Words That Can Defy Easy Translation

Easy TranslationEvery language has them: words that defy translation. Sometimes, they are compound words like many used in German. You may be able to have a guess what these compound words mean by translating the two, three or more individual words that make it up, but as every German translation professional will tell you, the sum of the words is often something quite unique.

The German word ‘waldeinsamkeit’ is just one example of this group of compound nouns. The English German translation is something more like: ‘connected to nature’ rather than the literal translation of ‘being alone in the woods.’

These special words may not be quite as long in languages other than German, but can be just as baffling to all but professional translators who should be familiar with them. Examples of words that have no literal translation are found in every language. Here are a few.

In Spanish, the word ‘sobremesa’ literally means in English ‘over the table.’ However, it doesn’t mean that exactly. It means the ‘chit chat that friends or family have together after a meal (over the table!).

In Italian, if you discover a ‘culaccino’ on your favourite table top, it’s not what you think it is. It’s actually a mark that has been caused by a cold glass of something: beer? water? There just isn’t anything quite like it in English!

One might imagine that Inuit is a very different language than English and the cultural connotations of Inuit vocabulary have presumably evlved in that land of snow and ice. How about the Inuit word ‘iktsuarpok’? Any guesses? Thought not! It actually means something like ‘the feeling of expectation that something or someone is going to appear outside and that makes you get up and go and have a look’. Perhaps in the old days, when most Inuit lived in igloos (which they don’t today), it was actually quite hard to see what was going on outside. You couldn’t use a window! You just had to get up and take a peek and hope it wasn’t a polar bear visiting.

One more example gives you the feel of the theme we are talking about here. In Russian, another language fond of compound nouns like German, the word ‘pochemuchka’ means a person who just can’t stop asking questions. No doubt a lot of youngsters get called that by their exasperated parents!