Sometimes, the most difficult words to translate aren’t the most arcane or obscure. Consider this evaluation by the peerless translator William Weaver, perhaps most famous for his translation of Umberto Eco:
“Some of the hardest things to translate into English from Italian are not great big words, such as you find in Eco, but perfectly simple things, buon giorno for instance. How to translate that? We don’t say ‘good day,’ except in Australia. It has to be translated ‘good morning,’ or ‘good evening,’ or ‘good afternoon’ or ‘hello.’
“You have to know not only the time of day the scene is taking place, but also in which part of Italy it’s taking place, because in some places they start saying buona sera—‘good evening’—at 1 p.m. The minute they get up from the luncheon table it’s evening for them. So someone could say buona sera, but you can’t translate it as ‘good evening’ because the scene is taking place at 3 p.m. You need to know the language, but, even more, the life of the country.”
But there are words that are simply untranslatable. Ephemeral signifiers of a place and time? Metaphysical manifestations of our ids and egos?
“Rimbombante,” my esteemed colleague—and nimble Spanish speaker—Elizabeth would say with a roll of her eyes. The Spanish word roughly translates as “pompous” or “bombastic,” but has overtones of “someone who uses ridiculously big words when they don’t have reason to.”
Leave it to the BBC to find the most untranslatable words in the world.
- naa. “Used in the Kansai area of Japan to emphasize statements or agree with someone.”
- shlimazl. Yiddish for “a chronically unlucky person”—and someone who can’t sing the theme song to Laverne and Shirley, naa.
The most untranslatable word, however, belongs to the Tshiluba language, spoken in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
- ilunga. This word describes a “person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time.” (If there aren’t any Tshiluba baseball sluggers, there should be!)
This lovely little listicle from BuzzFeed offers you 23 more untranslatables. They’re so specific, they’re universal.
- iktsuarpok. Who hasn’t had use for this Inuit word translated as “the frustration of waiting for someone to turn up”? (I’d love to see an Inuit production of Waiting for Godot.)
- tingo. If you haven’t experienced the Pascuense (Rapa Nui) verb “to gradually steal all the possessions out of a neighbor’s house by borrowing and not returning,” you’ve done it.
- backpfeifengesicht. I think we all know someone who has this German term for “a face badly in need of a fist.”
Thanks to esteemed colleague Samantha for this great Word of the Week!