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Lost in Translation: The Challenges and Richness of Untranslatable Words

Lost in Translation: The Challenges and Richness of Untranslatable Words

Translation is challenging, requiring the implementation of many skills simultaneously while facing numerous obstacles. Translators often encounter words and concepts that lack an equivalent in other languages. Literary translation services, in particular, present unique challenges due to these untranslatable words.


Untranslatable words refer to those that a native speaker can explain in a way you understand but for which your language lacks an appropriate expression. These words pose a significant challenge when attempting to convey a specific meaning or feeling.


CAT Tools and Untranslatable Words

In recent years, CAT tools have become indispensable for translators, enabling them to work more efficiently and cost-effectively on translation projects. One best practice when using CAT tools is to create a document of untranslatable words and upload it to the program. This allows translators to identify and exclude specific terms from translation, such as brand names and proper names. By doing so, translators can ensure greater accuracy and consistency in their work.


Examples of Untranslatable Words

Although they complicate the translation process, untranslatable words exemplify the rich diversity of cultures across the globe, once again underlining the importance of professional translation services. They are often tied to specific cultural practices, values, and beliefs and reflect different communities’ unique experiences and perspectives. Due to these cultural concepts that have no equivalent in another language, some parts of the message get lost in translation, and with technology advancing more and more each day, these untranslatable words become increasingly apparent as people are able to communicate with others worldwide.


  • Untranslatable but familiar concepts are found in many languages. For example, the Japanese word “Wabi-Sabi” refers to the beauty of imperfection and transience, which is reflected in Japanese aesthetics in art, design, and architecture.
  • The Indonesian word “Jayus” describes a poorly told joke that is not the least bit funny yet still elicits laughter due to its awkwardness. This experience is relatable to many people.
  • The German word “schadenfreude” refers to the pleasure derived from someone else’s misfortune. Though it may seem negative, this concept reflects the German value of justice, as everyone gets what they deserve.
  • The Turkish phrase “geçmiş olsun” is a common expression used to convey sympathy or well wishes to someone who has experienced an illness, injury, or a difficult situation. The phrase implies a hope that the person has overcome their negative experience and is on the path to recovery, whether it be emotional or physical.


Untranslatable words and concepts serve as a reminder that language is more than just a means of communication – it also reflects culture and identity. That is why the role of translation involves more than conveying words in another language. These untranslatable words provide a window into the unique experiences and perspectives of different communities, helping us gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of the world around us.


Lost in Translation: The Challenges and Richness of Untranslatable Words