Words hardest to translate  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
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Words that have rich cultural connotations and overtones often cause problems for translators because such words may not have a direct or concise translation in the target language. Words hardest to translate was a list of words compiled by Today Translations, attempting to identify some of the words that are hardest to translate.


The list by Today Translations

Words hardest to translate (Today Translations, June 2004) was a list of words reported as being the world's most difficult words to translate. The British company surveyed 1,000 linguists to create the list. According to Jurga Zilinskiene, head of Today Translations, the difficulty in translating the words identified by the survey is not finding the meaning of these words, but conveying their cultural connotations and overtones. Not all of the words on the list were legitimate. Some of them turned out to be mistakes and hoaxes.

The following list presents the words hardest to translate as claimed by Today Translations. Daggers (†) lead to the definition of the word in the wiktionary project. The first is the absolute list, containing the ten words hardest to translate all over the world, independent of linguistic context:

  1. Ilunga: Bantu language of Tshiluba 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." However, there is no independent evidence that the word actually means what the translation company claims. When asked for confirmation by one reporter, representatives of the Congo government recognized the word only as a personal name. Furthermore, the translation company failed to respond to inquiries regarding the survey.
  2. Shlimazl (שלימזל): Yiddish for a chronically unlucky person. (Cf. Schlemiel). (NOTE. In colloquial Italian, it is very common to use the word sfigato with exactly the same meaning, in Dutch and German one says pechvogel (The spelling is dutch, as in German the noun Pechvogel is spelled with a captial letter.), also used in colloq. German is the word Schlamassel, which refers to an unlucky situation)
  3. Radiostukacz: Polish for a person who worked as a telegraphist for the resistance movements on the Soviet side of the Iron Curtain. It is not a real word, only a mistake or a hoax.
  4. Naa (なぁ or なー): Japanese word originating in the Kansai (関西) area of Japan, especially in Osaka (大阪府), to emphasize statements or agree with someone.
  5. Altahmam (التهمام) : Arabic for a kind of deep sadness.
  6. Gezellig : Dutch for cosy (room, house, chair, etc.), pleasant (evening spent with friends), friendly (atmosphere). Similarly, German gesellig, having the second and third meaning.
  7. Saudade : Portuguese for a certain type of longing.
  8. Sellaadhiroopavar (செல்லாதிருப்பவர்): Tamil for a certain type of truancy.
  9. Pochemuchka (почемучка): Russian for a person who asks a lot of questions (usually a child).
  10. Klloshar : Albanian for loser. Could be derived from French clochard (tramp).

The following list shows the ten English words supposed by the same company to be the hardest to translate:

  1. Plenipotentiary
  2. Gobbledegook
  3. Serendipity
  4. Poppycock
  5. Googly
  6. Spam
  7. Whimsy
  8. Bumf
  9. Chuffed
  10. Kitsch

However, plenipotentiary has perfect equivalents in several Romance languages (e.g., Portuguese plenipotenciário and French plénipotentiaire), as it is common with words of a Latin origin. Finnish uses direct calque from Latin as täysivaltainen. Serendipity has originated equivalents in some other languages (e.g., Portuguese serendipicidade, French serendipicité, and Dutch "serendipiteit"). Spam has somehow become an international word, keeping its English form. Kitsch is itself a German word that has spread to many other languages and is still in common use in the German-speaking countries.


Objects unknown to a culture can actually be easy to translate. For example, in Japanese, wasabi わさび is a plant (Wasabia japonica) used as a spicy Japanese condiment. Traditionally, this plant only grows in Japan. It would be unlikely that someone from Brazil (for example) would have a clear understanding of it. However, the easiest way to translate this word is to borrow it. Or you can use a similar vegetable's name to describe it. In English this word is translated as "wasabi" or "Japanese horseradish". In Chinese, people can still call it wasabi by its Japanese sound, or pronounce it by its Kanji characters, 山葵 (pinyin: shān kúi). Horseradish is not usually seen in Eastern Asia; people may parallel it with mustard. Hence, in some places, yellow mustard refers to imported mustard sauce; green mustard refers to wasabi.

