About two years ago, a blog listing 11 “Untranslatable words from other cultures” became unexpectedly popular.This list includes beautiful illustrations and words that describe situations or states of mind that we all might recognize, but may not have a single word for, like the Spanish word for post-meal conversation:
Sobremesa: the time after lunch or dinner you spend talking with the people you shared the meal with.
Or the Russian description of a potentially annoying type of person:
Pochemuchka: Someone who asks a lot of questions. In fact, probably too many.
The “pochemuchka” description also includes the aside, “we all know a few of these,” suggesting that, though the word is distinctly Russian, the sentiment may be familiar cross-linguistically.
The voluminous comments following the 11-word list reveal a general recognition of the social arrangement or emotion described by each entry, but also the special added zing that these sentiments take on when a specific word gets attached to them. As one commenter wrote:
Tine • What a lovely post! It gives me great joy to hear about other people’s perceptions and how they cherish it enough to give it its own word.
The subsequent proliferation of sites with “untranslatable words” like this suggests that many people like Tine, above, are drawn to words from afar that name subtle, yet recognizable, feelings, perceptions, situations, or social nuance. (Try googling “untranslatable words” and you will find dozens of lists, videos, and essays). Paradoxically, these “untranslatable” words seem to translate well to readers, as insinuated by at least one commenter on a YouTube video illustrating “8 Untranslatable words” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sPHJp25u7Tw):
Qichin 8 Untranslatable words … and their translations.
If there are words that exist in one language but have widely recognized meanings, could there also be words that exist in many languages (or “cultures”) but have different meanings? Is there a flipside to “untranslatable words?” I call these multilingual words. They exist. But this type of word seems harder to find. Googling “multilingual words,” yields no entries describing this possibility–only multilingual word lists featuring supremely translatable words like Hello, Goodbye, Thank you and You’re Welcome, or simply definitions of the word “multilingual.” Googling “words that exist in multiple languages” yields the same lists of “untranslatable words” described above.
Still, words that look the same and sound the same in different languages but have different definitions in each of those languages do, of course, exist. The recent guest post about Google my Bulbul, a popular YouTube video, provides at least one example. The word “Bulbul” draws a few comments that suggest different definitions:
Insan hor ‘Bulbul’ means ‘Penis’ in Egyptian.
Yzeed Az no it means beautiful bird 😛
Business Andbusiness is is bird with melodious voice
SillyDodo Uhh.. bulbul in hebrew is a word for penis..
These are not subtle sentiments or distinctions. “Bulbul” is not “untranslatable.” People just disagree on the translation. They also disagree on what language it comes from. Therefore, in the face of this comment controversy, the best way to understand what “bulbul” means is to see how the video-maker, Funzoa, uses the word in his video. The Bollywood style of the entire video points to the more romantic “beautiful bird” definition. And, Funzoa, perhaps to disambiguate as clearly as possible, illustrates his otherwise whimsical “Google my Bulbul” with a very dictionary-illustration-like bird:
Finally, in the comment thread about the meaning of “bulbul,” Fuzoa explicitly disambiguates:
Funzoa It means a beautiful bird in india. Ao either way google bulbul works. Hehe
With this example of a “multilingual word” in mind, I went back to the “untranslatable” words to refine the distinction. Do people disagree about the meaning of these untranslatable words the way they do about multilingual words? I found numerous claims to new “untranslatable” words in dozens of world languages. But all these words seemed isolated to the language claiming them, and most comments agreed on each meaning.
In some cases, commenters argued about the linguistic uniqueness of the word. So, while Brazilians may want to claim “saudade” as uniquely untranslatable, others name new words to describe it. “Saudade” is to Portugese as “dor” is to Romanian as “stesk” is to Czech as “tesknota” is to Polish as “sehnsuchst” is to German. Similarly, “hygge” is to Danish as “cozy” is to English as “gezelligheid” is to Dutch, and so on.
The comments largely confirm that the “untranslatable” words, while new, are readily understood by readers of different languages as distinctive, and descriptive of feelings we generally understand.
But, finally, one comment thread on the 8 Untranslatable words YouTube video posed this challenge:
Jolly Infidel Good stuff… But i was hoping for a english word that has no foreign translation.!
And the response came:
ThePolocatfan276 I think that’s called “slang”
Is “slang” so special as to be “untranslatable?” Could it be elevated to the level of “saudade” and “hygge”? Or is it more “multilingual,” like “bulbul”?
Recalling my recent discussions with teens, who love to talk about “slang,” several possibilities for each type of word came to mind. Take this current phrase, for example (with definition approximated from multiple 11th grade discussions).
Eyebrows on fleek: When someone is perfectly coifed, eyebrows smooth and plucked, looking supremely socially confident.
Like “saudaje” or “pochemuchka,” “fleek” seems to be an “untranslatable” word. We recognize the feeling of the expression, “Hey, I’m ready to go to the party! Eyebrows on fleek!” but we might not use that phrase in our own “culture.”
The following words seem more like the multilingual word, “bulbul.”
Drawin’ (drawing a picture or being annoying?)
Gucci (designer brand name or good—as in “it’s all Gucci”?)
Turning up (showing-up or getting-really-excited-for-a-social-event?)
Even though these words are in English, they act like multilingual words because they mean differently across different groups of people. Teens recognize one meaning, older adults another. Rather than naming a feeling we all recognize, with a new and special word (on fleek!), these words are the same words we all recognize. But, they are infused with new, youth-culture meaning (That’s Gucci!). So here we have it:
Untranslatable words show how naming something brings meaning to a widely recognizable aspect of our social or natural world.
Multilingual words show how our social connections bring new meanings to our words.
Assuming this view on multilingual words, we may be speaking many languages even when we think we are only speaking one. And, being lost in translation may not only apply to named languages like Russian or Spanish or Portuguese. It may also happen when we use words that apparently belong to the same language.
As the linguists Sinfree Makoni and Alastair Pennycook wrote in 2006, in their book Disinventing and reconstituting language (p. 36):
All communication involves translation.
This translation involves not only the typical act of one language being translated into another, but also, and more substantively, the act of people talking to each other and trying to make meaning out of each others’ words. Both untranslatable and multilingual words have the potential to open up different kinds of worlds: Those we recognize but haven’t yet named, and those we have yet to know about.
What “untranslatable” or “multilingual words” do you know? How do you use them? Where, when and with whom? Have you every felt lost in translation in your own language? Please comment!