HT Localization Presents Language Translations for Real Life:Themes You Just Can’t Find the Words to Translate

Segment 11 - Ten Themes You Just Can’t Find the Words to Translate

Well, it finally happened to me!  I was speechless… I was with some friends in Madrid, having fun light conversation, when one person told a story, and concluded with "No ande buscando tres pies al gato"...
international translation agencyHe then turned to me and asked, “How would you say that in English?”  I stuttered, “Uh…I don't know something like...don’t walk around cats with 3 feet?"  A hearty laugh came from the group...

Then my Spanish friend asked gently “Have you ever held a cat by three of its paws?”

“Ahh, no, never”  I replied, knowing that I was getting ready to be the center of some cultural joke.

“Yes, well, if you did, what do you think that cat would do with the fourth paw?’

Silence,  then a blank stare, as I tried to reconcile in my head how his story related to cats…nope, I still didn’t get it.  I suppose they had pity for my cultural idiomatic limitations, when he finally explained that the expression infers that a cat would get angry and scratch you like crazy.  

A few seconds passed as they looked at me to see if I got it yet, then finally, I laughed and said “Oh, you mean don’t go looking for trouble”.   

Yes!  They all exclaimed, “So do you have a special expression like that in English?”  I couldn’t really think of anything equivalent, the closest might be “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread”, but I'm not really sure that has the same spirit.

Cultural expressions are not always so easy to understand, even if you are fluent in the local language, the connotations are sometimes simply too difficult to digest, put into words, and translate.  Even if you’ve memorized the Oxford Dictionary, Webster Dictionary & Real Academia Española Diccionario, the best linguists would still be hard pressed to effectively know all the cultural expressions and idioms, and their translated counterparts in modern spoken languages.  There are simply some expressions or themes that are just not easily translatable…and would render even the most eloquent English speaker speechless.

Here are 10 of my favorites:

10.  Kyoikumama -教育ママ: How would you like to be described as this type of mother?  In Japanese, this refers to a mother who relentlessly pushes her children toward academic achievement.  It can be perceived as a negative term.  Some similar expressions might be Tiger Mom, Stage Mom, etc…you get the point.

9. Ilunga: Maybe the closest thing English has is the “three strikes you’re out” rule.  IIunga is a word from  the Tshiluba language in the Southwest Congo region.  It is used to describe the disposition of a person who is ready to forgive and forget the first offense, might tolerate the second time, but will never forgive nor tolerate the third time. 

8. Jayus: How good are you at telling jokes?  In Indonesia, if you tell a “jayus”, you are going to get laughs, but not necessarily because the joke is funny, but because the joke is so bad or so not funny, that folks are simply laughing at you.

7. L'esprit de l'escalier:  So do you remember the time when you were in a heated argument with a spouse or friend, and they hit you with a really, really, smart comment - that just left you speechless?  You just couldn’t think of a better comment to shout back.  Then later, as you were steaming down the stairs out of that place, the best come-back, most wittiest-ever retort came too you…but just a little too late, the moment was lost. ARRRRH! That my friend, is your “l'esprit de l'escalier”.

6. Schadenfreude: Have you ever seen a fashion show, where the gorgeous skinny model struts down the runway, shows off her perfect clothes with her perfect make-up and perfect hair, then walks back, and…oops, she trips.  You didn’t laugh or giggle at that image, did you?  If you did, then you would have had a Schadenfreude moment.  That’s the German word describing that secretly pleasurable feeling derived by seeing someone else’s misfortune.

5. Lagom -"Lagom är bäst": Imagine going to a great restaurant in Paris, and having a nearly perfect meal. The flavors were delicate, but tantalizing.  The food was rich, but not overwhelming. The quantities were small, but complete.  You end your meal with a nice glass of port, sit back, and smile.  You’ve just experienced a perfect balance and satisfaction, where your gastronomical needs were met, without wanting more.  Lagom is Swedish for describing "just the right amount" of something.  "Lagom är bäst" is translated best in English as something like "Enough is as good as a feast".

4. Hyggelig: In Denmark, one of the many joys of the culture is relaxing with good friends or loved ones, while enjoying good food and drink, within a cozy atmosphere by candlelight.  According to the Danish, “hyggelig” is an experience, that is difficult to describe, but rather it is felt. Kind of like that moment when you finally arrive home for the holidays, after a long 12-hour journey, and you find your loved ones and a nice glass of eggnog waiting for you.

3. Wabi-Sabi - 佗寂:  This is a Japanese term used to describe the Asian view of the world of maintaining a way of life that “focuses on finding beauty within the imperfections of life and accepting peacefully the natural cycle of growth and decay”, the acceptance of transience and imperfection.  Perhaps a similar expression, often heard in modern English is “to be Zen with it”.

2. Ya’aburnee -  يعبرني:  Have you ever loved someone so much that you just couldn’t live without them?  If you have an ear for Arabic, you might hear lovers whispering this word to one another.  It literally means, “You bury me”.  

1. Saudade – So beautiful is this Portuguese word that an entire genre of music “Fado” is devoted to this theme.  The feelings invoked when one has lost a love or memories of loving experiences are best described not with words, but with music.  To truly experience “saudade”, listen to Amália Rodrigues, the Queen of Fado, ("Rainha do Fado"), and you will be moved.

So there you go, there are tons more out there. So be mindful.  Since the holiday season is amongst us, my next article will be all about the Big Man… Ho! Ho! Ho!

… Stay tuned for the next Segment of HT Localization Presents Language Translations for Real Life Series, where we’ll explore …Localization of Santa Claus, Papa Noel, Saint Nick, etc.

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This article was written by Rachanee Thevenet, Co-Founder of HT Localization.  Rachanee is an Asian-American expat living in Spain with her family.  She loves all things international including food, art, literature, culture, languages and people.  She has years of product marketing expertise and global expansion experience.

HT Localization, LLC. is a worldwide translation & localization agency providing a full range of professional language translation services, including social media localization, marketing translations, website translations, software localization, eLearning materials, documentation translations, etc.  With locations in the US, Spain, Zambia & Thailand, and coverage across all languages and most industries, HT Localization is well positioned to provide around the globe services for all translation needs.  

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