Untranslatable: The Magic of Culture-Specific Words

Untranslatable (1)I love finding out about words that don’t have a direct translation into other languages. It’s an interesting window into the situations that a particular group of people find common or important; to have a word for something means it mattered enough to need a name. We also know that language shapes how people perceive the world, so I’m convinced that these untranslatable concepts are a glimpse into otherwise unknowable perspectives on the universe.

Through my psychology coursework in college, I was first exposed to a fascinating subclass of untranslatable words: Culture-specific syndromes. There are certain psychological disorders, like koro (fear of a shrinking or disappearing penis) that occur only in specific cultures (a list of examples is here). These disorders are no less real or distressing to the people experiencing them for being unique to a particular part of the world.

Although there isn’t a reason in a typical day at the office to talk about culture-bound syndromes, many other untranslatable words have a space in daily vernacular.

Five Favorite Untranslatable Words

My own favorite untranslatable words are on the boring side; the more exciting ones are often either in rare languages or apply to very specific and unusual situations. The ones I like the best are the ones that fit everyday situations and help me capture them concisely.

Sangfroid literally means “cold blood” in French, but it doesn’t mean it in the “first degree murder” sense. It’s more a sense of coolness and calm even in the face of a very heated or emotional situation. Someone with sangfroid is good in a crisis.

DépaysementDépaysement is a French term that means feeling like you’re away from your home country. I always feel this way when I travel internationally. Other countries have a je ne sais quoi that I feel even inside the airport that tells me I’m no longer home. I really enjoy this feeling in limited doses.

Schadenfreude, from German, means the pleasure taken in the suffering of others. The best example I’ve seen of this was a joke that the show should have been called America’s Schadenfreudiest Home Videos. Schadenfreude is what we feel (but don’t necessarily admit to) when a rival falls short or we see someone get their just desserts.

Madrugada, a word I learned in Spanish class in either high school or college and have always liked. It refers to the very late night/early morning, and a person who gets up during that time period is a madrugador or a madrugadora. I am very much not a madrugadora. The term is subtly different from “dawn” and I always think of it when I happen to be awake during the madrugada hours.

Friolero, from Spanish, meaning a person who is especially sensitive to cold temperatures. I wasn’t familiar with this one before I started doing some research for this post, but instantly loved it. A Spanish language word that perfectly describes me? ¡Sí, por favor!

Listings of Untranslatable Words

What’s your favorite untranslatable word?