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Untranslatable words into English: the ultimate list

English is a great language, spoken by millions of people worldwide, either as their native language or a close second. The speakers of English are more than happy to adopt words from other languages, and even to invent new ones. New words enter English dictionaries at a fast pace, keeping up with the diversity of all English speakers.

But this language cannot overtake all the other languages on Earth. What follows is an impressive list of words from other languages that are simply untranslatable into English:

German

Backpfeifengesicht – A face badly in need of a fist.
Erklärungsnot – The state of having to quickly explain yourself.

Fachidiot (German)

Fachidiot – Someone who knows a great deal about a very narrow subject.
Fahrvergnügen – The love of simply driving.
Fernweh – Feeling homesick for a place you have never been to.
Fisselig – Being flustered to the point of incompetence, it conveys a temporary state of inexactitude and sloppiness that is elicited by another person’s nagging.
Handschuhschneeballwerfer – A coward willing to criticize and abuse from a safe distance.
Kummerspeck – Literally grief bacon, the binge eating that follows an emotional blow.
Lebensmüde – Weary of life.
Schadenfreude – Enjoyment obtained from the misery of others.
Schilderwald – A street crowded with so many road signs that you become lost.
Schlimmbesserung – A so-called improvement that makes things worse.
Sitzfleisch – Those who possess a lot of seat meat are able to sit through and weather something incredibly hard or boring.
Torschlusspanik – Literally fear of a closed door, fear of losing opportunities because of ageing, especially concerning women who want children.
Waldeinsamkeit – The feeling of being alone in the woods.
Weichei – Literally soft egg; someone who is weak and cowardly.
Weltschmerz – Literally world grief, it means a gloomy, romanticized world-weary sadness, experienced most often by privileged youth.

Japanese

Age-otori – To look worse after a haircut.
Arigata-meiwaku – An act someone does for you that you didn’t want to have them do and tried to avoid having them do, but they went ahead anyway, determined to do you a favour, and then things went wrong and caused you a lot of trouble, yet in the end social conventions required you to express gratitude.
Aware – The bittersweetness of a brief and fading moment of transcendent beauty.
Boketto – Gazing vacantly into the distance.
Chindogu – A solution to a common problem that’s pretty useless otherwise.
Ikigai – A reason to get up in the morning, a reason to live.

Ikigai (Japanese)

Koi no yokan – The feeling of knowing that you will soon fall in love with the person you have just met.
Komorebi – Sunlight that filters through the leaves of trees.
Kyoikumama – Mother who pushes her children into academic achievements.
Nekama – A man who pretends to be a woman on the internet.
Shouganai – Connected to the idea of fate, this word means that something can’t be helped, so why worry about it? Worrying won’t stop the bad things from happening; it will only stop you from enjoying the good ones.
Tsundoku – The act of leaving a book unread after buying it, typically piling it up together with other such unread books.
Wabi – A flawed detail that creates an elegant whole.
Yoko meshi – Literally a meal eaten sideways, refers to the peculiar stress induced by speaking a foreign language.
Yūgen – A profound, mysterious sense of the beauty of the universe – and the sad beauty of human suffering.

Spanish

[Update] Anteayer – A one-word way of saying the day before yesterday or a shorter version of ‘antes de ayer’.
Chingada – [Mexico] A hellish, imaginary, faraway place where you send all those who annoy you.
Desvelado – Being unable to sleep or to be sleep deprived.

Duende (Spanish)

Duende – The mysterious power that a work of art can have over a person, deeply affecting him/her.
[Update] Encandilar – To see spots/to be blinded by a flash of bright light.
Estrenar – To wear or use something for the first time.
Friolero – A person who is especially sensitive to cold water and temperatures.
Madrugada – The time of day occurring between past midnight and early morning.
Pena ajena – [Mexico] The embarrassment you feel watching someone else’s humiliation.
Sobremesa – The moment after eating a meal when the food is gone but the conversation is still flowing at the table.
Tuerto – A man with only one eye.
Tutear – To treat someone informally by addressing them as tú instead of the more formal usted.

Swedish

Badkruka – Somebody reluctant to go into a body of water while swimming outdoors.

Gökotta (Swedish)

Gökotta – To wake up early in the morning with the purpose of going outside to hear the first birds sing.
Lagom – Not too much and not too little, but just the right amount of anything.
Mångata – The road-like reflection of the Moon on the water.
Tretår – A second refill of a cup of coffee; a ‘threefill’.
Uffda – A sympathetic word to be used when someone else is in pain. It combines ‘Ouch for you’ and ‘Oh, I’m sorry you hurt yourself’.

French

Bérézina – More than a serious failure, a defeat.
Dépaysement – The unsteady feeling you get when you are away from your home country or away from your origin in general.
L’esprit de l’escalier – Literally stairwell wit, the feeling one gets when thinking of the perfect thing to say just a moment too late.
Rire dans sa barbe – To laugh in your beard quietly while thinking about something that happened in the past.
S’encoubler – [Switzerland] Losing balance or falling because you got entangled in something, like a cable.

