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Beautiful Untranslatable Words

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Reading time: 5 minutes
There are over 6,500 spoken languages around the world, all with their own cultural differences that have shaped them. The result? – an array of beautiful words that are simply untranslatable into English without paragraphs of description.
kid checking a globe map

Language is a beautiful thing. It reflects the country and culture they come from, makes communication between people possible (or at least a lot easier than it would be otherwise), and what is most interesting is that languages shape the minds of the people that use them in unique and thought-provoking ways.

When going to a new country, most travellers try to learn a few words or phrases of the local language, to better facilitate communication between themselves and the people that live there. By doing this, you gain a small insight into how their country formed and developed, thinking about the roots – is it Germanic, Slavic, Latin in origin or something different altogether?

Having been trapped in one place during the majority of the past year and most people unable to travel, many have turned to TV, books and languages to learn about new places, and get ready to go and explore the world again when possible.

However, learning languages can be challenging – its structure is usually based on the roots of it, and if different to your own, you could face a new grammatical structure or alphabet. Then you have all the complexities that come alongside this process, such as “false friends” where words and phrases can look very similar to those in your own language but mean something very different.

Nevertheless, one of the most memorable things for many are the words that are untranslatable.

People find words in a language that, if talking in their native tongue, would require a whole phrase or paragraph to fully describe. There has simply been no need for such a word in their own culture, but for the people of the other language, it makes perfect sense for these words to exist.

Below are a short list of some perfectly imperfect words that are not easily translated into English, but should be added to your vocabulary regardless:

Saudade (Portuguese) – a yearning and feeling of love towards something beautiful that has passed – similar to missing something, but 100x stronger. The word applies perfectly for the situation many ESNers find themselves in, being surrounded by exchange and international students and thinking back to their own Erasmus experience. This is even truer now, missing the usual physical events.

Fika (Swedish) – often described as coffee and cake, but it is so much more than this. The Swedish build this into everyday life, taking short breaks throughout their day to relax and connect with colleagues and friends over a beverage and snack (cinnamon bun) of some sort. It is great to bond with classmates and professors, reset your mind, and get your sugar fix, all in one go.

Hygge (Danish) – more a feeling than anything else, this can loosely be described as a cosy and comfortable atmosphere that creates a sense of calm and peacefulness. Many things can contribute to this feeling, like candles, fluffy socks, family or friends, a nice view, delicious food, and more. Similar to this is gezellig (Dutch), but instead of the feeling itself, this word encompasses less of the atmosphere and more the place and people you share it with.

Hygge book on blanket
Photo by Stella Rose | Unsplash

Aspaldiko (Basque) – speaking of the feeling you have when spending time with people, this word is what you feel when you meet someone you haven’t seen in a long time. A lot of euphoric, happy people will want to use this word to describe exactly how they’re feeling when they finally get to meet their friends and family after a long period of isolation due to COVID-19.

Voorpret (Dutch) – this is any ESNer before an event. There is built up anticipation, and the word voorpret refers to how ESNers (or indeed anyone, the Dutch language is not totally focused on our organisation) get excited and bask in the anticipation.

Ailyak (Bulgarian) – live life calmly without rushing. Accept what life throws at you and try to enjoy it, whatever happens. Things happen for a reason and you grow as a person because of it. Think of it as Hakuna Matata (Swahili) – “it means no worries, for the rest of your days” (thank you Disney’s ‘The Lion King’).

Feierabend (German) – the literal translation would be ‘end of the working day’, but as many of these words are, it is so much more than that. A better translation would be “I finished work for the day, let’s do something”. For many, it symbolises the disconnection from work, and setting aside your laptop or uniform to enjoy the rest of your day, right up until it’s time for bed.

silhouette of man standing on rock while looking in sky
Photo by Greg Rakozy | Unsplash

Yūgen (Japanese) – best described as an awareness of the universe and feeling something so deep it is impossible to describe through words. Think of watching still water gently move and ripple, or hearing the wind softly rustle through trees in a forest. Maybe you read a poem that hit you deep, or witnessed a sunset that looked almost ethereal. This feeling you feel? This is yūgen.

Turadh (Scottish Gaelic) – the break in the clouds between rain showers with a patch of light. Extremely beautiful when over the sea at the beach, or on the hills. Sometimes thought of as when heaven (or equivalent for other beliefs) is shining through the clouds.

sky during daytime
Photo by David Pineda | Unsplash

Cynefin (Welsh) – It is where nature and your surroundings are welcoming and resonate with your internal being. You may have felt this in a country you visited or lived in for a period of your life, or maybe where you grew up. It doesn’t matter too much whether you currently live there or not, only that it feels like home.

Eudaimonia (Ancient Greek) – A more accurate translation is ‘human flourishing’, although it is more commonly known to mean something along the lines of happiness. Unlike most of the words listed above, it is not a state of mind, nor is it an experience of pleasure. Eudaimonia is living a human life well, by understanding your true nature and what you want to do and achieve, striving for excellence.

Kalsarikännit (Finnish) – Jokingly translated to ‘päntsdrunk’. Arguably, it is a much more accurate meaning of happiness than the word above it. It is the feeling of getting drunk while sitting alone in your home, in your underwear. Enough said.

Of course this couldn’t be an exhaustive list, so if there are any particular words you believe should be included, please share in the comments below.