July 01, 2009

Fond de l'air


This is a classic of untranslatable French words/idioms. You simply cannot convey (at least not in English, maybe someone can help me discover a language that can) the meaning of the French word "fond de l'air" which is used only in the sentence "Le fond de l'air est frais." "Fond de l'air" literally means the bottom of the air (not as in arse but more like in the bottom of the glass). The whole sentence means that the weather is sunny and you could be tricked into thinking that it is summertime, the air is warm and in parading in your bikini when in fact the air is quite cool (not in a refreshing and welcome way) and the weather is just waiting for you to stop being on your guard to give you a nasty cold.

Typical dialogue:
- Il ya du soleil aujourd'hui, il fait bon. (It's sunny and warm today.)
- Mmm, il faut se méfier, le fond de l'air est frais ! (Mmm, you have to take care, le fond de l'air est frais !).

Great project by the way, I like it and will try to help circulate the call,

September 22, 2008


Subject: untranslatable
To: gezellig@logolalia.com
Date: Tue, 16 Sep 2008 12:20:20 -0700 (PDT)

Hi Dan,

I was just browsing the web and through a number of art websites ran into your blog. Here's an untranslatable word. "Gezellig". It's a Dutch word, and there's just no other word for it in any languages that I know (English, German, Spanish and French). The closest description in English would be "cosy", but that doesn't even begin to cover the meaning. Our dictionary describes it as a "A kind of homely feeling/ friendly feel/ cozy". But even that doesn't cover the meaning us Dutch people know the word contains.

Well, hope thats something to add to the list.


April 03, 2006


I came to think about the finnish word "talkoot". Finns, both finnish and swedish speaking, are having talkoot all the time, but in swedish we spell it "talko". Having talkoot or talko means getting together, voluntarily, to get some not-so-fun-but-needs-to-be-done-work done, either for one single occasion or on a regular basis, e.g. people in a village building a school, members of the snowmobile club breaking a new trail...or whatever...and of course eating and drinking, and scrubbing the dirt off in the sauna afterwards. I guess this kind of /communitas/ is as old as mankind but I really don't know what it is *called* in the rest of the world..?

happy talkoot!
Haje Holmström

March 24, 2006

Untranslatable, or perfectly translatable?

Been thinking, past couple days, about meaning, and the levels on which it pertains. This is all well-trod ground, so… But! The word 'ice' has a well-accepted general meaning: it's frozen water. For most people I've asked, tho, the phrase 'to break the ice' does not call to mind the thought of frozen water (save, course, on the rare occasion that the term's used literally); in that phrase, does the word 'ice', by itself, have any independent meaning? I think (as I'm sure many, many others have, before me): No. The meaning lives in the context and cannot be separated therefrom.

Previously, I've avoided sending you words like the Twi term 'twa': Usually, 'twa' means 'to cut'. However, the predicate determines the meaning of the verb very, very frequently in Twi. 'Twa akpeteshie' means 'to drink moonshine'. 'Twa nkɔmmɔ' means 'to have a conversation'. This mutability of meaning is a factor in almost all the common Twi verbs. It allows a dozen or so morphemes to do the bulk of the language's verbing.

So, so many words that are considered untranslatable translate quite easily *in context*. It's only when asked to stand on their own — where they carry the baggage of all possible combinations — that these terms seem uncapturable in other languages. But, Arabic. Most Muslims consider the Qur'ān to be untranslatable. Some consider this simply the result of the beauty of the language: The words were chosen by God Itself, so there's no hope of a human's doing justice through approximation. However, there is a school of reading which gives great importance to Arabic's three-letter roots: Most non-grammatical terms are derived in a semi-systematic way. Thus ك-ت-ب (K-T-B) is the root of a bunchload of words pertaining to writing: The verb كتب (kataba) means 'to write'. كتاب (kitāb) is 'book'. مكتب (maktab) is 'office'. مكتاب (miktāb) is 'typewriter'.إستكتاب (istiktāb) is 'dictɑtion'. In this understanding of how the language of the Qur'ān works, the relationship between words of a shared root is not only etymological, but semantic, and each word carries traces of all its cousins.

