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10 Beautifully “Untranslatable” Foreign Words

July 1, 2020 5 min read 10 Comments

The translation of languages, generally speaking, is no easy task unless you speak or write it fluently.

Case in point, how many times have you been in a situation where you’ve had to sheepishly say, “I really don’t know how to explain it ”or “I wish there was a word for this?”

Each language has its own linguistic, grammatical as well as semantic complexities. As a result, many ideas, descriptions or feelings are simply “lost in translation” with some being “untranslatable.”

As a bookworm from womb to present, I was ecstatic to take some classes during my studies that completely shifted my idea of words and the meaning they hold.  My History of the English Language, Linguistics 101, and Current English Grammar classes blew me away with the beauty of language’s history—from culture to culture and continent to continent.

Many of the majestic words spoken throughout the world defy direct English translation. Therefore, almost in spite of themselves, they provide this incredibly magical glimpse into human experiences that are taking place whether we notice it or not. 

Here are just a few of my favs that just about every culture uses but probably didn’t even know are shared experiences with others cultures from around the world.

*Pronunciations are the English equivalent

SOBREMESA

Language: Spanish

Pronunciation: so – bre – me – sa

Meaning: The conversation at the table that continues after a meal is over.

You know those conversions that we can get so swept up in hours after the meal is over? In Latin cultures, this practice is so common that they gave it its own word! Talk about a wonderful tradition to stay connected, in our busy lives!

HEIMAT

Language: German

Pronunciation: hi – mot

Meaning: The place we’re connected to that shaped who we are.

Your roots. Your home. The place that makes us who we are. This is what heimat refers to. It also refers to the attitudes and beliefs we’ve formed that have evolved over generations. 

FORELSKET

Language: Norwegian

Pronunciation: forels – ket

Meaning: The feelings you have when you’re falling in love with someone but you haven’t quite reached love yet.

That giddy feeling in the pit of your stomach when we haven’t quite yet reached the point of full-blown  “I love you,” but we’re past that initial crush phase, is forelsket in a nutshell. In English, the best we’ve got for this quirky feeling in a  relationship is, “I really, really like you a lot!” 

HYGGE OR HYGGELIGT

Language: Danish

Pronunciation: hyoo – guh – lit

Meaning: A feeling of extreme comfort or coziness.

You know that cozy feeling we get whenever fall comes around? Well, look no further for the perfect word to describe it. Now, most of my Danish friends will cringe at my oversimplified comparison of hyggeligt  as “it defies translation” (their words not mine 🤗) but I gotta try cause, 1) it’s just that awesome, and 2) I’m a fall girl, all day every day.

To many Danes, hyggeligt is a warm tingly feeling of comfort in your chest and your bones that makes you want to stay in the moment forever. It can be anything from being home for the holidays to enjoying a warm cup of coffee and cuddling up with a good book, your significant other or furry friend. 

A cosiness for the soul, you could say, but the best way to describe hygge is with what translator ToveMaren Stakkestad sayas “ Hygge was never meant to be translated – it was meant to be felt.” I’m officially swooning..

MORGENFRISK

Language: Danish

Pronunciation: mor – gan – frisk 

Meaning: Feeling fresh after a good night’s sleep.

The nights when we experience good, uninterrupted, nightmare-less sleep, is rare, but whenever we do, the morning after feels extra splendid. I’m talking Disney-princess-singing in the forest and all the animals chime in with a chorus!  

De-stressed and reenergized, we’re ready to take on the blues of the weekdays plus a smattering of whatever lies ahead.. That feeling right there is morgenfrisk.

RÈ NAO (热闹)

Language: Mandarin Chinese

Pronunciation: ri – nao

Meaning: Bustling with noise and lively excitement 

Now this one is a little hard to translate as with many words that connote  a feeling of expression, but the true meaning of rè nao goes beyond “lively” or “bustling.” It’s more so a vibe or something special that makes everyone want to be there. So a bar may be rè nao  but so can a university class or volunteering. 

