Untranslatable Words

7 Untranslatable Words and Sayings That Will Make You Want to Learn a New Language

Develop a greater appreciation for the Chinese, French, German and Spanish languages and cultures through these unique untranslatable words and phrases

September 25, 2014

It is no secret that international travel and exposure to foreign cultures can considerably broaden one’s views of the world—but what about learning to speak a new language? Does foreign language acquisition require learners to change their usual thought processes in order to think like a native speaker of that language? 

Many linguists support the idea that different regions influence the culture and thought processes of their inhabitants, and that these unique ways of thinking are exemplified in the language that we use to express our thoughts.

To put it simply, the more languages you speak, the more your ability to reason and think from different perspectives increases. 

Middlebury Interactive Languages’ immersive approach to language acquisition gives students the chance to not only learn a world language but also to become immersed in the culture of the people who speak that language with real-life activities and an emphasis on cross-cultural understanding. When learning a new language, it is important to understand both the meaning of new words and phrases, as well as the true meaning behind them. 

Here’s a list of seven untranslatable words and sayings from the Middlebury Interactive team that will help you consider the world from a different viewpoint and that will hopefully inspire you to learn a new language!

1. Treppenwitz: German – “This word roughly translates to wit of the stairway. German has a number of richly descriptive words that have entered the U.S. lexicon, including schadenfreude and zeitgeist. However, the lesser known word treppenwitz describes the feeling that all of us have when we miss out on the opportunity for the perfect retort to someone only to think of something witty when heading down the stairs, driving away in the car or, in my case, weeks later.” 
-Reinhold Lange, Director of Digital Strategy 

2. Ca Chauffe: French – “This saying implies a person will become agitated or that things are intensifying. I recall memories of my brother using it when my mom would get upset after he forgot to buy bread for dinner or received a bad grade on his report card. The funny thing is this saying has now become a joke for younger family members to tease each other in certain troublesome situations.”
-Barbara Sicot, Manager of Content and Curriculum

3. ¡Guácala!: Spanish – “This is an expression that is used to show disgust or displeasure. The closest translations are probably ‘Gross!’ or ‘That's disgusting!’ My friend from Mexico says this expression fairly often, so when I was around her every day, I picked it up pretty quickly. Someone might say this in response to eating something that doesn't taste very good or in response to hearing about something distasteful.”
-Leigh Cherry, Design Manager 

4. 折腾: Chinese -  “It’s hard to find one single English translation for this commonly used Chinese word. It means ‘to flip flop’, ‘to do futile actions’ or ‘to do self-inflicted setbacks.’ It also has the meaning of ‘to do silly, unnecessary actions to make one’s life harder.’ Still not clear what this word means? Since the pronunciation of 折腾 (zheteng) sounds similar to Z-turn, just think about how hard it is to make a Z-turn on a highway and why on earth someone needs to make a Z-turn anyway.

This also happens to be the Chinese nickname of one my best friends. She is an American girl, and she really likes to 折腾. It took me a while to explain this Chinese word to her in English. Later I gave up and told her that she is the best example of 折腾. She laughed and decided to use this word as her Chinese nickname. Of course, here the meaning for 折腾 is not negative. Like my friend, she is full of energy and likes to try new things, as well as find her own way instead of following others. Sometimes she might look silly by choosing the road less traveled, but she sees the scenes others can't see and experienced things others won't experience. 折腾 is not always a bad thing.”
-Lingxia Song, Chinese Content Lead Writer

5. ¡Ay ojón!: Spanish – “This saying roughly translates to ‘Holy cow!’ My family and I use this saying when we can't believe something. Since ojón means someone with big eyes, we pretend to use a magnifying glass by putting our hand put up to our eye in order to place emphasis on making our eyes large and wide open, i.e. ‘surprised’.”
-Zarco Hirepan, Audio Visual Specialist 

6. : Chinese – “Does this character look like a person’s face? Originally, the character jiong meant ‘patterned window’, ‘as bright as the light peering from outside the window’ or ‘brightness’. Nowadays with the popularity of internet emoticons, it’s commonly used to express ideas or feelings such as annoyance, shock, embarrassment or awkwardness.”
-Lingxia Song, Chinese Content Lead Writer

7. No manches: Spanish – “This slang expression used to be considered really crude, but it has become very common in Mexico and other parts of Latin America. To be safe, though, I probably wouldn't say this expression in a formal setting! Literally it means, ‘don't stain.’ I know, that doesn't make much sense. If I were to hear or see something that was really surprising to me, I would say, ‘¡No manches!’ to show disbelief. The closest translations are probably, ‘Good grief!’, ‘No way!’ or ‘I can't believe it!’”
-Leigh Cherry, Design Manager 

Now it’s your turn! Have you ever traveled to a foreign country and heard a word or phrase that had no English equivalent? Did it change your perspective about the culture of the country you were visiting? Did the word change the way you think in general? Share your thoughts in the comments or on our social pages.

Ryan Hunt
Having recently relocated to Vermont from sunny California, Ryan joins the Middlebury Interactive Languages team as the Digital Marketing Manager. After ten years in the electronic entertainment industry having worked on some of the videogame industry’s top franchises, Ryan brings his passion for technology and product marketing expertise to the Middlebury Interactive team. In his spare time, Ryan, his wife and one year old daughter enjoy spending time outdoors and sampling some of the Green Mountain State’s finest local eateries.
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