Untranslatable – Translating Words That Have No Translation

Taco is a Spanish word for a type of food – now the word is standard in the English dictionary and “Taco Tuesday” is a common occurrence. Taco became an English word because there was no equivalent word in the English language to accurately capture the meaning and describe the spicy, meaty, cheesy goodness that is a taco.

Professional translators handle words that can’t be translated all the time. Let’s look at other words that don’t have a direct translation into English and then how a translator clarifies the meaning.

translate-glassesUntranslatable Words

If I used the following sentence with a Portuguese word – “During Quarantine, I’m feeling saudaude”, you don’t know what it means unless you speak Portuguese.

If you go to Google translate (read more about the issues with this in an earlier blog here), sometimes you get the meaning, “missing”, and other times you get “health”, yet this does not capture the full meaning.

In Portuguese Saudaude is a single word that describes a strong, melancholic feeling of loss or memories of a time past. When you use the word “missing”, you can say you are missing class because you don’t feel like going or maybe you talk about missing someone you love. Those are very different feelings, and neither portray the same feeling as saudaude. Saudaude captures a very specific feeling of remembering or nostalgia that we have no equivalent word for in English.

Another word with no direct translation that has become more referenced during the big Q (quarantine) is Hygge, a Danish word that captures the feeling of coziness - like snuggling up by the fire to read a good book or taking a bath with candles and bubbles. It’s recently become more popular in the US since we don’t have a word for it. Hear more about hygge on The Global Marketing Show podcast episode with Lafe Bailey “Farm Boy Does Business in Every Country.” 

Some other examples come from a great book I just read by Trevor Noah called “Born a Crime” about his growing up in South Africa as a young black man. Excellent book that I highly recommend. In the book, he mentions words common in South Africa that we don’t use in the US.

For example:

  • Amperbaas – it means almost a boss, almost a master, almost there, and for referring to black people that are almost white.
  • Amabhujua – refers to a very poor person who acts like they are rich by dressing fashionably even though they live in shacks.
  • Vetkoek – a type of food that is fried dough – would it be called a beignet or a donut in a translation?
  • Smiley – a very inexpensive meal of a goat’s head that’s been boiled and covered with chili pepper. Once you eat all the meat off the head, it looks like the goat is smiling.

There are just no equivalent words.

Sometimes, there are words that aren’t common in any language. Our translators work on patent translations that have words not previously used. Maybe it’s a new word for a new invention, or just something that isn’t often used and there is no equivalent.

And other times, marketers use invented or compounded words to capture attention – for example “confuzzled” recently came into conversation. It’s slang for confused and puzzled.

One last example I’ll share came up when I spoke to Nina Ann Walters about on her episode of The Global Marketing Show. Her “favorite foreign word” is the German word Gein, which means Yes and No. Hear more on the episode “109 Steps to Global Ecommerce.”

three-optionsTranslating Untranslatable Words

As you can see, there are many times when translators must know how to handle “untranslatable words”.

There are generally three options to deal with these words.

  1. Leave the word in the native language – Volkswagen did this with farfegnugen when they launched their marketing campaign. They brought audiences along to understand that it means “the pleasure of driving”. Or according to the urban dictionary, it means “driving pleasure”. Prior to Volkswagen bringing the word to English marketing, in English we have no equivalent word.
  2. Translate a description of the word – “mamahoho” (podcast with Scott Wilder) means so – so in Chinese. In a Chinese to English translation, the linguist might find so-so not a clear enough description so they might elaborate on the feeling the writer is trying to describe. Hear more about this in The Global Marketing Show episode with Scott Wilder “HubSpot Lucked out in Getting Scott Wilder.”
  3. Create a whole new culturally appropriate message – when a word or a message won’t translate from one culture to another, a translator may offer suggestions for changing the word or message to something more appropriate. For example, a client, Mach49, uses “Disrupting InsideOut”™ to describe their work guiding global businesses to build a pipeline and portfolio of disruptive new ventures. They developed this tagline to talk about how the client’s internal team can create a disruption or new way of thinking rather than looking to outsiders to bring innovation. That catchphrase is unique positioning for them and when it wouldn’t literally translate into Russian, the translation became “We come up and launch” - a culturally adapted translation.

A professional translator will not make the decision on their own. When they have a word that is key to the material that is does not have a direct translation, they will offer options to the client. They discuss the suggestions and decide together on which option will portray the intended feeling and meaning to the end reader that is portrayed in the source materials or documents. Working together through these situations helps the translator deliver the highest quality translation.

Rapport International specializes in multilingual communications, providing language translation and interpretation services that are accurate and culturally appropriate. We use the right voice, correct terminology to avoid liability, customize services to your needs, and deliver on time and within your budget. And with our 100% satisfaction guarantee, you can trust that it’s done right. Contact us today if you would like more information or to get a free quote.

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Categories: Problems & Solutions, Culturally Appropriate, Quality


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