MERAK (МЀРА̄К)

Language: Serbian

Pronunciation: mir – ak

Meaning: Enjoyment of the simple things in life.

Notice a pattern with feelings with global languages? Yes? Well, Merak refers to a feeling of bliss and the sense of oneness with the universe that comes from the simplest of pleasures. In short, it’s the pursuit of small, daily pleasures that all add up to a great sense of happiness and fulfillment.

MÅNGATA

Language: Swedish

Pronunciation: moo – an – gata

Meaning: Moon Road..it’s literally the trail of light left by the reflection of the moon on the sea

Getting some Little Mermaid vibes? The Old Man and the Sea? Heck even a little Pirates of the Carribean? Who knew that beautiful reflection of moon light that captivates our imaginations from books to movies, as well as daydreams, o actually has a beautiful single word to describe it. Pretty cool right?

CHANTER EN YAOURT / YAOURTER

Language: French

Pronunciation: shan – tay / an / ya – ourt (like scoot)

Meaning: Literally “to yoghurt”

This expression is used for someone trying to fudge their way to song lyrics that you don’t really know or filling in the words with tra-la-la sounds. It’s particularly used for singing in another language, but could just as well be used for those faking their way through a Journey song on karaoke night. Who hasn’t done it and is up for doing it again!

JIJIVISHA (जिजीविषा)

Language: Hindi

Pronunciation: gg – vee – shaa

Meaning: Literally, it’s translated as “life expectancy” but its meaning is much deeper

The Hindi word jijivisha refers to the strong eternal desire to not only live, but to continue living. It’s usually used to talk about a person who loves life and always has intense emotions and desires surrounding the process of thriving.


No matter how you say it, how you live it, take a moment to enjoy everyday actions while being mindful that somewhere in the world there’s a name for that!

What word on the list is your favorite? Have any foreign words of your own?

10 Comments

  • Amanda July 2, 2020 at 5:40 pm

    Hygge is my favorite word on this list–it is a feeling that I absolutely LOVE!

    • annaelleliz July 3, 2020 at 5:40 pm

      An absolute favorite hands-down! I always think of fall and the element of coziness when I picture hygge. That feeling is just ugh 🤩

  • Natalie July 2, 2020 at 11:35 am

    This is so interesting. I’m fascinated with these words and their meaning. I even recognized some… Like Serbian merak. I speak Serbian so I know 🙂

    • annaelleliz July 3, 2020 at 5:39 pm

      OMG! That’s so awesome! One of my Serbian friends told me about it and I fell in love with the word. Are there any other words in Serbian that might be “untranslatable”?

  • Mae Loureto July 2, 2020 at 1:03 am

    This is a beautiful post! I’ve always been fascinated by languages!

    • annaelleliz July 3, 2020 at 5:38 pm

      Thank you so much! There’s such magic in other languages isn’t there? I’ve always been fascinated by it too, and once you learn the history of language…mind blown.

  • Patricia @ Grab a Plate July 1, 2020 at 9:02 pm

    I love, love this post! I’m a lover of language, and this was so great to learn so many new words (not sure I can pronounce them all, but still a fun post)!

    • annaelleliz July 2, 2020 at 12:20 am

      Haha the pronunciations tripped me up too! Woohoo for being langauge lovers! Thanks so much 🥰

  • TheSuperMomLife July 1, 2020 at 3:13 pm

    Beautiful! I love learning other languages and the meanings behind their language.

    • annaelleliz July 2, 2020 at 12:19 am

      I’m the exact same way! It’s so fascinating to learn the how and where languages come from!

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    About Anna Elle Liz

    Anna Elle Liz is a lifestyle blog for the everyday girl who likes a little bit of everything! From college hacks and organization tips to fitness routines and musings on adulting, you'll find tons of relatable and engaging content delivered through honest story-telling and simple conversations! Read More

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