Lost in Translation: When Words Just Can’t Keep Up

August 11, 2023

Languages are fascinating entities, and sometimes they give even the experts in translation services a tricky puzzle. In this blog, we’re going to dive into a fascinating world where words refuse to be neatly packed into translation boxes. It’s those moments when you stumble upon a word that seems to hold a whole universe of meaning in just a few letters, yet there is not an equivalent representation in the target language. These untranslatable gems, developed by cultures around the world to describe their unique experiences, are where translation services really reveal their skill and knowledge, highlighting that the process of communicating across language barriers is a lot more complex than it may first appear.

So, let’s take a look at some of these untranslatable conundrums:

languages translation

The emotional mix-up of “schadenfreude.”

Picture this: you’re chatting with a friend from Germany, and they throw in the word “schadenfreude” with a mischievous grin. Sure, you could translate it as “malicious joy,” but here’s the twist – “schadenfreude” wraps up that guilty pleasure you feel when someone else slips on a banana peel. It’s that mix of amusement, empathy, and a dash of mischief that just doesn’t have a direct match in English. So, when translation services step in, they’re not just dealing with words; they’re juggling feelings and cultural quirks too.

Soulful “saudade”

Speaking of feelings, have you heard of the Portuguese term “saudade“? It’s like a warm, fuzzy blanket of emotions – a blend of nostalgia, longing, and affection all rolled into one. Imagine missing someone so much that it’s like a cosy ache in your heart. Now, that’s a mouthful to translate! Translators face the challenge of not just nailing the dictionary definition but also capturing the soul of “saudade.”

tsundoku untranslatables

The unread “tsundoku”

Now, let’s hop over to Japan, where “tsundoku” takes centre stage. Imagine a stack of unread books piling up on your bedside table. We’ve all been there, right? But the Japanese have a word for that – “tsundoku.” It’s the art of collecting books with the intention of reading them, even if they end up as charming decorations. Translating “tsundoku” is like trying to capture the smell of old books – it’s a whole experience, not just a word.

The longingness of “hiraeth.”

Ever heard of the Welsh word “hiraeth“? It’s like homesickness for a place that doesn’t exist anymore or maybe never even existed. Imagine a deep, soulful longing for a time, a person, or a feeling that’s slipped through your fingers. “Hiraeth” encapsulates that bittersweet ache, the echoes of memories you can almost grasp but not quite. Translating “hiraeth” is like trying to catch a wisp of a forgotten dream – a quest that often leaves you with a wistful smile. Linguists have their hands full trying to capture the essence of “hiraeth.” It’s not just about finding a matching word; it’s about weaving a tapestry of emotions that resonates across languages and cultures.

Hiraeth untranslatables

In a world where people from all corners of the globe can connect with a click, these untranslatable words are like little flags saying, “Hey, there’s a whole different world of experiences out there!” Untranslatable words are like secret passageways into the hearts of different societies. They remind us that languages aren’t just tools but living, breathing capsules of human experiences.

And that’s where translation services come in. Effective translation is not just about replacing words – it’s about preserving the vibe, the sentiment, and the unspoken stories behind them. Linguists need to do much more than just refer to their dictionaries: they need to live the culture and understand the experiences to unlock the door to connection.

So, whether you’re chuckling at “schadenfreude,” snuggling with a dose of “saudade,” nodding at your stack of “tsundoku” books or yearning for “hiraeth”, these words serve as a reminder of how much more goes into translation than may first seem. Translators are word craftspeople, turning linguistic puzzles into bridges of understanding. They’re the reason these untranslatable treasures can travel across borders and tickle hearts worldwide.

At Mission Translate, we love the nuances of language and appreciate the cultural significance behind them. That’s why our linguists are all native to the target language and either live in-market or have an in-depth and up-to-date understanding of the relevant cultures.

To learn more about our translation services, please head to our Translations page.

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