Are there words that exist in only one language?

Every day, translators are confronted with thousands of words that they need to translate from a source to a target language. That makes looking at the text as a whole, and not translate it word for word all the more important.

Translators need to carefully read each sentence of a text and record its content in order to transfer its meaning into the desired target language using the appropriate words. But, what if the text contains words that exist only in the source language? How can a translator deal with the “untranslatable”?

Languages with Untranslatable Words

Untranslatable words occur basically in almost every language. However, when the source and target language are from the same language family, this makes it much easier for translators to find the right and equivalent translations. For example, in the case of Romance languages, where French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian are included, the root is always Latin.

But when it comes to translating words from languages ​that are based on a completely different writing system e.g. from Japanese into Russian, the origin of many untranslatable words is often hard to find, so paraphrasing is usually a must, resulting in a bulkier translation.

Examples of Untranslatable Words in German

Let’s take a look at the German language. Numerous words are used in German, which exist only in German. Examples of this are “der innere Schweinehund“, “Fingerspitzengefühl” or “Fremdschämen“. If one knows the meaning of these words, one can only try to find suitable equivalents in the respective target language.

If you try and translate der innere Schweinehund literally e.g. inner pig dog, you won’t be doing a good job, and the client may want to ditch you for future projects. Instead, if you want to stay professional, you will try using something like lazy pig that won’t do anything around the house or something like that. Be creative when you need and to the right extent.

Other words that describe something so special in German that some translators may find it difficult to translate accurately into the desired language include “Schnapsidee” (impractical idea that you get when drunk), “Brückentag” (literally “bridge day” or “a day which falls between two work-free days”) or “Abendbrot” (an evening meal typically consisting of pickles, cheese, sliced meat and bread).

The more adept a translator is, the more purposeful his translation will be – regardless of whether the source text contains untranslatable words or not.

Examples of untranslatable words in other languages

The Japanese language offers many terms that can only be translated with a paraphrase. But even in other languages, there are words whose translations are anything but simple. Here are some examples:

  • Ah-un: Japanese word used to describe an unspoken communication between close friends.
  • Bakku-shan: Japanese word used to describe a pretty girl seen from behind. 
  • Björntjanst: Swedish word used to describe an action that happens for good intentions, but later brings unpleasant consequences. 
  • Abbiocco: Italians use this word to describe the sudden drowsiness after eating a sumptuous meal. 
  • Akihi: comes from Hawaiian and means forgetting the right direction to take after it has been explained to you immediately before.

What should a translator do when encountering untranslatable words?

Time and time again, translators come across words and concepts that they can not translate directly into the target language with a suitable word. In such a case, your “instinct” is in demand.

You need to be diverse and resourceful, and most of all qualified for the subject field of the translation project you are working on.

You need to be so well-versed to always have a suitable solution to all difficulties in translating a text. As soon as you have encountered words that only exist in the source language, but not in the target language, you have to start using detailed descriptions in such a way not to make a text cumbersome for reading.

You can even use quotation marks followed by the most appropriate conversion and description of the word or phrase in the respective target language so the reader would know that the word is unique for the source language and yet experience its meaning directly in his own language.

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