Lessons From ‘Untranslatable’ Words About Well-Being

How concepts from around the world can expand our horizons.

Posted Oct 27, 2018

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One of the most amusing aspects of learning foreign languages is the discovery of hard-to-translate words. These extraordinary words that succinctly pack in them entire universes of cultural nuance reside inconspicuously next-door to their more ordinary, translatable neighbors. And just like all the other words that have found their exact equivalents in other tongues, these words are taken for granted by native speakers. Until they are forced to translate them. That is when native speakers (and language learners) come face-to-face with their uniqueness — often for the first time — as they attempt their long-winding explanations, only to finish with, “Well, not quite… But something along those lines.”

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With over 7,000 living languages in the world, there is a wealth of such words that offer intriguing glimpses into other cultures. Psychologist Tim Lomas decided to gather these hard-to-translate words from around the world under one roof as part of his positive cross-cultural lexicography project. What started as a website where people could submit terms that pertained to well-being (for example, words that refer to feelings, relationships, character, etc.) turned into a peer-reviewed article and, recently, a book. His growing list now includes over 900 words from almost 100 languages. 

There are various insights that Lomas says he has gained from his project. For example, how much of people’s “perception and understanding of life is influenced by their language,” and how much “the mainly western-centric academic psychology would benefit from a greater engagement with other cultures and languages.” 

According to Lomas, these words do more than gratify the curiosity of linguistics enthusiasts and supplement our native vocabularies (Lomas, 2016). These words have the potential to positively affect our own well-being by expanding our horizons and enriching our emotional experiences (Lomas, 2016). They can also “give a voice” to states and concepts that otherwise would have become “just another un-conceptualized ripple in the on-going flux of subjective experience,” as Lomas writes (2016:5). For instance, take the Japanese term koi no yokan — the feeling of standing on the verge of falling in love. While many have had the fortune of experiencing this sublime premonition of love (even without knowing the meaning of koi no yokan), the idea that sometime, somewhere, an actual linguistic term was created to capture in words all the emotional subtleties of this experience can feel like a relief, if not make the entire endeavor appear more bona fide

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Importantly, these hard-to-translate words can also remind us of our common humanity (Lomas, 2016). After all, even if we might not have an exact equivalent of the Tagalog gigil in our native languages, we know exactly how it feels to have the urge to squeeze someone, because we love them so much; and chances are, we have experienced the solitude of a companionless walk through misty autumn woods, even without ever having heard of the German Waldeinsamkeit.

The positive lexicography compilation at times feels like a delightful gathering of dignitaries from around the world. Dignitaries who carry the burden of not fitting in with conventional translations, yet also the gift of insight into what it means to be human. 

Here are 30 of my favorite entries from this diverse and remarkable guest-list. 

Tsavd tanem (Armenian) (phrase) — lit. "Let me take away your pain"; used in various ways to position the speaker as interested in/caring about the other 

Ubuntu (Zulu) (n.) — Being kind to others on account of one’s common humanity 

Gezellig (Dutch) (adj.) — Cozy, warm, intimate, enjoyable; often a shared experience (with close others) 

Kǔ qù gān lái (Chinese Mandarin) (phrase) — lit. "Go from pain, come towards sweetness"; happiness or relief after going through trying times

A chuisle (Irish Gaelic) (n.) — lit. "My pulse"; my beloved, my darling, someone who is so close and loved they are like your pulse 

Fernweh (German) (n.) — lit. "Far/distant (Fern) pain/woe (Weh)"; the call of faraway places; homesickness for the unknown 

Xiá (Chinese Mandarin) (n.) — Rosy clouds at sunrise or sunset

Vorfreude (German) (n.) — Intense, joyful anticipation derived from imagining future pleasures 

Agápē (Greek) (n.) — Selfless, unconditional, devotional love 

Wanderlust (German) (n.) — lit. "Desire (Lust) to hike (Wander)"; a longing/desire/predilection for travel and adventure 

Aloha (Hawaiian) (int.) — lit. "The breath of presence"; hello and goodbye, with love and compassion; cognate with the Māori term Aroha

Namaste (Hindi) (int.) — From the Sanskrit namas (bowing) te (to you); often interpreted in spiritual ways as "I bow to the divine in you"

Gluggaveður (Icelandic) (n.) — lit. "Window weather"; weather that is pleasant to look at through a window, but unpleasant to be outside in (e.g., cold, windy) 

Gemas (Indonesian) (n.) — A feeling of love or affection; the urge to squeeze someone, because they are so cute 

Sólarfrí (Icelandic) (n.) — lit. "Sun holiday"; i.e., when workers are granted unexpected time off to enjoy a particularly sunny or warm day 

Saper vivere (Italian) (n.) — The ability to handle people and situations with charm, diplomacy, and verve 

Mono no aware (Japanese) (n.) — Pathos of understanding the transiency of the world and its beauty 

Cafuné (Portuguese) (n.) — The act or gesture of tenderly running one’s fingers through a loved one’s hair 

Kintsugi (Japanese) (n.) — lit. "Golden joinery"; the art of repairing broken pottery using gold; metaphorically, to render our flaws and fault-lines beautiful and strong 

Saudade (Portuguese) (n.) — Melancholic longing, nostalgia, dreaming wistfulness 

Hygge (Norwegian) (n.) — A deep sense of place, warmth, friendship, and contentment. As an adjective (hyggelig): enjoyable, warm, friendly, pleasant

Maitrī/mettā (Sanskrit) (n.) — Loving-kindness; benevolence 

Coup de foudre (French) (n.) — lit, "A lightning bolt"; sudden and powerful love at first sight

Pochemuchka (Russian) (n.) — Someone (often a child) who asks a lot of questions

Arbejdsglæde (Danish) (n.) — lit. Work gladness/joy; pleasure or satisfaction derived from work 

L’esprit de l’escalier (French) (phrase) — lit. "Staircase wit"; a witty and/or incisive rejoinder that comes to mind just after an interaction 

Gila (Hebrew) (v.) — Dancing with great joy 

Fjaka (Croatian) (n.) — Relaxation of body and mind; sleepiness, drowsiness; the "sweetness of doing nothing"

Kreng-jai (Thai) (n.) — Deferential heart; respect and consideration for others’ feelings (ahead of one’s own); the wish to not trouble someone by burdening them 

Eucatastrophe (English) (n.) — A sudden, favorable resolution of events; a happy ending. Coined by J. R. R. Tolkien. 

Many thanks to Dr. Tim Lomas, lecturer in Positive Psychology at the University of East London, for his time and insights.

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Lomas, T. (2016). Towards a positive cross-cultural lexicography: Enriching our emotional landscape through 216 ‘untranslatable’ words pertaining to well-being. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 11(5), 546-558.

Lomas, T. (2018). Translating Happiness: A Cross-Cultural Lexicon of Well-Being. MIT Press.