Language Matters January 2008: Untranslatability & Conversion

Dear Language Friend,

Do you ever wonder if certain English words are unique to the English language only? In this issue of our newsletter, we will tell you WHAT apparently are the most untranslatable words in foreign languages, HOW certain concepts in one language might require creativity, and WHEN to use adapted translations.

 Lenka de Graafova, Managing Director. Thanks for reading.

Language Conversion

Occasionally, our translation office receives a call where a person is asking whether we can convert English to, for example, Spanish. It is interesting that language translation is often perceived as language conversion. Is it possible to simply convert phrases and words from one language to another? We wish!


If this was the case, Google translation would have been used on a daily basis and it wouldn’t produce funny translations. Some IT experts believe that they will be able to find the ultimate language tool that will convert languages, but professional human translators will tell you differently. They will argue that idioms, emotions, cultural references and language-specific phrases will just not pass the simple word-by-word conversion test.

So this brings us to the topic of translatability of certain words between languages. Believe it or not, some words are just not translatable. This means that for a certain utterance, no equivalent text or utterance can be found in another language. Of course, the degree of translatability depends on the nature of the expression and the translator’s creativity and ability to tackle the translation difficulty. Luckily, a translator can resort to a number of translation procedures to find an appropriate equivalent.


Internet sources reveal these ten foreign words that seem hardest to translate:

1. Ilunga [Tshiluba word for a person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time; to tolerate it a second time; but never a third time. Note: Tshiluba is a Bantu language spoken in south-eastern Congo, and Zaire]

2. Shlimazl [Yiddish for a chronically unlucky person]

3. Radioukacz [Polish for a person who worked as a telegraphist for the resistance movements on the Soviet side of the Iron Curtain]

4. Naa [Japanese word only used in the Kansai area of Japan, to emphasize statements or agree with someone]

5. Altahmam [Arabic for a kind of deep sadness]

6. Gezellig [Dutch for a kind of cosy]

7. Saudade [Portuguese for a certain type of longing, saudade is also a theme in Portuguese music]

8. Selathirupavar [Tamil for a certain type of truancy]

9. Pochemuchka [Russian for a person who asks a lot of questions]

10. Klloshar [Albanian for loser]


Go Dutch

To gain some insight into the topic, I consulted true professionals. I have asked our Russian & Uzbek and Dutch translators to contribute to this newsletter and share their experience in tackling some untranslatable words. Our Dutch translator is addressing the cultural aspect of the expression ‘gezellig’, voted the 6th most untranslatable word as per above list. Our Russian & Uzbek translator shares his matters of untranslatability across a few languages.

Go Dutch: Be ‘gezellig’

Contributed by Tim van der Avoird, Freelance Dutch Translator

Linguistically, it is not always pleasant to be Dutch. The word ‘Dutch’ mainly has negative connotations as in ‘go Dutch’, ‘Dutch rise’ or ‘Dutch gold’.  But I’m sure that most Dutch people favor to be known as ‘gezellig’ rather than as stingy or phony.

Before going into the translation of the word ‘gezellig’, let us first acquaint ourselves with the sound of this remarkable word. Non-native speakers of Dutch who find themselves confronted with the pronunciation of the word by a Dutchman, especially somebody from the northern part of the Netherlands, might get under the impression that the speaker is getting sick or is declaring war on them. The ‘ge’ part of the word sounds like the speaker is clearing his throat. The ‘zellig’ part comes close to the title of Woody Allen’s 1983 mockumentary movie ‘Zelig’ but is pronounced more closely to ‘sell’ than ‘zeal’. The final ‘ig’ is once again notorious for its harsh ‘g’ sound.

The actual meaning of ‘gezellig’ is far away from declaring war on somebody. In fact, if Osama and George were to sit in an environment that could be characterized as ‘gezellig’, the war on terrorism would be stopped immediately and Osama and his fellow Al Qaida warriors would personally rebuild the Twin Towers and add an additional third Tower as a bonus. ‘Gezellig’ stands for leading a cosy life together and having a most enjoyable time in a room that is made snug. So, next time that you go Dutch, forget the stinginess and start partying!

(Un)translatability Matters in Uzbek & Russian

Contributed by Jamshid Begmatov, Freelance Russian & Uzbek Translator

Some people tend to think that no word is untranslatable into English. Let’s look at the matter more closely. Having worked as a translator for some while, and with several languages (English, Russian, Uzbek and Turkish in my case), you are bound to sometimes find yourself in situations where reasonably correct translation is next to impossible, especially when doing oral interpreting. This is especially the case when you translate between languages belonging to different cultures, where concepts don’t translate even between two languages that are widely spoken in the same area. I’ll give a few examples:

In Uzbek (and all other Muslim nations’ languages) there’s the word “gunoh” which perfectly translates into Russian as “greh” and into English as “sin” – something that is forbidden by religion. Now, we also have the word “savob” which means exactly the opposite – something that is encouraged by religion. Try to translate this simple concept into English. “Virtue”, “good deeds”… they all mean something like this, but not quite the same. There’s simply no exact translation (or at least none that I and all my English-speaking friends know about). Or let’s take an English example – “gobbledygook” comes to mind. I wonder if any other language has a single word that means exactly the same. Or a more common example – “stakeholder”. I can’t speak for other languages, but in Uzbek and Russian this word is sometimes a nightmare to translate. These are just a few drops in the ocean of untranslatable words – “just my two cents” as we like to say in English, but can you say exactly that in your language?

I also want to tell you a funny story about how I saved my day in a seemingly hopeless translation deadlock. I must confess: I had read a similar story somewhere before, so I’m not the genuine inventor of this trick, but still… I was doing simultaneous interpretation at a large, high-level international conference with participants from many countries and cultures. The working language was English and I was interpreting for the Russian-speaking audience. All went well until an old Japanese guy took the floor. Ok, he still spoke in plain English and I had no problem, but suddenly, as an example for his speech, he started telling a long Japanese joke, in English, frequently breaking his own speech with laughter… what a translator’s nightmare that was! Literal translation of the joke into Russian would have made absolutely no sense. In fact, it made just as little sense in English, too as it was “too Japanese”. And remember, I was translating his speech simultaneously. The guy was sort of a big shot who would expect a perfect job from me – and I delivered! Guess how? I took the courage and said literally this: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you my deepest apologies for I’m unable to translate the joke that this gentleman just told – it is so related with the Japanese culture that a direct translation into Russian would make no sense. But I’m sure the joke must be very funny. So why don’t we all give the gentleman a smile and some applause to make him happy?’ This unexpected “translation” made the audience burst into laughter and applause, and the Japanese guy was so childishly happy to think that it was his joke that made everybody laugh.

Adaptation: LingoStar Services for Marketing Translation

When creativity is required, especially for marketing purposes, a translator might be asked to adapt the text. Adaptation is also known as free translation and it is a translation procedure whereby the translator rewrites or reworks social and cultural aspects in the source text into corresponding aspects in the target text. The aim being that the newly rewritten text more closely addresses the target audience.

When a copy needs to be adapted for a specific market, key phrases, play on words or alliteration need to be introduced, while the correct processes need to be ensured right from the start. We work with a Creative Brief wherein we ask you to provide written information on the required style and voice of the translation and description of your target audience. We only use translators with previous creative expertise within your industry to ensure that creative elements of the original copy are not lost in translation and your translated documents will be returned the way you need them.


Please contact us with your specific requirements for your translation of marketing documents and websites.