish national character. Such culturally charged terms are difficult to translate, and may not be directly translatable from one language to another. 

One other such word is the Portuguese saudade. Often considered to be the hardest word to translate in the Portuguese language, it is a feeling of sweet nostalgia, with an intense longing for something or someone which is long gone. Saudade is hardly explainable, it is a deep and complex feeling which is lived, not explained. Such an explanation might result in an approximate idea, and an even more approximate translation. 

Serendipity. You might be surprised to find out that this English word is among the hardest to render into another language. The notion of a “happy accident” or of a “pleasant surprise” is however, not a uniquely English concept. Its universality has resulted in similar words appearing in other languages, adaptations made to fill the linguistic gap, as was the case with the French sérendipité. 

Listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's "most succinct word", Mamihlapinatapai, originating from the archipelago of Tierra del Fuego, is another word which could be as useful as it is difficult to translate. One interpretation for this word would be “the look shared by two people, who both wish for something to be done, but neither wants to take the initiative”. 

Each language has words with no true equivalent in other languages. Some of these words have managed to integrate into the English language, over time. This is the case with kitsch or Zeitgeist borrowed from German, and whose origins are still clear today. Sometimes these words have become so integrated that the speakers might forget that they have been borrowed, as in the words jungle from Hindi and pyjamas from Urdu.  

The complexity and the limitations of different languages have inspired some linguists to construct their own, which would be able to encompass the full human experience. Perhaps the best known example of this is Esperanto. Created by L.L. Zamenhof in the late 19th Century, Esperanto is now widely spoken across the globe and can even be studied on popular language-learning app, Duolingo. More recently, John Quijada created an experimental language called Ithkuil, in order to convey complex philosophical concepts in a succinct and logical manner, and to fill gaps existing in modern languages.

Thanks to globalisation, the world feels smaller than ever before, making it possible to borrow from other languages when your own words are not enough. Language is in constant evolution, bringing new exciting opportunities and possibilities for global communication.

Comments (0)

Leave A Comment

* Indicates a required field