Translating The Impossible (Or Words We Wish We Had)

21/11/2012 | Rebecca Twose

Translation can open up films, literature, TV shows, cultures and customs from all across the world to us. However, sometimes it’s the words we can’t translate that prove the most interesting. Have you ever felt so depressed the only thing you want to do is eat? Perhaps you’ve been dumped, you’re the only one of your friends not to have been invited to a party or your ex has started dating someone else. On these occasions who hasn’t gone out, bought a multipack of crisps, a tub of soft cheese, three chocolate bars and some chips, come home and guzzled the lot in ten minutes? Well, in Germany there’s a word for that.

Kummerspeck literally translates in English to ‘grief bacon’. The word is used to describe the weight you gain after excess eating due to the blues. It’s certainly a word I could do with in my vocabulary.

Why don’t we say that?

In every language there are useful words like this that sum up something it would take more than five words in our own language to say. They are known as untranslatable words because there is no word that they translate directly into. However, when you consider how useful some of them are at swiftly describing commonplace things, you have to wonder why we haven’t snapped them up quicker than ‘kudos’, ‘confetti’ and ‘ad hoc’.

Staying on food, Shemomedjamo is the word used in Georgia when you are full to bursting but the meal you’re eating is so delicious you can’t stop eating. This is an incredibly common occurrence at Christmas and other national and religious holidays, when I’m sure we have all experienced the curse of Shemomedjamo. But what about when you tuck into your piping hot turkey a little too enthusiastically and burn your mouth? There’s a word in Ghana for what you should do next – Pelinti, which means to open your mouth and move the hot food around inside until it cools down.

All over the world, people have come up with words for occurrences we encounter so often it’s a wonder we haven’t come up with our own. Been out drinking, arrived home and decided the best thing to do is get undressed and go to sleep on the bathroom floor? In South Africa that’s known as Rhwe. Been about to introduce one of your work colleagues to your partner and broken out in a cold sweat when you suddenly forget their name? You’re experiencing Tartle, which is the Scottish word used to describe this embarrassing faux pas.

The weird and wonderful

These are all useful words, but there are some untranslatable terms that we have little use for – and that it’s hard to believe anyone uses. In Persian, there is a single word used to describe a camel that won’t produce milk unless her nostrils are tickled – Nakhur. This is just one of the unusual words Adam Jacot de Boinod includes in his book, Toujours Tingo: More Extraordinary Words to Change the Way We See the World. Among the more quirky terms is Oka-shete, which sums up difficulties urinating after eating frogs before the rainy season.

While we may have little need for these words in our day-to-day vocabulary, I’m sure we could all benefit from dropping one of Albania’s 27 different words for moustache into conversation, given it’s Movember. And it’s impossible to watch BBC Question Time without seeing a few good examples of Gadrii Nombor Shulen Jongu, which is the term used in Tibet to describe a person who gives an unrelated answer to the question they have just been asked.

Of course, in the English language there are also numerous words and phrases that don’t translate, with gobbledygook one good example. As a bad translation can read like gobbledygook, it seems ironic this is one of our words that lacks an equivalent in any other language!

The best of the rest

Here are a few more of the words we wish we had:

Pochemuchka – Your class/training session/work meeting has finally come to an end and you’re about to head home when someone puts a hand up. Again and again and again. This is what Russians call that irritating person who asks too many questions.

Iktsuarpok – The term used by the Inuit to describe repeatedly going outside to see if the visitor you’re expecting has arrived. I think it could also suitably sum up the feeling of checking six times to see if the postman has been on Valentine’s Day before giving up.

Shvitzer – In Yiddish this is the name given to a person who starts to sweat profusely when they’re nervous, particularly if they’re trying to talk to someone they’re attracted to.

Pesamenteiro – If you’re one of those people who turns up at the funeral or wake of someone you don’t know simply so you can tuck into the food, they have a name for you in Portugal…

Kaelling – … and if you’re one of those women who stands in the front garden, at the bus stop or in the queue at the supermarket yelling swear words at your children, the Danish have a word for you, too.

These are a few of our favourite untranslatable words, but what are yours?

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