Untranslatable Words

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Sometimes there are words that cannot be translated into another language without losing some of its meaning. According to the BBC and 1,000 linguists, the most difficult word to translate is "ilunga". A word in the Tshiluba language, which is spoken in south-east Congo. "Ilunga", when attempted to translate into English means "a person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time".

In second place was shlimazl which is Yiddish for "a chronically unlucky person".

Third was Naa, used in the Kansai area of Japan to emphasise statements or agree with someone.

Although the definitions seem fairly precise, the problem is trying to convey the local references associated with such words, says Jurga Zilinskiene, head of Today Translations, which carried out the survey.

Link - via wikipedia

From the Upcoming ueue, submitted by \'\' lilrawker.


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There's two that catch my interest. Both from ancient languages. In latin, it's the ethic dative. It is either mihi or tibi (literally "to me", "to you"). One might say, "Habet seruam, tibi". "habet seruam" means "he has a female slave". But adding the tibi, means roughly "this should be of particular interest to you". It really doesn't translate very elegantly.

The other is in ancient greek. I believe this is more common in attic and homeric greek than koine. In english, verbs have either an active(I am doing x) or a passive(x is being done to me) voice. Ancient greek adds a middle voice. If we take, for example, the verb "to loosen". In greek, with the active voice, it means you are untying something. With the passive voice, you are being let free. But, in the middle voice, it means you are being ransomed.

The middle voice simply has no direct parallel in english.
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I often hear native english speakers claim that there is no word in english for whatever word they are looking for from the other language they have learned. More often than not, it is because their vocabulary is limited, not the language itself.
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A great word that has no equivalent translation is the Swedish concept of 'lagom'.

Lagom can be applied to many things. It could almost denote sufficient, enough, moderate, ample, appropriate but it is much more than that.

A portion of food could be 'lagom stor' (big enough), not too much, not too little. One's state could be lagom without being too rich or too poor. A conversation or meeting could reach a state of lagom to represent concensus.

It is difficult for me to explain, I personally think it is rooted in socialist culture where excess has no place.
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My wife likes the Indonesia "jalan jalan" which means to stroll or walk about, usually with the purpose of "resting one's eyes".

I often use the word "shadenfreuden" - finding humor in others misfortunes.

It would be nice to see a larger list of words difficult to translate into English.
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Many Dutch people speak or understand a few languages, like English and German and a bit of French.
But there is one, very common Dutch word that is notoriously hard to translate or even explain: 'gezellig'.
'Gezellig' is a feeling, an atmosphere. It is usually translated as 'cozy', but it's more than cozy. A situation or room can be 'gezellig', but also people and objects. It's warm, peaceful, you forget time, there is togetherness, no complications or problems.
Some could even say Neatorama has a 'gezellige' quality to it.
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