Tongue Tied in Ten Languages

When you’re travelling to another country, it’s always a good idea to learn at least a few words in the native language. At the very least you should be able to order a beer without reverting back to your mother tongue. However, each one of the approximately 6,500 languages in the world have their own particular idiosyncrasies, and sometimes, translation is elusive if not linguistically impossible.

The emergence of sites like Woxikon and the new book Lost in Translation by the charming Ella Frances Sanders offer a helping hand to hapless Johnny Foreigner, and illustrate some of these most fleeting of words. Here then, we take a look at some colourful examples of the untranslatable word. But check Ella’s blog for a daily inspiration. 

    • Papkata
      From the Maori inhabitants of New Zealand’s Cook Islands, Papkata has no single word equivalent and translates as “a person who has one leg shorter than the other”. Perfect for the piratically minded amongst you or those who find themselves travelling in ever decreasing circles when following a map.
    • Kummerspeck
      Grief bacon is the literal translation of this German word that describes unwanted weight gain in the wake of someone’s insatiable, emotionally driven overeating. So the next time you’re in Germany and you see someone sobbing uncontrollably over their Currywurst, you might just gently remind them to watch their Kummerspeck. 
    • Glas Wen
      Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit according to some. Obviously the Welsh never caught on to this since Glas Wen translates literally as “blue smile”; or the “act of smiling in sarcastic or mocking manner. 
    • Pȧlegg
      This fantastic Norwegian word means you’ll never have to go hungry whilst on the road. Pȧlegg simply means anything you can put on a slice of bread. Cheese, ham, steak, ostrich, elephant – if the name fits, so does the food.
    • Mamihlapinatapai
      This mouthful from the Yaghan language of Tierra del Fuego is actually in the Guinness Book of World Records as THE “most succinct word” in any language. Whilst on paper it may not look so, when you consider that it translates roughly as “a look shared by two people, each wishing that the other will offer something that they both desire but are unwilling to suggest or offer themselves”, you might change your mind.
    • Wabi-Sabi
      For a true sense of enlightenment in the Buddhist sense, why not invoke the rather Zen like Wabi-Sabi. This Japanese word describes the art of “finding beauty in imperfection” and “accepting the cyclical nature of life and death”.
    • Akihi
      Getting lost on purpose is amongst the greatest joys in life, however, getting lost after being given detailed directions is certainly not. The Hawaiian word Akihi describes that issue perfectly; the act of “taking directions and promptly forgetting them.”
    • Kabelsalat
      It seems that more and more electronic gadgets are finding their way into our rucksacks these days. The German, Kabelsalat, perfectly describes the mess of cables we spend hours trying to untangle whilst we unpack.
    • Pisan Zapra
      You know your diet is probably a little potassium heavy if your language has a word that describes “the time needed to eat a banana”. Well 270 million Malay speaking people have just that and they seem to be doing just fine.
    • Razliubit
      Russian for “the bitter-sweet feeling of falling OUT of love”, Razliubit is the perfect word for those short but intense affairs attributed more to lust than wander. Ok, so you don’t have a girlfriend/boyfriend any more but you do get to travel the world once more enjoying your sweet, sweet freedom.
All images are from Ella Frances Sanders Lost in Translation Book.
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