Beyond Words - Language Blog

5 More Difficult Words to Translate

Over the last several months, Beyond Words readers from around the world have contacted us to share their experiences with particular words that are difficult to translate.

If you enjoyed our Ten Most Difficult Words to Translate article, here are some additions that have caught our attention. Thanks to everyone who sent words! Keep them coming for our next installment.

In Denmark, the word Hyggelig is used often, and is said to be closely tied to the Danish national character. A dictionary will provide translations along the lines of cozy, warm, and nice, but a typical Dane will argue that these words don’t come close to capturing the full meaning of the word. Perhaps a true Dane would like to share some thoughts here?

We recently featured an entire blog article on the Japanese concept of Wabi-Sabi. It is a compound word with a long history, and carries a lot of meaning. Put succinctly, it’s a way of living that emphasizes finding beauty in imperfection, and accepting the natural cycle of growth and decay.

This Spanish word has a long and interesting history. It’s original use was to describe a mythical entity that lives in forests, sort of like a fairy or a sprite, that possesses human beings and causes them to feel awe, fear, or a sense of beauty in their natural surroundings. Since being updated by the Spanish poet and playwright, Federico García Lorca, in the early 20th century, it is now used to refer to the mysterious power of a work of art to deeply move a person.

This Portuguese word was also featured in our most beautiful words post a while back. It refers to the feeling of longing for something or someone that you love and which is lost.

This past January, a blog post from the Atlantic Monthly by economist Bart Wilson sparked a debate about whether the English word Fair can be accurately translated. In the Beyond Words analysis of the Fairness translation debate, we explored all the sides, and discussed Wilson’s position that Fairness is a uniquely Anglo concept that carries historical baggage making it very different from notions of equity and right vs. wrong. You decide.

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  1. Hyggelig does indeed carry all those connotations and more. It usually involves people and food, but can also just mean relaxing on one’s own.

    I think it’s more that we apply the same word to so many situations as anything related to our ‘national character’, though.

  2. As Niklas points out, hyggelig can be used in a lot of different situations. Besides the adjective hyggelig, there is also the verb hygge. To hygge is to have a relaxed, informal, good time. You can hygge with others or on your own and with whatever you are doing, even your work. Thus something that is hyggelig is anything or anyone that invokes this situation. It can be anything that is informal/relaxed/welcoming. A person, a dinner, a day at the beach and the furnishing of a home can all be hyggelige.

    • Is it similar to the way that Tolkein described hobbits? Like, hobbits find comfort and pleasure in groups and by themselves, and enjoy a simple and humble life filled with good food, good beer, and good friends/family….

  3. Here’s another untranslatable Japanese expression:
    “Moshi-moshi”, or “Moshee-moshee”
    This is the way they say ‘hello’, but only on the telephone. We loved it so much that here back in Canada that’s become our own traditional telephone greeting.

  4. I find the concept of fairness interesting. I’ve known people to refer to unfairness as being ‘fair to one side, but not fair to the other’. Obviously this is a misunderstanding of what fairness actually means, but maybe that is part of the reason it’s such an obscure concept linguistically.

  5. The classical Tamil word “pasalai” gives the same meaning as the Portugeese “Saudade”. However, that word is not in ordinary colloquial usage anymore.

  6. i don’t think duende is used to “refer to the mysterious power of a work of art to deeply move a person”. spanish is my first language and duende is more like an elf; and lorca didn’t updated it, just made a metaphor, nothing more

  7. This is a new topic.

    We need a new word in English. Most people now use the word “they’ when the gender of the singular person is unknown, instead of using the correct “he”. Such as “My teacher sent me to the principal’s office today.” “Why did they do that?”
    I suggest using the Mandarin word “ta” for a pronoun of a singular person of unknown gender. Or, invent an entirely new word that rhymes with he, she, we.

  8. re: Alicia’s suggestion to create a pronoun for a singular person of unknown sex.
    It has always been proper practice to use the masculine form in the case of either singular unknown gender or for humankind (mankind) as a whole. To create, and introduce into common usage, a new word only because a number of people can’t be bothered to use the rules of the American English language correctly is simply falling prey to the dumbing down of America.