Specific examples

In the case of translating the English word have to Hebrew, Arabic, Finnish or Irish, some difficulty may be found. There is no specific verb with this meaning in these languages. Instead, for "I have X" they use a combination of words that mean X is to me. In the case of Irish, this phrasing has passed over into Hiberno-English. A similar construction occurs in Russian: here, the verb is replaced by a phrase that, literally, means at me/you/he/she/they there is. (Russian does have a word that means "to have": иметь (imet') — but it is rarely used by Russian speakers in the same way English speakers use the word have).

Another example are family members. English has different words for "nephew", "niece", and "cousin" (note the use of "cousin" for both sexes). Romance languages do distinguish between the latter, but not always between the former: e.g. Italian "cugino" and "cugina" for "cousin" (male) and "cousin" (female), but "nipote" (nephew/niece) for both genders. Moreover, "nipote" can also mean "grandchild" (a distinction between male and female can however be made by adding the male or female article before the noun). Dutch on the other hand does distinguish between gender: "neef" (male) and "nicht" (female), but it does not have different terms for "nephew" and "cousin". I.e., both a son of a sibling and a son of an uncle are called "neef". Sibling is another word for which German does have an expression (Geschwister) but Dutch not.

Conversely, English is entirely lacking some grammatical categories. For example, there is no simple way in English to contrast Finnish kirjoittaa (continuing, corresponding to English to write) and kirjoitella (a regular frequentative, "to occasionally write short passages at a time"). Another example for a tricky English construct would be: How would you ask a boy who has several brothers "which" (or "which-th") son of his parents he is, such that his reply would be something like: "I am the third son"? ("Which in order of number?") This is a straightforward construct in some other languages, which have an exact word for "which-th", such as Finnish mones, Latin quotus, German wievielte, or Dutch "hoeveelste". Further examples derive from the fact that English has fewer tenses than Romance languages. As in Latin, Italian has for example two distinct declined past tenses, where "io fui" (passato remoto) and "io ero" (passato prossimo) both mean "I was", the former indicating a concluded action in the (remote) past, and the latter an action that holds some connection to the present. The "passato remoto" is for example used for narrative history (e.g. novels). However, the difference is nowadays also partly geographic. In the north of Italy (and standard Italian) the "passato remoto" is rarely used in spoken language, whereas in the south it does and often takes the place of the "passato prossimo".

Another instance is the Russian word пошлость /posh-lost'/. This noun roughly means a mixture of banality, commonality and vulgarity. Vladimir Nabokov mentions it as one of hardest Russian words to translate precisely into English.

Another well-known example comes from Portuguese or Spanish verbs ser and estar, both translatable as to be (see Romance copula). However estar is used only with temporary conditions, while ser is used with permanent conditions. Sometimes this information is not very relevant for the meaning of the whole sentence, and the translator will ignore it, some other times it can be retrieved from context. When none of these applies, the translator will usually use a paraphrase or simply add words that can convey that meaning. The following example comes from Portuguese:

Não estou bonito, eu sou bonito.
Literal translation: I am not (temporarily) handsome, I am (permanently) handsome.
Adding words: I am not handsome today, I am always handsome.
Paraphrase: I don't just look handsome, I am handsome.

Ancient Greek φθάνω (phthánō) approximately translates like "I do something before someone else realises that I'm doing it". ([2])

Languages that are extremely different from each other, like English and Chinese, need their translations to almost be adaptations. Chinese has no tenses per se, only three "aspects". Also concepts like "brother", "sister", "grandmother" and "grandfather" don't really exist in Chinese, where they are always more specific: the words for brother and sister always specify whether it is the older or younger sibling, and the words for a specific grandparent specify whether it is the paternal or maternal one. Again, a concept such as "sister" that would englobe both older and younger sisters does not exist. Also, the English verb "to be" does not have a direct equivalent in Chinese. In an English sentence where "to be" leads to an adjective ("It is blue"), there is no "to be" in Chinese. (There are no adjectives in Chinese, instead there are "status verbs" that don't need an extra verb.) If it states a location, the verb "zài" (在) is used, as in "We are in the house". And in most other cases, the verb "shì" (是) is used, as in "I am the leader." Any sentence that requires a play on those different meanings will not work in Chinese.

See also


  • MacIntyre, Ben. Why do Koreans say "a biscuit would be nice" instead of "I want a biscuit"?, The Times, August 21, 2004.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Words hardest to translate" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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