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Translating the untranslatable ­– your translation agency for difficult texts

What happens when a text contains a word that you can’t translate? This blog highlights some of the world’s untranslatable words, how translators approach them and how a translation agency for difficult texts can help.

Examples of untranslatable texts

Every language has its quirks, including words that you won’t find anywhere else. Sometimes, they put a name to emotions or experiences you’ve never been able to describe before, or they might reveal a completely new concept.

Here’s a quick round-up of ten of our favourite untranslatable words from around the globe:

  1. Fernweh (German): The opposite of homesickness – a strong desire to visit somewhere you’ve never been before.
  2. samar (سمر) (Arabic): Staying up late after the sun has set and enjoying time with friends. It can also be used as a first name!
  3. komorebi (木漏れ日) (Japanese): The way the sun’s light filters down through tree leaves to create a dappled effect.
  4. besa (Albanian): The keeping of a promise by being true to your word.
  5. pochemuchka (Почемучка) (Russian): Someone who asks too many questions, such as a small child.
  6. shemomedjamo (Georgian): A word for after you’ve overindulged because the food in front of you was just too delicious. It means, ‘I accidentally ate the whole thing’.
  7. duende (Spanish): The power of a piece of music or art to move us deeply.
  8. l’abbiocco (Italian): The groggy, sleepy, happy feeling you get after eating a large meal.
  9. hlimazl (Yiddish): Someone who is consistently unlucky and to whom unfortunate things keep happening.
  10. hiraeth (Welsh): A profound and nostalgic sense of longing for a home you can no longer return to, bringing to mind the ‘good old days’.

What makes these words untranslatable?

Often, the reason words are untranslatable is because they’re firmly rooted in the culture, history and worldview of the place where the language is spoken.

For example, Scandinavia is one of the world’s biggest coffee-consuming regions, and not only does Swedish have a word for a refill of coffee, it also has one specifically for your third cup of coffee: tretår.

Or imagine you’ve just come inside on a cold winter’s evening to find a warm fire, a room full of your friends and a lovely spread of food. The feeling this creates is what the Danish call hygge, which is a central part of their culture and includes both physical and emotional aspects of cosiness.

This means that there’s no direct equivalent for these words in other languages, so translating them is no easy task.

How do translators tackle untranslatable words?

Professional translators have the linguistic expertise and cultural awareness to handle difficult words and phrases in the texts they work on.

What’s crucial when it comes to translating the untranslatable is understanding the essence of the text, the purpose of the translation, and who will be reading it. And this is something that professional translators excel at.

In some cases, untranslatable words are borrowed by other languages and used as ‘loanwords’. But that doesn’t mean you can just keep the original word every time.

Let’s say that hygge appears in a text that needs to be translated from Danish into English. Although this word was adopted into the Oxford English Dictionary in 2017, a qualified translator will know when it’s appropriate to use the Danish term and when to add an explanation or rephrase the sentence completely. They will consider the message of the text and how to best convey it to the target audience.

SwissGlobal – your translation agency for difficult texts

So, if you have a tricky text full of complex or untranslatable terms, it’s essential that you find a qualified translator who can communicate the meaning accurately and clearly to your reader.

While there may not be a word-for-word equivalent in their language, creatively-minded translators can untangle complex meanings and express them in a way that the reader will understand and respond to.

At SwissGlobal, we have the expertise and creativity to help you with this.

As an ISO-certified translation agency, all our translators are native speakers who translate into their mother tongue. Their linguistic skills and cultural competence mean they know exactly the right approach to translating difficult texts and untranslatable words.

Do you have a difficult text that needs translating? Contact us here or call us at 056 203 20 20 for more information or a free quote.