A religious example: The first half of the fundamental Muslim creed — the شهادة (shahādah) — is usually translated 'There is no god but God.' This is not the tautology in Arabic that it seems in translation: The second term is, as one might expect, الله — Allāh. The first term, however, is إلاه (ilāh). In the book *Four Basic Quranic Terms* (perhaps ironically, I'm reading this in translation from Urdu), Syed Abul-Ala Maududi looks into the various derivatives of the root ا-ل-ه ('-L-H), and finds meanings that include: '[Become] confused or perplexed… [Achieve] peace and mental calm by seeking refuge with someone or establishing relationships with him… [Become] frightened of some impending mishap or disaster, and [receive] the necessary shelter… [Turn] to another eagerly, due to the intensity of [one's] feelings for him… [Adore, offer] worship to…' From these varying meanings produced by the basic root, Maududi finds إلاه to bear specific implications not inherent in the English term 'god': 'We may therefore safely conclude from the above that the connotation of the word ilah includes the capacities to fulfill [sic] the needs of others, to give them shelter and protection, to relieve their minds of distress and agitation, superiority, and the requisite authority and power to do all these, to be mysterious in some way or hidden from men's eyes, and the turning of men eagerly to him.' This term, therefore, wouldn't be properly applicable to a deistic god or a Norse deity. (Tho, I should note, colloquial usage is not so strict.)

Generally, this kind of reading is applied selectively, and use of this form of exegesis varies from reader to reader. I don't have enough experience with the Arabic language or the Arabic-speaking world to say how widely people understand this kind of relationship between words to exist in quotidian life.

From an untranslatable book to the most translated book in history…I have been looking into the Twi translation of the Bible. In Genesis2:12, I found a Twi term that I had not encountered before and which was in none of my dictionaries: bedola. The NIV had 'aromatic resin',but the KJV had the more mysterious 'bdellium', which is probably drawn from the same term in the Vulgate, which, in turn, likely comes from Greek βδέλλιον (bdéllion). The Twi apparently was lifted directly from Hebrew בדלח (ḇədōlah) — no doubt, also the source of the Greek. Theories abound as to what this substance might be (and some of these theories have been accepted by mainstream dictionaries), but the fact is that Biblical and Hebrew scholars really don't know — the word appears only twice in the Bible, and nowhere else in the Ancient Hebrew corpus — so the Septuagint, the Vulgate, the KJV, and the Twi Bible all simply opted to swallow the word whole into their appropriate languages. (The KJV is preceded by Ælfric's 11th century Old English translation of Genesis, which contains 'dellium', and Wycliffe's c. 1395 Middle English 'delium'. It's entirely possible that the word was borrowed into English anew each time.) In Spanish, the Reina-Valera Bible uses 'bedelio' (or 'bdelio' in the old version), as do several other translations. Luther opted for 'Bedellion' in German. 'Bdellium' may be found in French. (My Thai Bible, however, and the two others I've found on-line have gone with ยางไมัหอม [yāŋ-mái hɔ̄̌m] which corresponds to the NIV's 'aromatic resin'.)

There is an exact, one-to-one, correspondence between these terms in their various languages (Ancient Hebrew בדלח excluded — it referred to a physical reality [or imaginarity] in a way that all these translations don't). On some level, we must consider בדלח untranslatable, as its exact meaning is unknown. But all these borrowed references translate one another with unparalleled exactitude.

Or not: If some well-known Romantic poem had used the term 'bdellium', it might mean a little more in English than it does in French. But perhaps that's true even without what-ifs: Does the Greco- Latinate 'bdellium' — which may call to mind heavy elements from the sagging belly of the Periodic Table and which begins with an exotic cluster of dark consonants — suggest the same thing to the Anglophone ear as the lighter, directly Hebrew-derived, and more familiar 'bedola' does to the Twi-speaker? 'Bedola' *could* be a Twi word, if it weren't not one. The Angles, Saxons, and Normans wouldn't have dreamt up 'bdellium' on their own.

Or perhaps the Angles, Saxons, Normans, and their linguistic descendants have never owned the word at all; perhaps 'bdellium' isn't a translation of בדלח. Is 'schmuck' an English translation of Yiddish 'schmuck'? Is 'garage' English for French 'garage'?

One last thought: Does the term *really* mean anything at all, in any variation, except as an expression of the wealth of Havilah? Perhaps the word, by itself, is as untranslatable as 'ice' in 'to break the ice'.