Russian

Listopad – The falling of the leaves.
Odnoliub – Someone who has only one love in his or her life, or someone who is capable of loving only one at a time.
Pochemuchka – A person who asks too many questions.
Toska – Misery, boredom, yearning, and anguish.
Zapoi – Two or more days of drunkenness usually involving a journey or waking up in an unexpected place.

Italian

Cavoli Riscaldati – Literally reheated cabbage, an attempt to revive an old romantic relationship.
Culaccino – The mark left on a table by a cold glass.
[Update] Fare la scarpetta – to mop the sauce or whatever’s left on your plate with a piece of bread.

Gattara (Italian)

Gattara – A woman, often old and lonely, who devotes herself to stray cats.

Finnish

Jaksaa – A lack of enthusiasm to do something.
Lieko – A trunk of tree that has submerged to the bottom of a lake.
Tokka – A large herd of reindeer.

Greek

Filotimo – A friend of honour, but it also implies dignity, pride, sacrifice and respect.
Parea – A group of friends that get together to enjoy nothing else but sharing their life experiences, philosophies, values, and ideas.
Psithurism – The sound of leaves rustling in the wind.

Norwegian

Forelsket – The euphoria you experience when you are first falling in love.
Pålegg – Anything and everything you can put on a slice of bread.
Utepils – To sit outside on a sunny day enjoying a beer.

Polish

Dozywocie – Parental contract with children guaranteeing lifelong support.
Formacja – A state of mind and its own culture of a generation.
Radioukacz – Telegraphist for the resistance movements on the Soviet side of the Iron Curtain.

Yiddish

Fargin – To wholeheartedly appreciate the success of others.
Shlimazl – An inept, bungling person who is chronically unlucky.
Trepverter – Literally, staircase words, a witty riposte or comeback you think of only when it is too late to use.

Czech

Litost – A state of anxiety and torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery.
Prozvonit – To call a mobile phone only to have it ring once so that the other person would call back allowing the caller not to spend money on minutes.

Danish

Arbejdsglæde – Literally work happiness, the feeling of happiness provoked by a satisfying job.
Hygge – Relaxing with a few friends and loved ones while having a meal or some drinks.

Dutch

Uitwaaien – Going out for a walk or to the countryside in order to clear one’s mind.
Voorpret – Literally pre-fun, the pleasure feeling one might have before a pleasant event, like a vacation.

Filipino

Gigil (Filipino)

Gigil – The urge to pinch or squeeze something that is unbearably cute.
Tampo – Withdrawing affection from a person when one’s feelings have been hurt.

Indonesian

Jayus – A joke so poor and unfunny that one cannot help but laugh.
Mencolek – The trick when you tap someone lightly on the opposite shoulder from behind to fool them.

Malay

Manja – Gooey, childlike, and coquettish behaviour by women designed to elicit sympathy or pampering by men.
Pisan Zapra – The time needed to eat a banana.

Portuguese

Saudade – Melancholic longing or nostalgia for a person, place or thing that is far away from you.
Cafuné[Brazil] The act of running your fingers through someone’s hair in a loving way.

Scottish

Suilk – To swallow, gulp, suck with a slobbering noise.
Tartle – To hesitate in recognizing a person or thing.

Other languages

Estonian: Leiliviskaja – The person who makes steam in a sauna by throwing water on the hot rocks.

Gaelic: Sgriob – The itchiness that overcomes the upper lip just before taking a sip of whisky.

Hawaiian: Pana Po’o – The act of scratching your head in order to help you remember something.

Hindi: Chai-Pani – Money given to someone, often a bureaucratic worker, to get things done.

Hungarian: Házisárkány – Literally indoor dragon, a nagging restless spouse.

Icelandic: Tima – Not being ready to spend time or money on a specific thing, despite being able to afford it.

Inuit: Iktsuarpok – The feeling of anticipation that leads you to keep looking outside to see if someone is coming.

Cúbóg (Irish)

Irish: Cúbóg – A collective noun for Easter eggs.

Korean: Won – The reluctance on a person’s part to let go of an illusion.

Lithuanian: Kaapshljmurslis – Being cramped in public transportation during rush hour.

Maori (Cook Islands): Papakata – To have one leg shorter than the other.

Pascuense (Easter Island): Tingo – To gradually steal all the possessions out of a neighbour’s house by borrowing and not returning.

Persian: Zhaghzhagh – The chattering of teeth from the cold or from rage.

Romanian: Dor – The feeling of longing/craving/yearning for someone or something, combined with sadness.

Hanyauku (Rukwangali)

Rukwangali (Namibia): Hanyauku – The act of walking on tiptoes across warm sand.