    There is another problem with the word she suggests, the Mandarin “ta”. It is also part of an English greeting, rather a good-bye, “ta-ta”, also used as “ta!”

    It seems to me that when we have a perfectly good word, or set of words, available to us that creating new ones simply because some people are not using the proper words is absurd.

  9. as a brazilian, I’ve always known “saudade” was untranslatable, but I’ve never thought of “cafuné” as untranslatable too.

    I agree “fairness” is fairly tough to translate, at least to my mother tongue.

  10. Totally disagree with Carlos and Natxo. I’m from Sevilla (Spain) and there we actually use “duende” when we refer to people with special abilities, mostly in flamenco dancing or singing, so we say that somebody has duende to express how he/she masters his/her art and how he/she conveys feelings with what he/she does. I didn’t know Lorca was the one who updated the meaning but it totally makes sense, since he was from Andalucía too. Hope this explanation helps!

  11. I have the hardest… try to explain the TRUE meaning of spanish’s CHINGAR, i wrote an essay two pages long of that word

  12. I just asked my boss, who is Japanese, about the meaning of “wabi-sabi”. He said its pretty close to simple silence, and as it is a way of thinking it’s quite normal to be hard to translate it… I mean, try to translate karate-do…

    I studied in Portugal for one year and “saudade” is pretty similar to “nostalgia”… I don’t really see why it is listed here 🙂

  13. I have a meaning, and I’m looking for a word! Does anyone know of a word for the way something that is familiar to you becomes novel and exciting again when you share it with someone else? Think of sharing a favorite movie with a friend who’s never seen it.

    Jamais vu isn’t quite right…

    • Maybe the word ‘zing’ can be used. It would have to be used as verbal phrase, such as: “Describing the movie to her gave me a zing”

      In this context – zing: vitality; zest

      Just a thought

  14. L’esprit d’escalier is a handy French term–that self-annoyance one feels when s/he recognizes that the perfect come-back had lost its moment, and it’s too late to get it out.

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  16. Fair is easy to translate into Dutch (eerlijk), German has several words for several aspects (gerecht & unbefangen); but French doesn’t seem to have a good trans, Russian spravedlivij feels ‘very’ close…I wouldn’t put it on the list myself

  17. I love these words but am hesitant to use them because I could mispronounce them.

    Do you have a link to an audio of someone actually saying each of these words? Then, I could imitate the speaker’s pronunciation and begin to use the words in my vocabulary! Thanks. ljb

  18. I hate to disagree with Nyago, but “saudade” is not at all the same as “nostalgia”. In fact “nostalgia” is also a portuguese word and they are not used in the same way. “Saudade” is both a feeling but also a state of soul. No point trying to explain, you would have to be portuguese to understand… 😉

  19. We need a word for the common mistake made while writing on a computer. When creating a new document, we often use an earlier version–a template– and simply change specifics for this instance: date, names, numbers, etc. But sometimes we overlook a word that needs changing, and we complete it with this annoying error. It’s not a typo, it’s a … ?

  20. Dear Alicia,

    ‘They/them/their’ has been used in English as a gender-neutral pronoun of the third-person singular since at least Shakespeare’s day. I think that makes it both ‘traditional’ and respectale.’

    Dear segue,
    I could (and have) written pages on the subject of using ‘he’ to mean both ‘he’ and ‘she,’ but the upshot of my argument is that this usage marginalizes women.

  21. With both our children married I am looking for a word for “the other grandmother” or “the other mother-in-law” i.e. my daughter’s mother-in-law. I was told there was a word like this in Yiddish but haven’t found it. Can you help?

    • Spanish has these:
      consuegros co-mother-in-laws and father-in-laws, would refer to all four
      concunos co-sister-in-laws and brother-in-laws (Second n should have a tilde. I have forgotten how to do it.

  22. does anyone know the word for “found something else when you search for another”..

    umm, let’s say “I found my old wallet i’ve been looking for when I was actually search for a duct tape in the balcony”?

  23. moshi-moshi is used because of an old superstition that yokai (folk monsters and demons) and yurei (ghosts) can’t say it. They can only say “moshi” once. It is used when the speaker cannot be seen clearly. Some people do use it on the street, but it is more common via phone.

