Can some “untranslatable” words be translated after all?

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If you love languages like me, then you love coming across articles featuring “untranslatable words” or “foreign words that you’ll wish we had in English.” The bone of contention among translators and other linguists is that words like these are, of course, not actually untranslatable – you just may not be able to do a neat 1:1 substitution. You might need a few extra sentences to explain it, or perhaps you might leave it untranslated.

The cool thing about “untranslatable” words (I’ll keep referring to them as such, for want of a better word!) is that they give you a glimpse into the culture in which the language is steeped; what is so important and so commonplace in that culture that they had to invent a new word for it? A personal favourite of mine is the Finnish word poronkusema – this is “the distance a reindeer can comfortably travel before needing to take a break.” This was actually used as a unit of measurement in Finland – a poronkusema is about 7 kilometres. Cool, huh?

Fortunately, English is a language that is constantly changing and evolving, and with the rise of internet slang, it’s nearly impossible to keep up with new words, let alone remembering to use them. Below is a light-hearted look at 5 words that have been given the “untranslatable” label, but which may be on their way to having a one-word English equivalent. See what you think!

  1. Hikikomori (Japanese)

Means: someone who withdraws from social life and stays in their room to play video games.

Hikikomori is becoming increasingly common in Japanese teenagers and young adults, and seems to stem from societal, social or academic pressures. There have been many cases of young people – more commonly boys – shutting themselves away after experiencing some kind of academic failure or bullying. This can lead to losing friends and becoming shy and insecure.

Possible English equivalent: Some may draw equivalents between the behaviour of hikikomori and men now described as Neckbeards: this is a slang term for that stereotype of guys who live in their parents’ basement, play computer games all day, and are often socially awkward due to, well, not getting out much. Unfortunately, this term is used pejoratively whereas hikikomori seems to be more of a serious health issue.

Translation effectiveness: 2/10. Although both words imply staying indoors and playing computer games, you need to consider the cultural background of both terms to realise that they are not actually equivalents.

  1. Pochemuchka (Russian)

Means: A person who asks too many questions.

Pochemuchka originates from a Russian children’s book, featuring an inquisitive boy who would constantly ask “why?” (počemú?) I’m sure we’ve all encountered someone like that, and it gets a bit annoying after a while.

Possible English equivalent: One word that has been making the rounds in the last few years is the word Askhole. According to Urban Dictionary, this can be used to describe either someone who asks annoying pointless questions, or someone who always asks for advice yet does the opposite of what you suggest.

Translation effectiveness: 4/10. Pochemuchka is more often used for children, and you can’t really call a child an askhole (no matter how annoying they are). Also, askhole has the additional definition of doing the opposite of your received advice, which is not part of being a pochemuchka.

  1. Pilkunnussija (Finnish)

Means: Someone who corrects trivial things, with unnecessary attention to detail.

Pilkunnussija literally translates as “comma f**ker,” which is the funniest thing I’ve read all day. These people are annoyingly pedantic and will especially correct your grammar, even if they know it’ll make them unpopular. Wow, it’s like I’m writing about myself!

Possible equivalent: Of course, we now have the term Grammar Nazi for anyone who feels the compulsive urge to correct spelling and grammar, no matter what the social situation – but especially online. These people feel is it their duty to inform anyone, even complete strangers, that they have accidentally written “your” when they meant “you’re,” and get immense satisfaction out of correcting people, even when they know it doesn’t matter in the Grand Scheme Of Things.

Translation effectiveness: 7/10. By the sounds of it, a Pilkunnussija corrects things besides grammar, so Grammar Nazi is a bit lacking. But, the question remains…would you rather be called a Grammar Nazi or a Comma F**ker?!

  1. Backpfeifengesicht (German)

Means: A face badly in need of a punch or a slap.

Backpfeifengesicht is a brilliant word, because we have all encountered someone who we would love to punch or slap in the face. Whether it’s that particularly annoying colleague or the entire cast of Celebrity Big Brother, you know deep down that you’ll feel so much better for having taught them a lesson…with your fist.

