Words and Concepts that Don’t Translate Well in Other Languages

Words and Concepts that Don’t Translate Well in Other Languages

Part of being a good translator is understanding the subtle nuances of language. As anyone who has tried to rely solely on Google Translate can tell you, understanding a language takes more than a list of word definitions and grammar rules. One of the benefits of using a trusted translating service like JK Translate is that our translators understand these nuances and can help bridge people who speak different languages. Part of building that bridge is knowing how to explain ideas that may be foreign to other cultures. To illustrate what we mean, here are some words and concepts that don’t translate well in other languages.

Idioms and Other Sayings

I hate to “let the cat out of the bag,” “burst your bubble,” or “rain on your parade,” but idioms and phrases that are common in one culture often don’t translate well into other languages. When an expression has a connotation beyond its literal meaning, then you can expect things to get lost in translation. In Swedish, there is a saying “Att glida in på en räkmacka.” The literal translation is  “To slide in on a shrimp sandwich.” but it refers to somebody who didn’t have to work to get where they are. In French, there is an idiom that goes, “Se regarder en chiens de faïence.” The literal translation,  “To look at each other like earthenware dogs.”, may be confusing, but it basically means to look at each other coldly, with distrust.

Highly Specific Situational Words

Some situations are so ubiquitous that everyone experiences them at some point or another. Some languages have specific words to describe these highly specific situations, and these words often don’t translate easily. In the Yaghan language of Tierra del Fuego, the word “mamihlapinatapai” captures that unique look shared between two people, when both are wishing that the other would do something that they both want, but neither want to do. In Thai, “greng-jai” expresses the feeling you get when you don’t want someone to do something for you because it would be a pain for them. In Indondensian, there’s a word for that old trick where you tap someone lightly on the opposite shoulder from behind to fool them; It’s “mencolek.” The Japanese even have a word for doing nothing, “boketto,” which describes the act of gazing vacantly into the distance without thinking. Sometimes, these phrases can cross cultures with time. Most people in the United States are familiar with the idea of “deja vu,” the feeling that you’ve experienced a situation before, which is a phrase with French origins.

Words to Describe Certain Kinds of People

Languages throughout the world have invented clever ways to describe people by their behavior or how you feel about them. For example, people in France may describe someone as “Seigneur-terraces”, which describe coffee shop dwellers who sit at tables a long time but spend little money. Similarly, the Germans have “backpfeifengesicht” to describe a face badly in need of a fist. A “kaelling” in Danish refers to a parent who loudly berates their children in public.

It’s fun to see the different ways multiple languages handle different concept. Something that is considered unremarkable in one culture is deserving of a specific word in another. When working with a language barrier, it’s vital to have a translation team that helps you understand any words or concepts that don’t translate well. If you need translation services, JK Translate can help. Our team can accurately translate more the 35 languages with attention to detail and nuance. Send us a message online if you need help with any translation issues.