When a word has no good equivalent

I have already talk about words that were so closely tied to a certain country’s sporting event, they are inevitably used internationally in their original language. But how about words that don’t translate at all because the situation they grew out of just doesn’t exist elsewhere?

Complex concepts often lead to questions such as why does one particular culture possess a word that another does not? Language always seeks to be as efficient as possible. If a concept is used enough in a particular culture, it begins to stick. Here are some more odd words that could prove to be difficult to translate:

Buaya darat (Indonesian): a man who fools women into thinking he is a very faithful lover when in fact he goes out with many different women at the same time (literally, land crocodile)

Okuri-okami (Japanese): a man who feigns thoughtfulness by offering to see a girl home only to try to molest her once he gets in the door (literally, a see-you-home wolf)

Traer la lengua de corbata (Latin American Spanish): to be worn out; to be exhausted (literally, to have your tongue hanging out like a man’s tie)

L’esprit d’escalier (French): used to describe the precise moment a person comes up with a clever retort to an embarrassing insult (literally, spirit of the staircase)

Tantenverführer (German): a young man with suspiciously good manners (literally, aunt seducer)

Nito-onna (Japanese): a woman so dedicated to her career that she has no time to iron blouses and so resorts to dressing only in knitted tops

Faire du leche-vitrines (French): window-shopping (literally, to lick the windows)

Amakudari (Japanese): describes the phenomenon of being employed by a firm in an industry one has previously, as a government bureaucrat, been involved in regulating (literally, descent from heaven)

Harami (Arabic): an electrical plug adapter that allows more than one plug to be plugged into the same socket (literally, a thief)

Handschuhschneeballwerfer (German): coward (literally, somebody, who wears gloves to throw snow balls)

Pune-ti pofta-n cui (Romanian): forget about getting something (literally, hang your craving on a nail on the wall)

Dai Lu maozi (Chinese): his wife is sleeping with someone else (literally, he wears the green hat)

Gwarlingo (Welsh): the rushing sound a grandfather clock makes before striking the hour

Setja upp gestaspjot (Icelandic): a phrase denoting the action taken by a cat when cleaning itself, with its body curled tightly in a circle with one back leg sticking up directly in the air and when a cat was seen doing this it was supposed to indicate that visitors would be turning up (literally, put up a guest-spear)

Pisan zapra (Malay): the time needed to eat a banana

Geisterfahrer (Austrian German): one travelling the wrong way up an autobahn (literally, ghost driver)

Mouton enragé (French): someone calm who loses their temper (literally, an enraged sheep)

Mamihlapinatapai (from Tierra del Fuego): two people looking at each other each hoping the other will do what both desire but neither is willing to do

Iets door de vingers kijken (Flemish): allow something illegal or incorrect to happen by conscious inaction (literally, to look at something through the fingers)

Yupienalle (Swedish): a mobile phone (literally, yuppie teddy)

Schürzenjaeger (German): someone who chases after women (literally, a hunter of aprons)

Amoureux d’une chevre coiffée (French): a man who is attracted to every woman he sees (literally, a love of a goat whose fur is combed).

Some “untranslatable” words are less translatable than others. Take the Yamana word dona which means “to take lice from a person’s head and squash them between one’s teeth.” American English has no word for that, thank goodness. And there would be no way to translate “dona” (though I can’t imagine ever needing to professionally) without a translator’s note, which can make the translation either messy or unacceptable.

There are some cases, however, when a more practical “untranslatable” must be used. Keeping the word in the original language is prettier of course, but that’s not really translation. Preserving the original also falsely assumes the reader’s familiarity with that language and/or culture. Somewhere in between these two options, perhaps, creative use of periphrases and neologisms may help to bridge the two languages, even if some of the cultural flavor is lost.

One term that appears on many lists of untranslatables is the French esprit d’escalier, which means “to possess a mind that thinks of comebacks too late, as in when you’re descending the staircase (escalier) on your way out of a party.” The difficulty here is not that the idea does not exist in English (why not ?) but that the French coined a term based on a setting where this term frequently came into play. So we can translate the idea — “delayed wit,” pehaps — but the cultural flavor will be lost. How do you say, “Monday morning quarterbacking” in French?