Untranslatable Words: A Symbol of a Culture

Are there untranslatable words? Sometimes we come across this question, and after seeing the pile of images of words with special meanings in other languages you can easily find on the Internet, the question really should be: What words cannot be translated?

We are going to discuss the issue, starting with the influence of culture on languages, and then giving some examples of words that are claimed to have no translation.


Words represent concepts

It is difficult to determine what a word is. In the field of linguistics, this debate is still ongoing. Although we can define a word as a lexical item: a fragment of speech or writing, separated by pauses, with its own identified meaning, that represents a concept (which can be concrete or abstract).

The creativity we possess as human beings to invent representations is infinite. For example, think back a few years ago, words like selfie, or cloud didn’t exist. A word is, after all, a convention: lots of people have begun to use those words to represent something that exists in their life.



What does it mean for a language to be creative?

As humans, we are able to represent almost anything through words. Then, what about untranslatable words? In linguistics, this is called recursion. A situation or an object can be described in words in any language.

That said, every language has a corresponding reality, which means it is normal that in certain languages it is easier to describe certain concepts than others.

The concepts or ideas that these untranslatable words represent are usually common in their culture, and uncommon in others, which is why there are no equivalents in other languages. What we do have, are ways to explain them.


Translating untranslatable words: examples

  • Sgriob is a word from Scots Gaelic that describes the tingling sensation on your lips when you take a sip of whiskey.
  • In Inuit, iktsuarpok is a word for continually leaving your house to see if someone you are expecting has arrived yet.
  • The time it takes someone to swallow a banana is known as pisanzapra in Malay.
  • The feeling of being alone in a forest, and in harmony with nature has a specific term in German: waldeinsamkeit.

Untranslatable words are symbols of culture. Every culture has its own requirements and capabilities, so it is normal for these characteristics to appear as specific words. From the words above, we can extract that:

  • In Scotland, whiskey is part of Scottish food culture.
  • For an Inuit, it is normal to leave the house to see if someone has arrived, perhaps because of the extreme weather conditions?
  • In Malaysia, they eat a lot of bananas.
  • Germany has many forests, and a lot of people would visit them to relax.

Despite all these untranslatable words, we have managed to explain the concepts they represent. The production of language is infinite, given that almost any concept can be represented in another language. It’s true, though, that sometimes we may have to add more information to really understand a given concept!


Unique words, rather than words without translation

As shown, the idea of having words that cannot be translated is nothing more than a myth. Language represents real life, and the truth is that sometimes this can be really specific.

But this can also happen in our own language: anyone who hasn’t got the expertise to understand what a protozoan is, will have to go and research the information themselves, right? Well, it happens the same with untranslatable words that represent information from other cultures.

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About the author

Oscar Nogueras

Es el CEO de Ontranslation y dedica algunos ratos libres a escribir en este blog para compartir sus conocimientos sobre internacionalización, cross-border ecommerce y Traducción SEO. No es para menos, ya que entre su formación cuenta con una licenciatura en filología inglesa, un máster en tradumática, un posgrado en elearning y un MBA. En definitiva, una declaración de intenciones donde la cultura y los idiomas se sirven mezclados, no agitados.

One response to “Untranslatable Words: A Symbol of a Culture”

  1. French Life Community says:

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