Thursday, February 16, 2012

Words without translations

Posted by Simcha 7:04 PM, under | 4 comments

When I was about eight years old I suddenly became preoccupied by the desire to find something in the world that hadn't yet been named, and to name it myself. Unfortunately every time I asked my parents what a particular item or idea was called they were able to give me answer, and eventually I gave up on my quest.

A couple of days ago Publisher's Weekly  tweeted a link to a blog post on ALTA highlighting ten words that they consider to be particularly difficult to translate into other languages. After looking through this list I was reminded of my childhood dream to name the unnamed because there so many fantastic words on this list which described ideas or situations that I would have never thought to have given a name to. How clever of these other languages to do so and perhaps I can create an English equivalent.

These were some of my favorites: (Quoted from this article on

  • Mamihlapinatapei : From Yagan, the indigenous language of the Tierra del Fuego region of South America. This word has been translated in several ways in English, always implying a wordless yet meaningful look shared by two people who both desire to initiate something but are both reluctant to start. ( I need to learn how to pronounce this one so I can begin using it immediately)

  • Prozvonit :In both Czech and Slovak language, this word means to call a mobile phone only to have it ring once so that the other person would call back, allowing the caller not to spend money on minutes.

  • Tartle:  A Scottish verb meaning to hesitate while introducing someone due to having forgotten his/her name. ( This would definitely be *my* word)

  • Tingo : From the Pascuense language of Easter Island, it is the act of taking objects one desires from the house of a friend by gradually borrowing all of them. (For that friend of yours who keeps borrowing your books and never returns them.)

  • Saudade: A Portuguese word which refers to the feeling of longing for something or someone that you love and which is lost. (I wish I could think of a way to use this one in a sentence)

This article also got me thinking about some of the English words which don't seem to have a real Hebrew translation and vice versa (unfortunately I don't know any other languages to compare with). For example, while in English we have the words "like" and "love," in Hebrew there is just the one word ahava, which can mean either. This really confused me when I was a kid, growing up in Israel. I frequently tested my mother by asking her if she liked a particular friend of mine, and then if she loved that friend. I remember how confusing I found it to try to understand the difference between the two words and their meanings.

When I returned to Israel as an adult and struggled to relearn all the Hebrew that I had forgotten I kept tripping up (and still do) on the words that I wanted to say but didn't have a Hebrew equivalent. I always had trouble figuring out how to tell my son to share because there is no real Hebrew equivalent but instead the use the word for "divide." And in many cases the English word has become a part of the Hebrew vocabulary, just pronounced with an Israeli accent (those are the worst to remember because if you don't pronounce it just right no one will have any idea what you are saying even if the word is really an English one)

And one of my favorite Hebrew words is the word stam which literally translates as "just" but it's a word that can be used to infer all kinds of meanings depending on your tone of voice or on the sentence. It's a great word that fits in everywhere and I even find myself throwing it into my sentences when speaking English, which is really embarrassing when it happens to me in America.

I'm now curious about what other cool words there might be in other languages, but which don't have an English (or Hebrew) equivalent. 

Do you know of any?


My sister, who's in college, came home for a weekend. When I said that two things "didn't shtim" she got really excited. No one in her school knows what "shtim" means. Everyone says "mesh," but it's not the same, you know? Shtimming is like fitting and meshing.
I'm not particularly fluent in Hebrew, but one phrase I've heard (I think there's no Hebrew because it's, apparently, not a "Jewish concept"): "Ze Lo Fair" ("This isn't fair.") I love it. =D

Riv Re: I'm not familiar with shtim (sounds yeshivish) but "Lo fair" has become a common Hebrew phrase. Often when I don't know how to say a word in Hebrew I try saying the English word with a Hebrew accent to see if that might work.

"Prozvonit" is "tziltuk"! Good to know other languages have come up with a word for it as well...

I've found that words like "tithadesh" or "beteavon" are the hardest to translate - there's just nothing like that in English. And then there are other words that are just hard to translate (like "memukad", which doesn't always only mean focused, or "stam" or various slang phrases).

We got Prozvonit too, it's called Piilari. But that is the Finnish word so I do not know if the Swedes got it

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