Possible equivalent: One particular word that springs to mind for someone that needs a punch in the face is the now-widely-popular word, Douchebag. Going back to Urban Dictionary for an “official” definition, douchebags are described as: “An individual who has an over-inflated sense of self-worth, compounded by a low level of intelligence.” It’s the person that steals your parking space when they knew you were just about to take it. It’s the guy who makes sexist jokes at work, who bizarrely fancies himself as a ladies’ man. All douchebags are Backpfeifengesichter. Question is, are all Backpfeifengesichter automatically douchebags?

Translation effectiveness: 6/10. Douchebag sadly loses the face-punching imagery, and is a bit less euphemistic than Backpfeifengesicht. It’s also more often attributed to men than women. Clearly, it’s high time that the English language developed a 100% gender-neutral insult!

  1. Bakku-shan (Japanese)

Means: A beautiful woman…but only when you view her from behind.

This charming word refers to that common problem when you think you’ve seen your soulmate/future wife from across a crowded room. You’re still making your way over to her when she suddenly turns around, and you are so horrified by what you see that you have to quickly change course to…the bar or the bathroom. Oh dear, that girl turned out to be a bakku-shan.

Possible equivalent: You will be relieved to know that we do have an English slang word for this, at least in the UK: Butterface, often shortened to butters, is used to describe a girl where everything about her looks good…but-her-face. See what we did there? I’m so proud of our country.

For a more hilarious but less popular term, try using BOBFOC, which stands for “Body Off Baywatch, Face Off Crimewatch” (Crimewatch being a TV show featuring real-life crimes and photos of the criminals).

Translation effectiveness: 8/10. Both Bakku-shan and butterface only refer to women – the only downside is that this British slang is not well-known enough (and is possibly only acceptable to use if you fall within a certain age demographic).

 

Well, it seems like there really is no such thing as a perfect translation in this case, but writing this has raised some interesting questions. Should you use a translation if the definition isn’t 100% the same as the original word? And, if you come across a word that really does appear “untranslatable,” what is the best thing to do? If a word has a strong cultural context, should you even attempt to translate it?

As always, I think it completely depends on the type of text, the intended audience, and, of course, the wishes of the people commissioning the translation. In any case, I had a lot of fun looking these up!

Do you agree with the ratings I’ve given? What are your favourite “untranslatable” words? Can we come up with a better word than “untranslatable?” Let me know in the comments!

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10 thoughts on “Can some “untranslatable” words be translated after all?

  1. I absolutely loved this, Natalie. Regarding “Body Off Baywatch, Face Off Crimewatch”, we have something similar in Romanian, but it refers to women who look good/young from behind, but when they turn around you realise they are a lot older than one had expected: “Din spate liceu, din față muzeu”, which translates as “High school from behind, museum from the front”.

  2. Loved this post.
    In rural México the word “caballada” was used as a distance measurement: the distance a man can go within a one day horse ride, similar to “poronkusema”, not in use anymore, though.

    • That’s so cool! It’s interesting how we once needed these words everyday but now they’ve become almost obsolete. Maybe one day there’ll be a new word for “the length of time your phone stays on until you need to charge it!”

  3. BOBFAC – well, that’s a new one! And Alina’s addition regarding the Romanian equivalent is brilliant. It’s these funny little nuances that give us linguists a real challenge. We want to hit 10/10 for effectiveness every time. Lovely article, Natalie. Thank you for this!

  4. Interesting examples! I didn’t know ‘butterface’ was a British invention, I only know it from American sources.

    I’d simply use ‘recluse’ for hikikomori, although it’s not as specific. Or NEET if you want to stress that they’re inactive (Not in Education, Employment or Training, a sociological term, originally from the UK, that became a self-derogatory description – even leading to compounds like ‘neetbux’ for disability benefits).

    ‘Neckbeard’ means a young man who’s annoying because of limited social skills and bad grooming. That suggests he does get out of the house and does try to talk to people.

    • That’s what I found interesting about researching these – sometimes you’d jump to an English equivalent, but then you’d find that the word carries a lot of cultural/sociological context that gets lost in translation. I’ve actually only heard of people being called “neckbeard” in internet arguments, haha.

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