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Untranslatable words

Maybe it’s because I’m hopelessly monolingual and firmly entrenched in an Anglophone sea (2,272 to Mexico and 4,354km to Quebec) that I find the notion of an untranslatable word so fun, I love that even with the English language’s bloated word count there are some things better said in the native tongue.

So far my personal favourite is still schadenfreude, a German expression for taking pleasure in the misfortune of others. It’s an emotion I experience often as I continue maintain friendships with fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Calgary Flames (they’re not bad people but a little misguided). Most baseball fasn outside NYC probably feels it when the Yankees are beaten.

But it goes further than schadenfreude, in nearly every language there are perfect words to describe a feeling or action that cannot be translated simply but require an awkward sentence to convey the meaning. I was once again reminded of this by this ThingBig blog post about words describing different personal relationships.

My favourite from this list is Ya’aburnee an Arabic expression which they say literally translates to “you bury me,” and is meant to convey the feeling you have when you really hope that you’re going to die before the person you say this to because dying would be easier to take than having to live without them. That’s amazingly intense, and as ThinkBig very accurately concludes, it makes “how could I live without you?” sound trite.

If you like the list, and linguistics, you should check out They Have a Word for It: A Lighthearted Lexicon of Untranslatable Words and Phrases by Howard Rheingold. I might put it on my Christmas list.

Posted by on November 30, 2011.

Categories: books, writing

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