30 words, phrases, and sayings that don’t translate well

Steven Mike Voser
Steven Mike Voser
E
Every language on the planet has its own little quirks. In this article, we share 30 sayings and words that can't be translated directly.
Reading Time: 5 minutes

Language is incredible, and every language on the planet has little words or sayings that simply can’t be translated into another tongue. Below are 30 hard-to-translate words, phrases, and sayings from around the world.

 

1: ICH VERSTEHE NUR BAHNHOF

German: We’re going to kick this list off with a German idiom which literally translates into “I only understand train station.” It’s used when one doesn’t understand a word that somebody else is saying.

 

2: TARTLE

Scottish: A simple, yet unique word for hesitating when introducing someone because you’ve forgotten their name.

 

3: PROZVONIT

Czech: Prozvonit means to call someone’s mobile and let it ring only once so that the other person will call back. In Argentina, people say “hacer una perdida,” which literally translates to “making a missed call,” while people in Spain say “dar un toque” or “give a touch”.

 

4: CAFUNÉ

Portuguese (Brazil): A word to describe the act of gently running your fingers through someone’s hair.

 

5: HYGGELIG

Danish: This Danish word could best be described in English as a feeling of being warm, cozy, or comfortable. However, all of these words don’t do hyggelig justice. According to Altalang, one might feel hyggelig when thinking of drinking a beer with close friends in front of a fire.

 

30 Words, Phrases, And Sayings That Don't Translate Well

 

6: PAGAR O PATO

Portuguese: This is a Portuguese idiom which literally translates to “pay the duck.” It is used to describe taking the blame for something one didn’t do.

 

7: LAGOM

Swedish: This word is hard to define literally. It means just the right amount of something.

 

8: MAMIHLAPINATAPAI

Yaghan: Yaghan is the native language of Tierra Del Fuego. Mamihlapinatapai refers to a special look shared between two people when they both want something to happen but aren’t willing to initiate it.

 

9: JAYUS

Indonesian: Jayus is used to describe a joke that is so poorly told and unfunny that one cannot help but laugh.

 

10: TORSCHLUSSPANIK 

German: This unique German word describes a feeling that you haven’t accomplished a lot in your life and are running out of time to do something about it. The word literally translates to “gate-close panic”.

 

30 Words, Phrases, And Sayings That Don't Translate Well

 

11: SCHADENFREUDE

German: This is another German word which is actually very well-known. It refers to feeling joy at witnessing someone else’s misfortune.

 

12: MENCOLEK

Indonesian: Mencolek is an Indonesian word for the ancient trick of tapping someone on the opposite shoulder to make them turn around to find no one there.

 

13: BULKA Z MASLEM

Polish: This is another idiom, this time from Poland. It literally translates to “it’s a roll with butter” and is used to describe something that is really easy.

 

14: PIECE OF CAKE

English (Australia): Similar to the Polish, Australians have a simple idiom to describe a task or thing that is really easy. Australians just prefer cake over buttered rolls.

 

15: PÅLEGG

Norwegian: This word, generally translated incorrectly as “cold cut” literally refers to anything, from Nutella to egg, that can be put in a sandwich.

 

30 Words, Phrases, And Sayings That Don't Translate Well

 

16: DOĆE MACA NA VRATANCA

Croatian: This is a Croatian idiom translating to “eventually the pussycat will come to the tiny door” and has a similar meaning to “what goes around comes around”.

 

17: IKTSUARPOK

Inuit: This word literally describes the act of going outside to see if anyone is coming.

 

18: LES CAROTTES SONT CUITES

French: This phrase translates into “the carrots are cooked.” It is used to describe situations that can’t be changed.

 

19: CRYING OVER SPILT MILK

English: To cry over spilt milk means to worry or stress over a situation that can’t be changed. It is the English equivalent of “Les carottes sont cuites!”.

 

20: GANAS

Spanish: Ganas is a seemingly untranslatable word. It is mostly used in sentences like “no tengo ganas” which means “I don’t feel like it.” The literal translation, however, is “I don’t have ganas,” whatever ganas are.

 

30 Words, Phrases, And Sayings That Don't Translate Well

 

21: KUMMERSPECK

German: Yet another German word that’s hard to translate, Kummerspeck refers to excess weight gained from emotional overeating. It literally translates to “grief bacon” in English.

 

22: WHEN PIGS FLY

English: This is another English idiom used to describe something that is never going to happen ie:

“I’ll wake up early tomorrow and go for a run.”

“Yeah, when pigs fly you will.”

While this exact idiom can’t be translated literally, similar versions of it exist in the following languages:

Dutch: Als de koeien op het ijs dansen (when the cows dance on ice).
Russian: Когда рак на горе свистнет (When a lobster whistles on top of a mountain).
Thai: ชาติหน้าตอนบ่าย ๆ (one day in your next reincarnation).

 

23: RUGELJE

Frisian (spoken in the north of The Netherlands): This word literally describes pouring a dry substance (like sugar or flour, for example) into a container.

 

24: FLAT OUT LIKE A LIZARD DRINKING

English (Australia): This is a golden Australian idiom used to describe being busy. Flat out can also be used on its own to explain being very busy.

 

25: SHEMOMEDJAMO

Georgian: This word literally describes the act of eating something or finishing a meal simply because it is delicious, not because one is hungry. In Argentina, there is a similar saying called “comer de gordo,” which literally translates to “eating of fat”.

 

30 Words, Phrases, And Sayings That Don't Translate Well

 

26: BACKPFEIFENGESICHT

German: The Germans seem to have a knack for coming up with untranslatable words. Backpfeifengesicht refers to a face that is begging to be slapped.

 

27: PELINTI

Buli (Ghana): You know that face people make when they bite into hot food and swish the food around their mouth in an attempt to keep from burning themselves? Pelinti describes exactly that.

 

28: GRENG-JAI

Thai: This Thai word describes the feeling of not wanting someone to do you a favour because it would be a pain.

 

29: AVALER DES COULEUVRES

French: This idiom literally translates to “swallowing grass snakes.” It is used to describe when someone accepts everything they are told as truth without any sort of objection or questioning.

 

30: MUDA LABUDIVA

Croatian: This idom roughly means “balls of a swan”. It is used to describe something seen as impossible.

 

DON’T GET LOST FOR WORDS WHEN TRANSLATING

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