Unbelievable, Untranslatable Words

Here is a short list of non-English words which carry such specific meanings that they “cannot be translated” into English. Enjoy!


Language: Japanese

Here is another great Japanese word with no English equivalent (though I am sure someone can come up with one in the comments). Bakku-shan is the word for a girl who looks pretty from behind but ugly in front. I can’t find out whether they have a word for the reverse situation, or for that other frighteningly common problem these days, where you think a girl looks good from behind only to discover that she is a he! Modern fashion has a lot to answer for!


Language: Kiriwani (Papa New Guinea)

It is the act of comparing yams (potato-like vegetable) to settle a dispute.


Language: Portuguese

The act of tenderly running one’s fingers through someone’s hair. (Altalang.com)


Language: French

The feeling that comes from not being in one’s home country.


Language: Spanish

While originally used to describe a mythical, sprite-like entity that possesses humans and creates the feeling of awe of one’s surroundings in nature, its meaning has transitioned into referring to the mysterious power that a work of art has to deeply move a person. (Altalang.com)

Esprit d’Escalier

Language: French

That witty comeback that you think of moments after leaving the situation in which you might have been able to use it. The staircase is a reference to your departure from the scene. This is a dreadful thing to experience, and most of the time we don’t get a chance to say the clever thing we come up with. Now, someone just needs to coin a term for the person who is so clever that he always says the right thing, without fail.


Language: Norwegian

The euphoria you experience when you’re first falling in love.

This is a wonderful term for that blissful state, when all your senses are acute for the beloved, the pins and needles thrill of the novelty. There’s a phrase in English for this, but it’s clunky. It’s New Relationship Energy, or NRE.


Language: Danish

The complete absence of anything annoying, irritating or emotionally overwhelming, and the presence of and pleasure from comforting, gentle and soothing things. It is especially associated with Christmas time, grilling Danish sausage on long summer evenings and sitting around lit candles on a rainy night.


Language: Tshiluba / Bantu (Southwest Congo)

A word famous for its untranslatability, most professional translators pinpoint it as the stature of a person who is ready to forgive and forget any first abuse, tolerate it the second time, but never forgive nor tolerate on the third offense. (Altalang.com) It’s the “three strikes and you’re out” policy. In 2004, it had the sole distinction of being chosen as the world’s most difficult word to translate.


Language: Inuit

To go outside to check if anyone is coming. (Altalang.com)


Language: Indonesian

A joke so poorly told and so unfunny that one cannot help but laugh. (Altalang.com)


Language: Swedish

Somewhere between “just the right amount” and “enough.” It expresses a sense of balance and satisfaction with having your needs met without needing excess.

Koi No Yokan

Language: Japanese

The sense upon first meeting a person that the two of you are going to fall into love. This is different than love at first sight, since it implies that you might have a sense of imminent love, somewhere down the road, without yet feeling it. The term captures the intimation of inevitable love in the future, rather than the instant attraction implied by love at first sight.


Language: Japanese

A mother who relentlessly pushes her children toward academic achievement. (Altalang.com) No doubt we are all familiar with the stereotype of Japanese mothers who push their children far too hard when it comes to schoolwork. Literally translated this means “education mother”.

La Douleur Exquise

Language: French

The heart-wrenching pain of wanting someone you can’t have.

When I came across this word I thought of unrequited love. It’s not quite the same, though. Unrequited love describes a relationship state, but not a state of mind. Unrequited love encompasses the lover who isn’t reciprocating, as well as the lover who desires. This phrase gets at the emotional heartache, specifically, of being the one whose love is unreciprocated.

L’Appel Du Vide

Language: French

‘The call of the void’ is this French expression’s literal translation, but more significantly it’s used to describe the instinctive urge to jump from high places.


Language: Czech

Milan Kundera, author of ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’, said about this word ‘I have looked in vain in other languages for an equivalent, though I find it difficult to imagine how anyone can understand the human soul without it’. The closest definition is a state of agony and torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery.