Bob Offer-Westort
San Francisco, California, USA

March 03, 2006

anatomy of a yiddish word

anatomy of a yiddish word

a yiddish sentence snakes across the page
looking for argument, its tail
nipped by the head of the next
too impatient to flourish a capital.

in face to face debate
the loser is s/he
who stops for a breath.
my score is a shrug.

the name i was given
(transliterated) charna
inhabits in me the rare soul
of my mother's tante charna

against whom not a single cousin
ruminating fodders of discord
spit any green-acid drop
of taynis (rhymes with minus).

if a yiddish noun might earn
honor of capitalization,
nominate this one: taynis
inside a person is the organ that grinds

ingested seeds of insult (riffle
moneys, invitations, in-laws)
into grudges vital to family peristalsis
as gravel in a bird's cloaca.

taynis chokes like a boa constrictor
but does not kill: if cain had simply
nurtured taynis towards his brother--
squinted corner of eye,

uptwisted corner of lip,
scorned to eat his apples and beans
at the same table set with the other's
barbecued lamb--then

abel would have lived.

by Charlotte Mandel
this poem first appeared in Journal of New Jersey Poets, Issue 42, 2005

March 01, 2006


from German to English

'Die "Erlebnisse" diesess "Lebens"...'The connection between 'Leben' ('life') and 'Erlebnisse' ('Experiences') is lost in translation. An 'Erlebnis' is not just any 'experience' (Erafahrung'), but one which we feel deeply and 'live through'. We shall translate 'Erlebnis' and 'erleben' by 'Experience with a capital 'E', reserving 'experience' for 'Erfahrung' and 'erfahren'.

from the translator's notes to Being and Time, by Martin Heidegger
Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson
Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc 1962

Deborah Poe

February 25, 2006

on untranslatability


I'm writing this to you because it's more than a contribution to the new site. You can use as much of it as you think belongs.

I happen to think that no word is untranslatable into English. You may have to use a phrase or a sentence but a really clever translator like William Weaver or Richard Howard or Alastair Reid can do it. Do it in English, especially now American English, because English is a hybrid language and because our supposed class structure is fluid and because we're living through an age of linguistic change akin to the Elizabethan. The English-writing East Indians are now taking the lead.

A good indication of translatability by takeover is the many Yiddish words now in English dictionaries, like shlep or shmuck--there are tens of others. But other Yiddish words, like yichus or k'velen haven't made it because the feelings behind them are too subtle. Yichus means good blood, well born, but if you don't live up to the promise of your family stature, then you haven't really got it. k'velen means to glow and beam with inexpressible pride and happiness.

(All of these words are transliterations from a Yiddish written in Hebrew characters.)

And that's the real untranslatability of words in other languages, words imbedded into their languages over time. All the other contributions take that into consideration very well. What you can¹t carry from one language into another is the thrill of using it in a context that comes from the word's belonging to its linguistic roots, habits, and family. Also includes facial and bodily gestures.

All to the Good,


After I sent it off I thought of another sense of untranslatability. How do you "translate" funky not just to a foreigner but to an American who never paid attention to jazz or rock, or to an older American who went through the Sixties gritting his teeth?? My 1968 Random House desk dictionary doesn't carry it. The online


carries it as slang, so its untranslatability would seem to be specialized. Still, the same online dictionary adds the following:

"When asked which words in the English language are the most difficult to define precisely, a lexicographer would surely mention funky."

All to the Good,


February 24, 2006


From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Lagom is a Swedish word with no direct English equivalent.

The Lexin Swedish-English dictionary defines lagom as "enough, sufficient, adequate, just right." Lagom is also widely translated as "in moderation," "in balance," "optimal," "reasonable," and "average." But whereas words like "sufficient" and "average" suggest some degree of abstinence, scarcity, or failure, lagom decidedly carries the connotation of perfection or appropriateness. The archetypical Swedish proverb "Lagom är bäst," literally "Lagom is best," is translated as "Enough is as good as a feast" in the Lexin dictionary.

According to common folklore, "lagom" is a contraction of "laget om" ("around the team"), a phrase used in Viking times to specify how much mead one should drink from the horn as it was passed around in order for everyone to receive a fair share. This story is recounted widely, including on the website of the Swedish Institute. Both the Swedish Language Council and the Swedish Academy, however, cite the true etymology of lagom as being from the word "lag" ("law"), in this case referring not necessarily to judicial law but common sense law, with the archaic dative plural ending "-om."

Lagom can be used as an adverb, as in the sentence "Han har lagom mycket pengar" (literally "He has lagom much money"). Lagom can also be used as an adjective: "Klänningen var alldeles lagom åt henne" (literally "The dress was entirely lagom for her"). The adjective form is never inflected.

Lagom can be applied to everything from food and drink to copyright law and carbon dioxide emissions. If asked "How much coffee do you want?" one could say "Lagom, please." The Swedish lawyer Mikael Pawlo concluded: "What we need is lagom copyright protection for computer programs" (2002).

