Inspiration is the key!
Untranslatable words are so charming, aren’t they? It’s like knowing you’ve just found a precious in a box but you can’t seem to find the key to open the box! Still, the thought of having found it makes you feel good!
I’m returning on the topic of German, because it generated loads of comments in the post “On not knowing German“, so I wish to bring the conversation forward and move to some other aspects of this perhaps unique language in the landscape of European languages. Moreover, a big group of modern languages were born from old versions of what we today know as German, so for me it’s like “a grandfather I love so much but cannot seem to get along with“. There’s one simple way to detect an untranslatable word, though this is not an absolute theory: when Language A adopts a term from Language B without changing it, it means a translation to Language B does not offer an exhaustive and complete meaning as it would have in Language A. The term is therefore transported directly as it is. This is not, as mentioned, an absolute theory because some languages import terms from foreign languages for many different reasons.
The first and most popular German term is “Schadenfreude“. It’s officially present as “skadefryd” in Norwegian and “skadeglädje” in Swedish, and this German words indicates some sort of rewarding effect, if not happiness, in seeing someone in difficulty. Let’s break that word down: “Schaden-” is an evolution of the Old High German noun “scado“, which did not end up in the English language, perhaps for the simple reason that “damage” was brought in by the Normans in the XI Century as a substitute. The other part of the composite word, “-freude“, comes from what was called “friþ” in Old English. This word meant “peace“, but ultimately meant “joy“, or to be more precise for our purposes, “to find pleasure“. Literally, it should be translated as “Damage-joy“, or maybe “Damajoy” in an attempt to sound hip and modern!
Despite having been translated as “comfortableness” or “cosiness“, the German word “Gemütlichkeit” is often used in the English language to describe not only the feeling of being cosy, but also that of hospitality at the same time. This is why no other English word was implemented (rumour has it that Queen Victoria was one of the firsts to import that word in Britain).
Some German terms have been used in English as they are, because they represented something definite in Germany and they got so tied to the context, it was almost useless to attempt a translation: despite having been used in the same field, it was with Richard Wagner’s work that “Leitmotif” (literally “lead-motive“) gained its place as a describing term. Many decades on, we use this word to indicate a recurring theme in different contexts.
And what about “Sehnsucht“? I tried to find a connection between the verb “Sehnen” in German, which means “to yearn or long for somebody or something” and a possible modern English derivate, but none popped up. “-sucht” is a noun and if it were the adjective “gesucht” we could even put it next to “sought“, it’s almost English version. Being a noun, its meaning is slightly different, as “Sucht” defines an addiction. A complete translation would have to be “an addiction to yearning for someone/something“. Now, find me an English term that sums that up in one word!
Another German word hard to translate in English is the one Johann Gottfried Herder and German Romanticists came up with to describe what goes on in society in terms of life in a certain period of time. By “ghost“, these philosophers meant the abstract feeling of living in a particular time, coming up with the word “Zeitgeist” (“Zeit” meaning “Time” and “-geist” meaning “ghost“).
It would take a long time to cite all those words we’d find difficult to translate: “Weltanschauung” as a philosophical concept translatable as “World overlook“, or “Drachenfutter“, which could be “Dragon food” in English. Although it is more of a metaphoric word (double trick there!) that the Germans use to describe the gift the husband buys the wife after a fight. Or “Torschlußpanik” (literally “Gate-shut panick“), a word used to describe someone’s fear of losing precious time. I could go on, and on…
What should be noted, is that “untranslatable” does not just apply to its strict meaning, but I intended it to express the inability of the recipient language to synchronise the literal translation with the deeper and ramified meanings that word has in the donor language. The unique trait of such words is that they are compounds expressing a meaning that would sometimes otherwise produce more words in the process of translating them into other languages. And even when possible (think of “Timeghost” as a possible translation for “Zeitgeist” and you’ll see what I mean), the context in which the original word originates and the way it spreads already attributes that particular word such powerful evocative force and connection to the context itself that a translation would almost look inappropriate. However, this particular feature of the German language should not put you off learning it. On the contrary, it’s one more reason to love it.