Samoan: Faamiti – To make a squeaking sound by sucking air past the lips in order to gain the attention of a dog or child.

Slovenian: Vedriti – To shelter from the rain.

Tagalog: Kilig – The weak in the knees, spontaneous blushing and quickening pulse, butterfly in the stomach sensation.

Tamil: Oodal – The overly exaggerated, fake anger that follows a lovers’ quarrel.

Tshiluba (Congo): Ilunga – A person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time.

Tulu Indian: Karelu – The mark left on the skin by wearing something tight.

Turkish: Aşermek – The experience of craving certain foods while pregnant.

Urdu: Goya – The transporting suspension of disbelief that can occur i.e. in good storytelling.

Yagan: Mamihlapinatapei – A wordless yet meaningful look shared by two people who both desire to initiate something but are both reluctant to start.

Over to you. Are you a native speaker of any of these languages and know better? Do you have any replacements? Would you like to add other untranslatable words to this list? Please use the comments section below and we’ll do our best to update this post with all your precious information.

Sources: Huffington Post 1, Huffington Post 2, Huffington Post 3, Huffington Post 4, Huffington Post 5, Oxford Dictionaries Blog 1, Oxford Dictionaries Blog 2, Matador Nertwork 1, Matador Network 2, Mentalfloss 1, Mentalfloss 2, The Atlantic 1, The Atlantic 2, Bored Panda Europe is not dead, Hellogiggles, io9, Maptia, Mashable, So bad so good, Thought Catalog, Fluentu, Lifehack, Lingholic.

16 Responses to Untranslatable words into English: the ultimate list

  1. Impensable says:

    Aşermek would be perfectly translatable into Spanish: “antojo”. Great list, very interesting entries!

  2. Jenya Windstein says:

    For Russian I’d ask what is wrong with the leaf shedding (for listopad) and a one-woman man (for odnolyub)?

  3. N. Costas Triantaphyllou says:

    Find below a list of “untranslatable” words that do have a Greek equivalent. On first glance Greek and Spanish share most of them in common.

    1. German

    Schadenfreude: Χαιρεκακία

    2. Spanish

    Antier: Προχθές

    Desvelado: Αϋπνία, Ξαγρύπνια

    Friolero: Κρυουλιάρης

    Madrugada: Μεταμεσονύκτιον

    Tuerto: Μονόφθαλμος, Κύκλωψ

    3. Swedish

    Lagom: ίσα-ίσα

    4. Russian

    Listopad: Φυλλοροή

    Odnoliub: Μονογαμικός

    5. Finnish

    Jaksaa: Βαρεμάρα

    6. Norwegian

    Forelsket: Ερωτοχτύπημα

    7. Czech

    Prozvonit: Αναπάντητη

    8. Danish

    Arbejdsglæde: Μεράκι

    9.Dutch

    Voorpret: Προσμονή

    10. Portuguese

    Saudade: Νοσταλγία

    11. Hindi

    Chai-Pani: Λάδωμα

    12. Lithuanian

    Kaapshljmurslis: Σαρδελοποίηση

    13. Tshiluba (Congo)

    Ilunga: Δις-εξαμαρτείν

  4. Global Lingo says:

    We love languages; all ~7000 of them. It was an interesting process to find all these words and gather them together.

    Who would think people need just one word for the trick when you tap someone lightly on the opposite shoulder from behind to fool them? The fun is the same whether you speak English or Indonesian. Or for the act of walking on tiptoes across warm sand? Someone from a Nordic country might find this piece of information interesting.

    If you remember just one word from this list, the point of it will be accomplished.

  5. ana cecilia says:

    Tutear would be tutoyer in French.
    The word “encandilar” in Spanish, meaning to be blinded by a flash of bright light. You can say blinded in English, but I like that we have an actual word for it in Spanish. You’re not actually blinded, you see spots and that’s what “encandilar” means.
    “Fare la scarpetta” in Italian, to mop the sauce or whatever’s left on your plate with a piece of bread.

  6. Max says:

    Spanish “antier” will be “pozavchera” in Russian, and to continue this line, “the day after tomorrow” will be “poslezavtra” (just like the movie, that’s right).
    We also have a lot of affixed words that sometimes have comical effect, but nevertheless exist in the language, though not in the dictionaries, e.g. there’s a hilarious word “nedoperepil”, which roughly means “a person who hasn’t got drunk enough to pass out, but still had too much to feel bad about it”.

  7. Impensable says:

    If/when a translation has to be an explanation of a word/term, then it is by definition not a translation but an explanation. You claim that nothing is untranslatable. I respectfully beg to differ. That is why speakers of different languages have borrowed words throughout the centuries rather than “inventing” a new term.

  8. Mikel says:

    In Spanish antier doesn’t exist, the word for your description is anteayer

  9. piwo says:

    Prozvonit is (llamada) perdida in spanish. Example: Cuando te haga una perdida me llamas.

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