As our globe shrinks it becomes more necessary to explore the deeper recesses of language like connotation and idioms that cannot be translated literally. For example in English “bread” can mean the usual baked loaf, but it can also stand for food in general, though the term is not used as much now as it has been in the past. (We broke bread and enjoyed the evening or Give us this day our daily bread.) Translators must consider carefully how to best convey the meaning of the word being taken from one language and expressed in another.
In this process lexicographers have deemed some terms “untranslatable”. Usually this means that there is no one-for-one word that means the same between two languages being translated.
Wikipedia has this to say about untranslatable words:
Untranslatability is a property of a text, or of any utterance, in one language, for which no equivalent text or utterance can be found in another language when translated.
Terms are, however, neither exclusively translatable nor exclusively untranslatable; rather, the degree of difficulty of translation depends on their nature, as well as on the translator’s knowledge of the languages in question.
Quite often, a text or utterance that is considered to be “untranslatable” is actually a lacuna, or lexical gap. That is, there is no one-to-one equivalence between the word, expression or turn of phrase in the source language and another word, expression or turn of phrase in the target language. A translator can, however, resort to a number of translation procedures to compensate for this. Therefore, untranslatability or difficulty of translation does not always carry deep linguistic relativity implications; denotation can virtually always be translated, given enough circumlocution, although connotation may be ineffable or inefficient to convey.
Here are a few untranslatables from my Word Collection page that I found particularly intriguing.
- kummerspeck (n.) excess weight gained from emotional overeating. Literally, grief bacon. German
- hygge (n.) the act of relaxing with loved ones and good friends, usually while enjoying food and drink, in a cozy atmosphere. Danish
- wabi-sabi (n.) a way of living that emphasizes finding beauty in imperfection and accepting the natural cycle of growth and decay. Japanese
- saudade (n.) a strong feeling of missing someone you love. Portuguese
- shemomedjamo (n.) the act of continuing to eat, though full, because of the delicious taste of the food. Georgian
- mencolek (v.) to tap lightly on the opposite shoulder from behind to fool someone. Indonesian
- jung (n.) a special feeling, stronger than love, proven by having survived a huge argument with someone
- espirit d’escalier (v.) thinking of a witty comeback when it’s too late
- pelinti (v.) moving very hot food around in your mouth. Ghanaian
- gilgil (n.) the overwhelming urge to squeeze or pinch something that is very cute. Filipino