Translating Expressions? 10 Common Terms That Don’t Translate Well

Translating expressions can be challenging, especially when some literally cannot be translated from one language to another. This is because the concept these words or phrases wrap up so neatly in one language becomes an unwieldy mess when you try to explain it in another. The following are ten common expressions from around the world that don’t translate well into other languages:


1. Serendipity (English)

Coined by Horace Walpole in 1754, the word “serendipity” means “an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident.”

2. Schadenfreude (German)

Dating back to 1895, the word “schadenfreude” is the pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others. It’s a neat way to package that familiar feeling, which is why the word is a used as is in English and other languages.

3. Tartle (Scottish)

You know that awkward moment when you need to introduce someone, but you can’t remember their name, making you hesitate? The Scots have a verb for that: “tartle.”

4. Hygge and Hyggelig (Danish)

“Hygge” is a verb meaning “to have a relaxed, friendly, warm, and cozy time with friends, while “hyggelig” is the felling you get when you have it.

5. Esprit del’escalier (French)

There’s nothing worse than failing to get the last word in a discussion, then thinking of the perfect comeback once that conversation is over. That is what the French call “esprit de l’escalier,” which literally translates to “staircase wit.”

6. Koev Halev (Hebrew)

The phrase “I feel your pain” is commonly used in English, but there is also an expression for that sentiment in Hebrew. “Koev halev” is defined as “identifying with the suffering of another so closely that one hurts oneself, that one’s heart aches.”

7. Chuzhbinia (Bulgarian)

Traveling? If you’re Bulgarian, then you may be visiting “chuzhbinia,” the word used by Bulgarians to refer to anywhere outside their country.

8. Dépaysement (French)

Related to that, “dépaysement” is the French word for the feeling you experience when you’re away from your homeland. It isn’t homesickness, but something more—the feeling of being a stranger in a foreign country.

9. Duende (Spanish)

“Duende” is considered one of the hardest words to translate from Spanish. It describes a person’s emotional response to art and is also used to mean personal charm.

10. Mamihlapinatapei (Yagan)

Yagan is a language spoken in Tierra del Fuego. According to AllWomenTalk, “mamihlapinatapei” describes “the wordless, yet meaningful look shared by two people who both desire to initiate something but are both reluctant to start.”

When translating expressions for multilingual global content, you should use translators who are fluent in both source and target languages in order to deliver content that has the same effect as the original message. Learn more about translation services and how to best capture the message of your brand in other languages.

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About Sharon Hurley Hall

Self-confessed word nerd Sharon Hurley Hall has the perfect job - as a professional writer and blogger. In the last couple of decades she has worked as a journalist, a college professor (teaching journalism, of course), an editor and a ghostwriter. She finds language fascinating and, in addition to English, speaks French, Spanish and a smattering of German.