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Indescribable Feelings: Untranslatable Emotions

We spend a lot of time talking about our feelings on a day to day basis. Whether we are excited, stressed out, bored, happy, sad, annoyed, and more, we seem to always have the word to express the emotions we are experiencing. Sometimes, though, we aren’t describing these emotions in a single word but with many words. Sometimes in English we need to be much more verbose than other languages need to be because we do not have a succinct word that encapsulates the whole idea.

You may already be familiar with several words in other languages that do not have a direct English translation; , such as the German schadenfreude, meaning the joy or pleasure at another person’s misfortune. Though as unpleasant as this is, there are plenty of positive untranslatables for emotions out there. Schadenfreude does have a counterpart in the term gunnen meaning to think that someone deserves something good or to feel happy for them getting it. Tim Lomas of the University of East London has begun compiling untranslatable emotions in what has come to be called the Positive Lexicography Project. In the Positive Lexicography Project, you can find words like:

Arbejdsglaede (Danish) - joy or satisfaction derived from work.

Fargin (Yiddish) - ungrudging and overt (expressed) pride and happiness at others’ successes.

Njuta (Swedish) –to deeply enjoy, profoundly appreciate.

Seijaku (Japanese) - quiet tranquility, silence, or calm in the midst of chaos.

Ubuntu (Zulu/Xhosa) - being kind to others on account of one’s common humanity.

As you encounter these words that are new to you, you may question whether or not these words matter. They do! Words unique to a language help define a culture’s current identity and linguistic history. In Japanese a standard greeting that also conveys an age-old cultural meaning is ogenki desu ka (お元気ですか) which means, “How are you?” The word genki or ogenki (元気) is originally from Chinese cosmology meaning the origin of life and energy that makes up the world; commonly known in the “West” as simply “chi”. In the word genki there is wholeness, life, and energy. To ask someone “How are you?” in Japanese “ogenki desu ka” is to ask about all of this concepts and inquire into the person’s total being.

Literary translators encounter frequently encounter the ‘indescribable feeling of untranslatable emotion’. If you are interested check out some of the articles below:


Words such as these can greatly impact translation and the nuance in the message. In English, there is a sense of borrowed words being a normal occurrence. This is one aspect of the language that can make is challenging to learn. But if emotion is based on culture, or socialization within a culture, as discussed in this  “Invisibilia” podcast “Emotions”. In this podcast a socialist discovers a new “emotion” and another person suggests emotions are only a product of how we are taught to react to the environment around us.

With all these ideas in mind, the translation of nearly everything is a bit ambitious. Tone may be experiencing, sisu a Finnish word meaning a great ambition or boldness. This is why, in addition to our translation work we emphasize cultural understanding. In a multicultural world on the move, and as a social business we want to provide assistance beyond translation and even localization. Perhaps we can offer some notion of Asabiyyah (عصبية) - togetherness and community spirit. Happy translating!


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