The value of "just enough" can be contrasted to the value of "more is better." It is viewed favorably as a sustainable alternative to the hoarding extremes of consumerism: "Why do I need more than two? Det är [It is] lagom" (Atkisson, 2000). It can also be viewed as repressive: "You're not supposed to be too good, or too rich" (Gustavsson, 1995). Lagom has been fingered as a challenge to economic growth and the reason for Sweden's apparent lack of outward patriotism.

In a single word, lagom is said to describe the basis of the Swedish national psyche, one of consensus and equality. In recent times Sweden has developed greater tolerance for risk and failure as a result of severe recession in the early 1990s. Nonetheless, it is still widely considered ideal to be modest, avoid extremes, and seek optimal solutions. "My aunt used to hold out her closed fist and say, 'How much can you get in this hand? It's much easier to get something in this [open] hand" (Silberman, 2001). "It's the idea that for everything there is the perfect amount: The perfect, and best, amount of food, space, laughter and

The concept of lagom is similar to that of the Middle Path in Eastern philosophy, and Aristotle's "golden mean" of moderation in Western philosophy.

located and suggested by Richard Spencer

February 23, 2006


The word "no" in English does not translate exactly into, for example, Japanese--not in polite conversation, at any rate. Negative responses are considered impolite, and, thus, must be couched in other terms. One of my favorite books about Japan was one called "Sixteen Ways of Saying No," and, wouldn't you know, one of those sixteen ways was "Yes," which, as often in English, means "I'm listening." The aversion to "no" in this sense is common in Latin American Spanish as well, I believe.

Halvard Johnson

February 22, 2006


from Mexican Spanish to English


A vulgar term that everyone uses. An intensifier, usually negative, as in, the phrase popular with drivers, "pinche hijo de La Chingada," "lousy son of the archetypal whore." But it's occasionally used in a positive sense, as in "que pinche culota!" "what a piece of ass!"

A Mexican writer who had just come back from Spain told me "I don't understand how they survive without 'pinche'.

Mark Weiss



from Spanish to English

Spanish possessive pronoun "su"
His, hers, its, their. And in the polite form, "your."

Mark Weiss


詫び寂び (Wabi-sabi)

詫び寂び (Wabi-sabi)

Japanese noun that does not translate into English

Wabi-sabi is "humble simplicity" in the dictionary. Wabi-sabi is a way of life and a way of art. The sparse and simple Japanese aesthetic of rush matted rooms and white-papered screen doors is based on wabi-sabi. The art of ikebana (flower arranging) is wabi-sabi. The rigor of haiku and simple poetic forms is wabi-sabi. Tea ceremony is wabi-sabi.

Kristen McQuillin


和 (Wa)

和 (Wa)

Japanese noun that does not translate into English

The dictionary definition of wa is "harmony" but it is more than simply peace and balance. Wa is embraced as the most fundamental Japanese principle. It is the cornerstone for the extensive consensus gathering that takes place in nearly every Japanese activity. Wa is also used as a prefix to describe Japanese things: wafuu is Japanese-style, washoku is Japanese food, wafuku are traditional clothes like kimono, wagyuu is Japanese beef, wa-ei jiten is a Japanese-English dictionary.

Kristen McQuillin

Halvard Johnson adds:

It might also be noted that "wa" suggests conformity: e.g., if all cars but one in a company parking lot are parked head in, then the one that is parked head out is said to be disturbing the "wa"; which also brings to mind the Japanese saying "The nail that stands out is hammered down."


本音 (Honne) & 建前 (Tatemae)

本音 (Honne) & 建前 (Tatemae)

Japanese nouns that do not translate into English

These are the "face" that is often talked of in the West. Tatemae is a social mask - politeness, tact - your outer facade or public face. Tatemae is what prevents you from saying "no" directly, even if you intend no quite strongly. Honne is your desire and inner intention. It might not match what you show to the outside world. Only you know your honne; even friend and family may not be privy to it.

Kristen McQuillin


甘える (Amaeru)

甘える (Amaeru)

Japanese verb that does not translate to English.

The dictionary definition is "to presume on the love or kindness of someone." There's an entire book about amaeru, The Anatomy of Dependence by Takeo Doi, which was published in Japan in 1966. According to the author, amaeru is the framework on which family relationships are draped. You can always count on your closest relations and friends to give in to any selfish and childish demands - babying you, indulging you.

Kristen McQuillin



from Twi to English


Literally, 'affairs of elders'. This can refer to history, custom,
proverbs, traditional law, or folktales.

