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The Best of the World’s Untranslatable Words

By Catherine Muxworthy

Every language has words in it that are unique to it, that don’t translate exactly as a singular word or idea from one language into another. There are thousands of these words in languages from all around the world, words that have become known as ‘untranslatable’ because their literal meaning does not fully depict the emotions, feelings and ideas that the word holds in its original language. While there are countless examples, today we’re going to look at some of the best ‘untranslatable’ words that have no direct translation into the English language.

Spanish – ‘Sobremesa’:

Sobremesa (‘Sobretaula’ in Catalan) is a Spanish word that refers to the time spent after lunch or dinner during which you socialise with the people you ate said meal with. In Spanish culture, meals are very important and they highly value this time spent relaxing and chatting with their friends, family and loved ones when they’ve finished eating.

Danish – ‘Hyggelig’:

Hyggelig is a Danish word that refers to a warm, friendly, cozily intimate moment or thing. In recent years, many books have been published about ‘Hygge’, however, as part of the Danish culture this is not a ‘how-to’ feeling or something that can be bought. While there are similar words to the Danish Hyggelig in other Nordic languages, in Swedish you’ll find the word ‘Gemytlig’ and in Norwegian you’ll find the word ‘hyggelig’, there is no exact translation in English.

Greek – ‘Meraki’:

The Greek word ‘Meraki’ cannot be translated into a singular word in English. Meraki refers to doing something creativity, love and/or soul wherein you leave a peace of yourself in the work. Meraki could be used to refer to authors writing a book, artists creating a beautiful painting or, indeed, any other creative work produced by someone who loves what they do.

Japanese – ‘Tsundoku’:

Tsundoku is a notion that nearly all literary lovers and bookworms will understand. The word refers to the act of buying books and leaving them unread – often in a pile of other unread books. In English we might call this a TBR (to be read) pile. Tsundoku combines elements of tsunde-oku (積んでおく) meaning ‘to pile things up and leave them ready for later’ and dokusho (読書) which means ‘reading books’.

French – ‘L’esprit de l’escalier’:

L’esprit de l’escalier literally translates from French into English to ‘Staircase Wit’. The term refers to witty retorts that come to you only after the conversation or argument you were part of has finished or you have left.  

Swedish – ‘Gökotta’:

Gökotta is essentially the act of rising at dawn with the sole purpose of going outside and listening to the first birdsong of the morning. The reason for doing so is to boost your mental health and give you a positive start to your day. The origin of this word comes from a Swedish tradition of going out into the wild on Ascension Day (40 Days before Easter) to listen to the cuckoos sing their first songs of Spring.

Dutch – ‘Uitwaaien’:

Uitwaaien comes from a combination of From ‘uit’ meaning ‘out’ and ‘waaien’ meaning to ‘to blow’. It’s an idiomatic words that refers to the act of going out, often in windy or breezy weather, particularly to a park or nature spot, as a means of refreshing yourself and clearing your mind.

German – ‘Kummerspeck’:

Kummerspeck literally translates as ‘Grief Bacon’. The word is a combination of der Kummer, which refers to emotional pains like grief, concern, worry, sorrow or anxiety, and der Speck, which translates as either ‘bacon’ or ‘fat’. In German, Kummerspeck refers to the overeating due to emotional grief which is often known in English as ‘Eating your emotions’. Kummerspeck refers to the excessive eating people might do during times of stress or sorrow, and the weight or fat gained through this emotional eating.

Japanese – ‘Komorebi’:

Komorebi is a Japanese word that depicts the appearance of sunlight filtering through the leaves of trees, a beautiful sight you are likely to see in a forest on a sunny day. Komorebi roughly translates as “the scattered light that filters through when sunlight shines through the trees” and the word is made up of three Kanji; the first meaning tree or trees, the second meaning escape and the third meaning light or sun.

Welsh – ‘Hiraeth’:

Hireath is a Welsh word which refers to a homesickness, grief and/or sadness for something that is lost or departed for example a longing for your homeland or a nostalgia for a romanticized past.  While there is no exact translation into English, the Welsh ‘Hiraeth’ is similar to the Romanian ‘dor’, the Ethiopian ‘tizita’ and the Portuguese word ‘saudade’ which refers to a feeling of longing for something or someone that you love which is now lost.

Tagalog – ‘Kilig’:

Tagolog is an Austronesian language. It’s spoken as a first language by the ethnic Tagalog people who make up roughly a quarter of the Philippines population and it is also spoken as a second language by the remaining majority. The Tagalog word ‘Kilig’ is used in the Philippine culture to refers to the excited butterflies in your stomach, often experienced during a romantic or exciting moment, such as speaking to someone you have a crush or being proposed to by the love of your life. 

Italian – ‘Cavoli Riscaldati’:

Translating literally to mean reheated cabbage, Cavoli Riscaldati refers to an attempt to revive an old romantic flame or restart a failed relationship, which is likely to fail. It reportedly originates from the proverb, “cavoli riscaldati né amore ritornato non fu mai buono” which translates as “neither reheated cabbage nor revived love is ever any good.”

Polish – ‘Po Ptakach’:

Po Ptakach translates literally as “After the birds”. The phrase is used to describe an action that happened way too late after the fact and, therefore, nothing can be done about it. For example, if you wanted to buy tickets for an event but they’d sold out by the time you got to it.

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