Lost in Translation: Five Untranslatable Words in English

Translation is not an exact science and more often than not, you will find it hard to find a word that would directly translate to your own tongue. It actually makes sense as each language is colored by our experiences and, as a distinct group of people, by culture.

For example, did you know that in Tagalog alone, there are several words related with rice—palay (unmilled rice), bigas (milled rice), kanin (cooked rice), tutong (burnt rice) … the list goes on. One does not simply cook (magluto) rice; to cook rice is magsaing. Such words simply reflect how this humble grain is a staple in every Filipino home.

It is for the same reason why Eskimos have about 30 words for snow and Sanskrit have more than 90 for love. Take a look at some of the words below that do not have direct English translations.

Kilig (Philippines)

Filipinos tend to be on the romantic side and this is one of the words that perfectly capture that characteristic. Kilig refers to the feeling that one gets akin to butterflies in the stomach when they experience something romantic like catching the eye of someone you like.

Sobremesa (Spain)

Sharing food with family and friends is a huge part of the Spanish culture. It is a time where you relax and simply enjoy the company of each other. Sobremesa perfectly encapsulates this feeling as this word refers to a moment such as this.

Tshiluba (Southwest Congo)

This word is famous among translators for being untranslatable. Tshiluba refers to a person who will forgive and forget an offense against them for the first time and will tolerate it for the second, but will never tolerate a third.

Flâner (France)

A word that embodies the French people’s love for taking things slow, flâner was coined in the 19th century to describe the art of taking a leisurely walk to simply soak in the beauty around a city.

Mononoaware (Japan)

This word refers to the beauty of impermanence and is often translated into “the pathos of things.” For example, the brief time that cherry blossoms bloom is often described as mononoaware.

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