Bob Offer-Westort
San Francisco, California, USA



from Portuguese to English

It turned to be a cliché, but everybody says "saudade" is untranslatable.
Sometimes in English it turns to a verbal form - to miss (something or
someone). The problem is that to have saudade is to miss someone or
something that can be not lost at all. There is a word reputed to be a fair
translation in German - "sennsucht" - but it involves the meaning field of
search for something whereas "miss" may mean something that was lost. It is
the kind of melancholy you feel when you are far from a place or person you
like. But, eventually, you may come back to him/her/it.

Lucio Agra

John M. Bennett adds:

Ay, saudade - the important thing about that concept is that it can apply to something that is right in front of you - saudade for the loved one you hold in your arms, for example. saudade for the very day you are experiencing - tenho razao ou nao?

Dr. John M. Bennett
Rare Books & MSS Library
The Ohio State University
"No words are translatable. All words are transductible."


accueil man (glyph)

from Micmaq to English


Reception man appears on earth to spread the word of the Book of

Its half real & half my poetic perambulations. I've been slowly
working on a futuristic micmaq epic & the glyph is part of the
sequence, one that fascinates me the most.

Micmaq is spelled about 6 or 7 different ways. Wikipedia has a gloss


The glyph is from the original Micmaq pictographic language (the
first indigenous writing system in north america). the glyph is part
of a series of glyphs discovered from the 1600s. The particular
glyph is usually translated as accueil man, I found it here:


The pictographic language was later converted to cold type in the
1800's by Christian Kalder & some italian typographers.

I translate this as reception man. The rest is artistic license.
The Book of Putrefaction, by the way, is a book which Lorca & Dali
started but they never finished & has since disappeared.

Dreamtime Village
perspicacity at xexoxial dot org

February 21, 2006

เกรงใจ (kreeng-cai)

from Thai into English

Independently, the term เกรง means simply 'fear', and ใจ means 'heart', in the (un-?)poetic sense (it needs to be combined with another word in order to refer to the physical organ). Combined, the term เกรงใจ means 'fear of offending another or causing inconvenience'. It's often proffered as an excuse for not doing something. From the other side, people often say 'ไม่ ตัองเกรงใจ' — 'No need to feel เกรงใจ', which indicates that one should not be afraid to put the speaker out — that the activity referred to will cause no inconvenience or offence.

Bob Offer-Westort
San Francisco, California, USA


ديوان (diiwaan)

from Arabic to English

ديوان can mean 'account books' or 'anthology' or 'oeuvre', but one of the more difficult meanings of the term to translate is 'collective poetic or literary tradition of a people'. Nizar Qabbani uses the term in 'A Lesson in Drawing' - 'When you grow up, my son, / and read the diwan of Arabic poetry / you'll discover that the word and the tear are twins / and the Arabic poem / is no more than a tear wept by writing fingers.'

Bob Offer-Westort
San Francisco, California, USA


دين (diin)

from Arabic to English

Usually, دين can be translated as 'religion', but it perhaps corresponds more closely to a phrase like 'ideologically founded way of life'. 'Way of life' is a very common English translation among English-speaking Muslims. The term incorporates custom as well as belief.

Bob Offer-Westort
San Francisco, California, USA



from Spanish to English

In most varieties of Spanish, there are two singular forms of the second person pronoun: Usted and tú. The former is a formal pronoun, used for social superiors and new acquaintances. The latter is familiar. 'Tutear' is a verb meaning 'to address someone as "tú"'. However, the meaning isn't purely linguistic: It indicates familiarity. Thus, 'Puedes tutearme' ('You can address me as "tú"') is an invitation to familiarity. The connotation is similar to the English phrase 'to be on a first name basis with', but I can't think, off-hand, of an English term or phrase that describes personal relationships through linguistic usage in the same way.

[This also reminds me of the term 'voseo', which means 'the use of the second person singular 'vos' in place of 'tú'. 'Vos' is favoured in a few Latin American countries, including Costa Rica (the source of my familiarity with the term). This strikes me as probably different from what you're looking for.]

Bob Offer-Westort
San Francisco, California, USA

Mark Weiss adds:

re: tutear, the same meanings, social and linguistic, apply to the French "tutoyer" and its opposite, "vousvoyer." One way French people define what makes the very rich not like you and me is that they vousvoient their children and parents.



From German to English

the pleasure one feels at another's misfortune

Halvard Johnson



From German to English


the feeling of being alone in the woods

Halvard Johnson



From Arabic to English


an expression of joy by a group of women in Aleppo, consisting of the words "Lillé, lillé, lillé" repeated as often as possible in one breath. Also used figuratively for any expression of joy

Maria Damon



From Russian to English

translating from Russian, I discovered a word called


which means, that acid reaction one gets from biting into something very sour, like a green apple.

Philip Metres