Untranslatable words

B&R_World_Map_PantoneAs the second most widely spoken language in the world, English has an important role in our society. However, naturally, there are lots of expressions and words that do not have their word for word equivalent in English. Examples in such lexical gaps are words like “sobremesa”, a Spanish word which describes the moment of chatting and relax after having the lunch or dinner, or “dépaysement” in French which is a feeling, positive or negative, provoked by the fact that you are in a unusual environment.

Other examples are “saudade” in Portuguese expressing a deep emotional state of nostalgic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves and which has given so many titles and lyrics songs; “Lagom” in Swedish to say neither too much, nor too little but just right; or “hygge” in Danish to express a sense of warmth and companionship.

Do you know other words or expressions in your mother tongue that do not exist in English? If you do, please, leave us a comment and share them with us!

If you are interested, you can read more about lexical gaps in the following articles:

Maarten Janssen: Multilingual lexical databases, lexical gaps and SIMuLLDA

Jurgita Cvilikaite: Lexical Gaps

About TermCoord

The Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament in Schuman Building on Place de l'Europe, Luxembourg
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17 Responses to Untranslatable words

  1. Another Portuguese word is “cafuné”, a tender motion with the fingers caressing another person’s hair.

  2. There are such untranslatable words in greek, too. I would share with you here the word φιλότιμο (filotimo), defining the characteristic of someone who is often overly consistent with his obligations, who willingly performs his duties conscientiously, who doesn’t allow his reputation to be affiected.

  3. Saudade, portuguese word 🙂

  4. Roger McKeon says:

    Jouissance, a word/concept much used in contemporary French psychoanalysis and attendant philosophy is, to my knowledge, impossible to render in English. (Enjoyment, pleasure, delight, &c., just don’t do the trick.)

  5. Nelida K. says:

    Spanish (Southern Cone): “Sobremesa” is not only the conversational pause after lunch, it applies to any meal where you linger at table after the food is cleared. Another food-related term could be “merienda”, which is mostly a light meal in-between meals, akin to a snack but not quite, with a whiff of the 5 o’clock tea.

    • Roberto G. says:

      We also have “merenda” in Italian… and I agree, “snack” is more general and doesn’t give the exact idea 🙂

    • We also have “merenda” in Portuguese, but we do not use it as much. As for “sobremesa”, we use it to refer to dessert 🙂 Now, what I really find difficult to explain in other languages is “namorar”. I refer to it as dating, but it is not the same thing. Any help?

  6. latrotteuse says:

    The French word “fleuve” doesn’t exist in English, it means a river that flows to the sea where a “rivière” flows to a lake or to another river or “fleuve”.

  7. latrotteuse says:

    The French adjective “sympathique” always gives me trouble in English, seems like a cross between friendly, nice and charming.

  8. mina says:

    “kefi”in greek: the spirit of joy, passion and enthusiasm!!

    • We need it so much!! We also have μάγκας mangas: the popular man characterized by excessive confidence or arrogance and by appearance or behavior (dressing, movement, vocabulary, tone of voice, etc.) different from the usual.

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  10. LAROCHE Marie-Paule says:

    Some untranslatable Dutch words
    – “gezellig” (convivial, sociable or cosy, pleasant) –
    – “binnenpretje” (heimelijk genoegen, inwendig plezier)
    – “mierenneuker” (couper les cheveux en quatre – nitpicker)
    – “flierefluiter” (iemand die zorgeloos door het leven gaat zonder veel nuttigs te doen)

    see also some German words
    – Fingerspitzengefühl
    – Drachenfutter
    – Isbackpfeifengesicht

  11. TermCoord says:

    THANK YOU everybody for participating and sharing “your ” untranslatable words with us!
    Stay tuned!

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