How Do You Say ...? For Some Words, There's No Easy Translation
Just as good writing demands brevity, so, too, does spoken language. Sentences and phrases get whittled down over time. One result: single words that are packed with meaning, words that are so succinct and detailed in what they connote in one language that they may have no corresponding word in another language.
Such words aroused the curiosity of the folks at a website called Maptia, which aims to encourage people to tell stories about places.
"We wanted to know how they used their language to tell their stories," Maptia co-founder and CEO Dorothy Sanders tells All Things Considered host Robert Siegel.
So they asked people across the globe to give them examples of words that didn't translate easily to English.
Here's a selection from their list of 11 untranslatable words — plus two of Sanders' personal favorites and a few from teachers at the International Center for Language Studies in Washington, D.C.
11 Untranslatable Words
Spaniards tend to be a sociable bunch, and this word describes the period of time after a meal when you have food-induced conversations with the people you have shared the meal with.
A feeling of solitude, being alone in the woods and a connectedness to nature.
The feeling that comes from not being in one's home country — of being a foreigner, or an immigrant, of being somewhat displaced from your origin.
This is the word the Japanese have for when sunlight filters through the trees — the interplay between the light and the leaves.
Swedish: Mangata (Finnish: Kuunsilta)
The word for the glimmering, roadlike reflection that the moon creates on water.
Urdu is the national language of Pakistan, but it is also an official language in five of the Indian states. This particular Urdu word conveys a contemplative "as if" that nonetheless feels like reality and describes the suspension of disbelief that can occur, often through good storytelling.
Slang for someone who tells a joke so badly, that is so unfunny you cannot help but laugh out loud.
Hawaiian: Pana po'o
You know when you forget where you've put the keys, and you scratch your head because it somehow seems to help your remember? This is the word for it.
Two picks from Dorothy Sanders:
The distance reindeer can travel comfortably before taking a break.
The feeling of butterflies in the stomach.
Picks From Instructors At The International Center For Language Studies In Washington, D.C.
Literally, it means cozy, quaint or nice, but can also connote time spent with loved ones, seeing a friend after a long absence, or general togetherness.
A term used for a situation where someone has made a huge mistake or messed up badly in life, work, etc., and is out of options.
Swahili: Tuko pajoma
Denotes a shared sense of purpose and motivation in a group. It transcends mere agreement and implies empathetic understanding, or "We are together."
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel. Just as good writing demands brevity, so too does spoken language. Sentences and phrases get whittled down over time. And one result is single words that are packed with meaning, words that are so succinct and detailed in what they connote in one language that they may have no corresponding word in another language. Such words aroused the curiosity of the folks at a website called Maptia. Maptia encourages people to tell stories about places, and they ask people across the globe to give them examples of words that didn't translate easily to English. Dorothy Sanders is co-founder and CEO, and she joins us from Taghazout, Morocco, where Maptia is currently headquartered. Welcome to the program.
DOROTHY SANDERS: Hi, Robert. We're delighted to be on the program. Thanks for having us.
SIEGEL: Well, good. How did this idea occur to you?
SANDERS: We decided it would be interesting to create an illustrated list of words that don't have a direct translation into the English language.
SIEGEL: One of which comes from Spanish. The word is sobremesa.
SANDERS: This word describes the period of time after a meal when you have a somewhat contemplative discussion and conversation with the people you shared the meal with, between 1 and 5 o'clock, usually, I think.
SIEGEL: That's a time of day that, I guess, deserves a word of its own.
SIEGEL: Well, also on the list are several words that we had people at the International Center for Language Studies here in Washington say. We'll start with this German word.
SYBILLA BRAUM: Waldeinsamkeit.
SIEGEL: Spoken by Sybilla Braum and defined by her this way.
BRAUM: It is a feeling of solitude when you're out in nature. And Claire Dejah provided us with this uniquely French word.
CLAIRE DEJAH: Depaysement.
SIEGEL: Which she defines as...
DEJAH: The feeling of a person when you're out of your country and everything seems weird and new.
SIEGEL: Well, let's move to a Japanese word on your list.
AHJEAN KEYEN: Komorebi.
SIEGEL: Ahjean Keyen says means...
KEYEN: The sunlight comes through some trees.
SIEGEL: That is sunlight. Now, we hear a Swedish word from Mareah Washburn that refers to moonlight.
MAREAH WASHBURN: Mangata.
SIEGEL: And it means...
WASHBURN: The reflection of the moonlight over the water.
SIEGEL: I think the closest we get to that in English, Dorothy, is moon river. There are some other words on your list that we didn't go get recorded here in Washington. The Urdu word goya. What does that mean?
SANDERS: Well, I believe this particular Urdu word describes the suspension of disbelief, which often happens through good storytelling.
SIEGEL: That has one word in Urdu?
SANDERS: I believe so, and I think it's a Persian or Farsi word as well.
SIEGEL: Uh-huh. Then you also have the Indonesian word jayus.
SANDERS: Yes, I believe that's their slang for someone who tells a joke so badly that it's so unfunny you can't help but laugh out loud.
SIEGEL: They must have a lot of terrible comedians in Indonesia.
SANDERS: I guess so.
SIEGEL: Finally, the Hawaiian word pana po'o.
SANDERS: Well, the way we described that one was you know when you forget where you put your keys and you scratch your head because it somehow seems to help you remember. Well, that - they have a word for that.
SIEGEL: I find that an increasingly useful word to - I wish I had one for that.
SIEGEL: What were your favorite responses here?
SANDERS: Another word I really like was poronkusema, which is a Finnish word that describes the distance a reindeer can comfortably travel without taking a break.
SIEGEL: That - well, what was that word again?
SIEGEL: That's a word that comes up in conversations with your reindeer dealer?
SANDERS: Well, you know, we have alternative methods of transport for a permanently-on-the-move travel startup.
SIEGEL: Well, Dorothy, thanks for talking with us about these words.
SANDERS: Oh, you're welcome.
SIEGEL: Dorothy Sanders of the travel website Maptia speaking with us about a list of foreign words they've put together that are not directly translatable into an English word. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.