The Frustrating Beauty of the Untranslatable

Beginners generally learn foreign languages through the use of direct translations and reassuring equivalents. X in Language A equates to Y in Language B. Beginners learn are taught that there are clear translations in the foreign language for all terms and phrases in their mother tongue; becoming fluent in a language is just a question of learning the vocabulary which translates the words and mastering the grammar which orders those words into phrases.


To a great extent this is of course true. Yet one of the lovely things about having a fluent command of foreign languages is that, as one’s ability with a language develops, one comes to realise the beauty of untranslatable words, the satisfying frustration of the fact that there just aren’t always equivalents between words in different languages. Different languages have words which add nuance, deepen hues of meaning or describe concepts which simply do not exist in other tongues.

I pointed out to some French friends a few weeks ago that there is no real equivalent in English for that wonderful Gallic term ‘dépaysement’. It can be explained, roughly, as that weird feeling you get when you’re abroad and you don’t feel quite at home, but it is not the same feeling as homesickness and not quite identical to culture shock. Such a clunky explanation neither captures the essence of the French word nor mirrors its succinctness, and lead to slightly blank looks on the faces of English speakers when such an explanation is proffered. Can it be, then, that different nationalities think differently? Or that speakers of different languages do not see the world in the same way? This debate has raged for years and this blog is not the place to discuss it at length but such issues raised by the existence of untranslatable words in different foreign languages are worth mulling over.

This frequent lack of direct translations for words sprinkles joy into language-learning and is also one of the reasons professional and literary translation cannot be replaced by the cold, unsophisticated hand of machine translation spurting out Google-de-gook in a pathetic imitation of the eloquent art that is professional or literary translation.

I have often felt a frustrated contempt for the constraint of the English language which does not provide a satisfactory equivalent for the useful French term ‘décalage’. The word refers to a small gap between things but can also be used in a more figurative sense to describe a sort of mismatch, something which cannot quite be translated into English without resorting to clumsy and imprecise paraphrases.

My admiration for this concise elegance of the Gallic tongue is counteracted by the lack of suitable translation in French to capture the English adjectives ‘cheesy’ and ‘creepy’. French only allows ‘not deep’ to translate the English word ‘shallow’, while my French friends also argue that there is no real equivalent for ‘aware’ in French, and that the word ‘conscient’ in their mother tongue does not cut the mustard. Such instances of untranslatable words and concepts adds to the richness of the language-learning process and sparks fruitful debate between lingo geeks.

Of course it is not only between English and French that one finds a lack of direct equivalents to translate different words. The German word Schadenfreude trips off the tongue of any English speaker when the situation demands it; it has been adopted into our language because there is no English equivalent. And yet clearly the concept also exists in the minds of native English speakers, judging by our ready use of the word.

Why then are some untranslatable terms adopted from one language into another while others are not? The French term esprit d’escalier refers succinctly to that feeling you have when you’re leaving someone’s house after a dinner party and it is only as you descend the stairs of their flat that you think of the witty or cutting remark which did not come to mind at the opportune moment. We are all familiar with such a feeling. Why then is this French term not more widely used in English to describe this very sensation? Food for thought. (This cliché – and here is another example of a French word adopted into English to compensate for a paucity of English equivalents! – is, incidentally, translated by the rather more unpoetic ‘material for reflection’ in French. Even when words do have an equivalent in a foreign language, they do not necessarily possess the same beauty or resonance in all languages. Such is the frustrating joy of language-learning.)

Much has been written about untranslatable terms and the beauty of words which do not exist in all languages. Christopher J. Moore’s short text In Other Words: A Language Lover’s Guide to the Most Intriguing Words Around the World is a fascinating selection of words and concepts used in other tongues but for which there is no equivalent in English.