“Words are but symbols for the relations of things to one another and to us; nowhere do they touch upon absolute truth.... Through words and concepts we shall never reach beyond the wall off relations, to some sort of fabulous primal ground of things.”
This week, I stumbled across an article in the BBC News Magazine, as many of you also will have done, about the un-translatable Danish concept ‘hygge’. Amongst the English equivalents, used to try to define this Danish word were “eating home-made cinnamon pastries”, “family get-togethers at Christmas”, and “watching TV under a duvet”. Although all of these things conjure up fuzzy feelings of warmth, snuggles and all things cosy, what was very evident from the article was that there is no direct translation in English. Although we all have the capability to feel ‘hygge’, there simply is no English word that encapsulates all the nuances and undertones represented by the Danish word. As the translator, Patrick Kingsley put it, “Hygge was never meant to be translated. It was meant to be felt.”
As well as getting me prematurely hyped-up for Father Christmas’ annual visit, this discussion got me thinking about other foreign concepts that are simply “un-translatable” into English. Below are a few of my favourites.
Sunlight filtering through trees.
That feeling you get when you don't want someone to do something for you because it would be a pain for them. (In my opinion, this one is too British for it not to exist in our vocabulary…)
Coffee shop dwellers who sit at tables for a long time but who spend little money. (I am most definitely guilty of this…!)
The act of sitting outside on a sunny day and enjoy a cold beer.
The period of time after lunch or dinner, when you simply sit and converse with those at the table.
Many of these un-translatable words are obviously cultural symbols, just as much as linguistic vehicles. For example ‘sobremesa’ is a true refelction the value and importance of mealtimes within Spanish culture, the same way that ‘hygge’ is a product of the long, cold winters that are experienced in Denmark.
Inspired by these discoveries, I started to wonder about specifically British concepts that the English language doesn’t currently cater for, and thought that it might be interesting to come up with some suggestions…
Extreme irritation or anger experienced when using the London tube.
A situation in which a cup of tea is absolutely necessary.
Extreme happiness experienced after the first sip of a much-needed cup of tea.
Compulsorry (verb. tr)
To say sorry to someone when you have no reason to be sorry, but you say it anyway.
Talkward (verb. tr)
To have an awkard conversation with someone.
Okay, most of them probably won’t ever make it into the dictionary (I can still hope). However, if you do want to expand your vocabulary, take note of the following words, which are actually recent additions to the Oxford Dictionary:
The practice whereby a man, especially one travelling on public transport, adopts a sitting position with his legs wide apart, in such a way as to encroach on an adjacent seat or seat.
To cause someone who is judged to be fat or overweight to feel humiliated by making mocking or critical comments about their size.
Bad-tempered or irritable as a result of hunger.
Evidently, these words, as well as my own lexical creations would most likely be deemed ‘untranslatable’ into other languages. However, is any word precisely translatable? Does 100% equivalence between any two words from any two languages actually exist? Definitely another discussion for another post, but until then, please do let me know about any other wonderfully untranslatable words that you think are worth a mention!