This Thing Called Courage

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Words Difficult to Translate

What are the hardest words to translate into English? “Hyggelig” is just one on our list
March 8, 2011

There’s a running debate among translators about what word is hardest to translate. Obviously, the challenges vary from language to language, with languages that have less in common creating more elusive word to word translations. Let’s acknowledge that determining the hardest word to translate is more of a game than any sort of realistic exercise. That said, here are a few contenders that make the hypothetical list.

Jayus is an Indonesian word that conveys the awkward humor behind a joke delivered so badly that you can’t help but laugh. In English, we sarcastically say, “That’s so funny I forgot to laugh.”

Tartle is a Scottish word for the hesitation one feels when introducing people but having forgotten someone’s name.

Prozvonit is a Czech word for “dropped call” but it refers to a mobile phone user who calls, lets the phone ring once then hangs up. The person who was called then dials the caller, saving the caller the cost of the call.

Saudade is a Portuguese word for longing for someone or something that someone has loved and lost. It is stronger than the sense of the English nostalgia.

(A Spanish word, duende, is considered difficult for similar reasons. Learn the exact story, here.)

Cafune is a Brazilian Portuguese verb for running your fingers through someone’s hair tenderly.

The Danish word Hyggelig literally translates as “cozy,” but the modern connotation has more to do with how Danes see themselves.

One of the hardest English words to translate into other tongues is gobbledygook, meaning “jargon-filled language that is difficult to read, maybe intentionally confusing.” It’s based on the onomatopoeic sound of a turkey’s gobble. Given the confusion that language learning students face when deciphering new words that would be a handy word to have available to describe what a poor translation looks like.

Can you think of any other words that would be difficult to translate into English? Let us know.

* Special thanks to Maria and Manny at Alta Language Services http://www.altalang.com

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