Language: Yagan (Tierra del Fuego)

The wordless, yet meaningful look shared by two people who both desire to initiate something but are both reluctant to start. (Altalang.com) Oh yes, this is an exquisite word, compressing a thrilling and scary relationship moment. It’s that delicious, “on the edge” moment of imminent seduction. Neither of you has mustered the courage to make a move, yet. Hands haven’t been placed on knees; you’ve not kissed. But you’ve both conveyed enough to know that it will happen soon very soon.


Language: Czech

This word means to call a mobile phone and let it ring once so that the other person will call back, saving the first caller money. (Altalang.com)


Language: Italian

Are you one of those people who really don’t care all that much about politics and issues in society? Then this word applies to you. The term came from a political party in Italy, in 1944, which promoted anti-political feelings and a mistrust of public organizations. The party was called the “Fronte dell’Uomo Qualunque” or the front of the ordinary man. Rather appropriate considering how many people obviously feel this way about politics as is evidenced by the low voter turnouts that we often see in elections.


Language: French

The happiness of meeting someone again after a long time. This is such a basic concept, and so familiar to the growing ranks of commuter relationships, or to a relationship of lovers, who see each other only periodically for intense bursts of pleasure. I’m surprised we don’t have any equivalent word for this subset of relationship bliss. It’s a handy one for modern life.


Language: Portuguese

One of the most beautiful of all words, translatable or not, this word refers to the feeling of painful longing for something or someone that you love and which is lost. Fado music, a type of mournful singing, relates to this word. (Altalang.com) Another linguist describes it as a “vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist.”


Language: German

Quite famous for its meaning that somehow other languages neglected to recognize, this refers to the feeling of pleasure derived by seeing another’s misfortune.


Language: Scottish

The act of hesitating while introducing someone because you’ve forgotten his or her name. (Altalang.com)


Language: Pascuense (Easter Island)

The act of slowly taking all of the objects you desire from the house of a friend by gradually borrowing all of them. (Altalang.com)


Language: German

Translated literally, this word means gate-closing panic, but its contextual meaning refers to the fear of diminishing opportunities as one ages. (Altalang.com)


Language: Russian

Vladmir Nabokov describes it best: No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases, it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.


Language: Dutch

It means to walk in the wind, but in the more figurative (and commonly used) sense, it means to take a brief break in the countryside to clear one’s head. It is amazing that one word needs so many in English to make the same sense.


Language: Japanese

Much has been written on this Japanese concept, but in a sentence, one might be able to understand it as a way of living that focuses on finding beauty within the imperfections of life and accepting peacefully the natural cycle of growth and decay.(Altalang.com)

Ya ‘Aburnee

Language: Arabic

Both morbid and beautiful at once, this incantatory word means ‘You bury me’. It is a declaration of one’s hope that they’ll die before another person because of how difficult it would be to live without them. It’s the sickly sincere “How Could I Live Without You?” in Arabic.

Yoko Meshi

Language: Japanese

Taken literally, yoko means ‘horizontal,’ and meshi means ‘boiled rice.’ Combined, the sense is one of ‘a meal eaten sideways.’ This is how the Japanese define the peculiar stress induced by speaking a foreign language: yoko is a humorous reference to the fact that Japanese is normally written vertically, whereas most foreign languages are written horizontally.


Language: Chinese

A relationship by fate or destiny. This is a complex concept. It draws on principles of predetermination in Chinese culture, which dictate relationships, encounters and affinities, mostly among lovers and friends. From what I glean, in common usage this word means the “binding force” that links two people together in any relationship. But interestingly, fate isn’t the same thing as destiny. Even if lovers are fated to find each other they may not end up together. The proverb, have fate without destiny, describes couples who meet, but who don’t stay together, for whatever reason. It’s interesting, to distinguish in love between the fated and the destined. Romantic comedies, of course, confound the two.


Language: Polish

It is the use of friends, bribes, personal charm or connections to get something done. This was particularly useful in the days of communism, as it was easier to get something you wanted through guile as opposed to official means.


The source for all of this post comes from these great sources.