  24. German gemuetlich translates exactly to cozy. I don’t suppose that hyggelig translates to cozy, right?

    a pretty hard word to translate to English

  25. “In fact %u201Cnostalgia%u201D is also a portuguese word ”
    I beg to differ, nostalgia is a greek word consisting of the words nostos(long travel towards ones home) and algos(means pain)

  26. Lyn Fenton – Hi. I can not remember the name of the language..maybe someone here can help (begins with an I) and is spoken in Nigeria. It has words for grandmother on father’s side, uncle who is my mother’s brother, cousin who is the son of my mother’s older brother, older brother, younger sister, and on and on….

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  29. The Romanian “dor” is actually pretty close to “saudade”, and also cannot be translated into English (or most of the other languages, for that matter). It means a sort of longing and pain and wish and nostalgia altogether, originated in love or absence or dream…

  30. Dear Segue:
    Language evolves. If Shakespeare’s peers used “they” instead of “he” referring to a single person, that’s OK with me.
    My daughter thinks it should be “te” so it rhymes with he, she,we.
    Language is about clarity in communication.
    If people did use “he” instead of “they”, I could imagine “she” going the way of “thou” in English.

  31. Does anyone have a word for in-laws after a divorce? I have used “outlaws” 🙂
    This is less of a mouthful than “ex-in-laws”, and usually makes people chuckle.

  32. @Alicia Nossov & @segue:

    There’s a gender neutral pronoun “ze” pronounced zee, but I think it’s used in the context of intersex people. Its possessive form is “hir (pronounced ‘hear’)”, i.e. he/his, she/her, ze/hir.

    Also, seriously, who says “ta”?

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  35. I think one of my favorite concepts in Spanish that is difficult to translate is “Verguenza Ajena”. There is just nothing quite like it in English. I wish there was, because it’s such a useful phrase, especially around the family.

  36. From Argentina. Here duende is the elf-like creature, nothing else. Nor have I heard anyone using duende with the meaning you explain here. I think you have been tricked hehe.

  37. philippines. duende also means dwarf, creature mostly found in forests that will torture or play with you if you happen to pee on them.

  38. @Lyn Fenton

    “With both our children married I am looking for a word for %u201Cthe other grandmother%u201D or %u201Cthe other mother-in-law%u201D i.e. my daughter%u2019s mother-in-law. I was told there was a word like this in Yiddish but haven%u2019t found it. Can you help?
    Lyn Fenton on March 7th, 2011 at 10:27 pm”

    Hi, I’m from Argentina and there is a word in spanish that exactly describes what you are looking for, actually, there is more than one.

    Co madre: meaning, co mother, literally. It’s a term used to refer to the mother of your son/daughter spouse.

    Consuegra: (Suegra= mother in law) It’s the exact same thing as the previous one.

    If you know someone from Argentina, there is a huge jewish communtiy, they could try and find out, perhapds there is a translation from these spanish terms to yiddish. Also if you know someone from Mexico, I believe they have either the same or a similar word.

    Good luck with that 🙂

    Oh, and DUENDE in Argentina it’s an elf like creature, like a gobling or a troll or a trixie, it is asociaed more whit a miniature humanoid creature, not so much with the human like characters from the Tolien books or other universes, more like the irish leprechaun, even violent like the one from the horror movies. There are two kinds of DUENDES in Argentina, the ones that are part of many folk tales in which the DUENDE shows up and [email protected]#$%# the #$#$% out of someone. The other kind its like a fairy that lives in the forest and it’s completely peacefull, it is often find in out door markets in the form of little statues. It’s a comercial thing basically.

    Ok, cheers!

  39. Was nobody else taught in grade school that you should say “he or she” instead of “they” for the singular person of unknown gender? I always assumed that the standard “he” for referring to anyone was done away with because it was unfair to women or something. I could be wrong though, just wondering if anybody else was taught to say it “he or she” instead.

  40. Lyn Fenton — the word you’re looking for is “machateniste”. It’s a brilliant word and if you google it, almost every post is hilarious. Yiddish is full of these amazing words. “Machatonim” is the plural, which refers to the other in-laws. The “ch” in the words, is, of course, not like “chair”, but a guttural “h”, as in “Chanuka”. (Approximately: Ma-huh-ten-iss-tuh)

  41. Agree with the Swedish “Lagom” one. The concept is basically “just right”, as in not too sweet, not too bitter, not too warm, not too cold, not too soft, not too hard etc etc.

    It’s an awesome word.

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  43. The Arabic (lebanese) word ”Zenkha” has no known translation at least, in French English or Spanish … It describes an unpleasant scent/taste that can be obtained in many ways … The best description would be: the smell lingering in a glass of water after a sip taken following a mouth full of eggs … Even more so if it is egg yoke …

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  45. In Greece we also have a word for Paznavit, which is “%u03B1%u03BD%u03B1%u03C0%u03AC%u03BD%u03C4%u03B7%u03C4%u03B7” the literal translation being “unanswered” as in unanswered calls.

  46. @Anna – what they meant is: “nostalgia” is ALSO a word in portuguese.
    “Saudade” is a very hard word to define. You can feel it towards someone, you can feel it towards a time or a place, you can say it was a greeting, like “Que saudades” (something like “I missed you”) and it can be both positive and negative at the same time. “Nostalgia” refers basically to a time in the past.

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  51. The use of They instead of He or She is a direct result of hypersensitivity in the pursuit of political correctness. It is similar to the reason that so many people will avoid mentioning skin color when describing someone outside their own complexion type.

  52. Several comments. The Yiddish word requested is makhatenitsa (stress on 3rd syllable; my transliteration–kh is like ch in Bach.)In English, you would just say, my son’s or my daughter’s mother-in-law.

    But it is brilliant to have a special word–it’s from the point of view of the mother of a married child and refers to the “other mother-in-law.” Obviously, since time immemorial, there has been competition between mothers-in-law, so this gives it legitimacy, but also makes the two unrelated mothers who have the same grandchildren into relatives, perhaps to smooth relationships?

    I agree that in English we have “he” for the unknown singular pronoun; feminists get bent out of shape about it. But I think they should get a life (or several lives). This is grammar not EEO and an elegant solution.

    Agree “spravedlivyj” is good Russian translation of “fair.” In French colloquially, “c’est pas juste!” can convey the same thing, especially if said with a pout.

    Another topic: idioms. Has anyone successfully explained to a foreigner the full meaning of “Go, knock yourself out.” I have only gotten blank stares, hopeless sighs, and a polite “thank you.”

  53. ‘Hygge’ is more or less a safe and comfortable feeling, and the word can describe any given situation where one’s feeling it, ex. alone, with friends, at home, watching a movie, at a party etc.

  54. Prozvonit in Czech has a brother in new word “protroubit”, It is used in humorous arogance. If there is some confused driver driving mistakenly or agresivly, the horn of other driver is repeatedly used just to insult him.My american grandkids are not able to translate the word into english.

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    • Duende is to flamenco music as soul is to rhythm&blues. It’s something the artist has that is more than talent or ability – as if they were possessed by a spiritual being, a “duende”, when playing/singing/dancing.

  56. Here is the best definition of hygge (the noun form of hyggelig) that I have found so far:

    As for the word “saudade”, I think that “to have a longing for” is a pretty close a translation to “ter saudade” because it is more than to miss something / someone and it carries that sad, heavy feeling inside.

    Cafune (included in your other list) has got to be one of my favorite Brazilian words though!!

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  58. I suggest another word (from Spanish and Portuguese) that can’t be translated to other languages — at least not the ones that I know. Madrugada.
    It means the period between midnight and and the “dawn”, when it is still dark. Like “às 3 da madrugada”, for instance. It is translated as “dawn” in most dictionaries, but that is not an accurate translation. You can say “in the small hours”, in English. But that is not “one” word…

  59. Is there a word for “Best friends who’ve just met”. That is, two souls who have just met and are immediately best friends? That one person who you ‘get’ on every level and don’t even need to try, when you’re around them: they just mesh with you that well. The English would be ‘soul mate’, but that has a romantic connotation. Although it might develop into romance over time…..

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