Tag: untranslatable


Ten German words and phrases that don’t translate well into English

Language, Translation

English and German are both are classified as “Germanic,” meaning they descended from the same Indo-European language thousands of years ago. With such strong linguistic ties, translating between them should be easy, right? Unfortunately, no.

Like all languages, German has its own vocabulary and grammar unique to its history and culture. If you’ve ever endeavored to learn it, you no doubt found that some expressions simply don’t translate smoothly into English.

Here’s a list of ten quasi-untranslatable words and phrases:

1. Das Blaue vom Himmel versprechen

Is someone giving you “the blue from the sky promises”? Translating this expression word-for-word isn’t going to give an English speaker much insight into its true meaning. In reality, das Blaue von Himmel versprechen is a German idiom that means “to over-promise.” For example, “John can’t bring enough dessert for everyone. He gave me das Blaue vom Himmel versprechen,” or “John can’t bring enough dessert for everyone. He over-promised.”

2. Kopfkino

A combination of the words Kopf, meaning “head,” and Kino, meaning “theater,” Kopfkino quite literally refers to the theater happening in your head. For instance, your mind might be crafting various Kopfkino productions as you sit in a waiting room daydreaming possible outcomes of a job interview. Lights. Camera. Aktion.

3. Doch

If you ever studied German, this word was likely your best friend and your worst enemy. Doch has a variety of meanings, making it extremely useful, but formidable to translate. It can firmly and definitively mean “yes”, but at the same time it could mean “no”, depending on the stance you’re trying to affirm. Or, it can simply be a point of emphasis. Instead of Komm hier (Come here), for example, one can use doch to say, Komme doch hier! (Come here right now!).

4. Schadenfreude

This infamously untranslatable word literally means, “damage joy.” It is a darkly unique German word describing the feeling of joy we have as a result of someone else’s pain. So the next time someone cuts you in line for coffee — and promptly spills their drink on their white shirt — think of the German language and when you feel that slightest bit of wicked schadenfreude satisfaction.

5. Knapp daneben ist auch vorbei

Plug this expression into Google Translate and it will tell you “just next to it is also over.” But as is often the case with idioms, “just next to it is also over” doesn’t mean much translated word-for-word. To someone with knowledge of the German language, it illustrates the idea that whether you missed your mark by an inch or a mile, you still missed it. So, close, Google Translate, but knapp daneben ist auch vorbei.

6. Treppenwitz

Nothing beats the thrill of coming up with the perfect comeback to a witty joke. Except, perhaps, the despair of coming up with it too late. Lucky for us, German has a word for this: Treppenwitz. Directly translated as “staircase joke,” it originally applied to the literal case of thinking of a joke as you were in the stairwell post-conversation.

7. Gemütlich

Gemütlich encompasses the feelings of comfort, coziness and at-home-ness all in a single adjective. Perhaps you’ve heard of the infamously untranslatable Danish word, hygge, whose meaning mimics this sense of coziness. Gemütlich is its German doppelgänger. Derived from gemüt, meaning “mind,” “temper” or “feeling,” gemütlich has no English equivalent.

8. Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof

Literally “I only understand the train station,” Ich verstehe nur Bahnof is an idiomatic expression Germans use to say, “I didn’t understand any of that.”

9. Fernweh

Ironically enough, this word is most often translated into English as another German word, “wanderlust.” But the two are not perfect synonyms. Fernweh describes a yearning for a far-away place whereas “wanderlust” more specifically applies to a desire to travel.

10. Sprachgefühl

Germans have a deep love and appreciation for their native tongue, but that doesn’t stop them from learning other languages. 67% are fluent in a second language and 27% speak two or more. It’s no wonder, then, that they have the word Sprachgefühl — or “language feeling.” Sprachgefühl expresses that natural talent some people have for learning languages.

With thanks to Matthias Caesar (@MattKeyzer) for spelling correction of gemütlich.

+ posts

Sophia Eakins is a marketing content specialist for Lionbridge, a global company delivering localization and AI training data services in 350+ languages. Her bachelor in linguistics comes from Wellesley College, with additional study at the Laboratoire Parole et Langage in Aix-en-Provence, France.


Related News:


Ten Spanish expressions that don’t translate well into English

Terminology, Translation

Spanish is the world’s most widely spoken Romance language, and its proliferation in different countries and locales presents its own set of translation challenges. But setting intra-linguistic variations aside for a moment, even true romantics don’t love localizing these ten hard to translate terms and phrases into other languages. They’re common expressions that don’t have English equivalents. For the sake of simplicity, they all originate from Spain.

1. Puente

If you were ever a student, worker or perhaps just an architecture enthusiast in Spain, you no doubt rejoiced upon hearing this term. Used in a literal sense, puente simply means “bridge.” In other contexts, it refers to an extended weekend that arises when a public holiday falls near, but not directly next to a weekend. For example, if a holiday falls on a Thursday, workers might have a puente in which they are given Friday, as well as Thursday off work. A puente “bridges” the gap between the holiday and the weekend.

2. ¡Ojo!

Ojo is the Spanish word for “eye.” But look out! In certain contexts, it can mean “watch yourself because I’m watching you!”

3. Quedarse de piedra

Hispanophones use this expression to describe when someone is stunned or frozen from shock. Quedarse de piedra literally translates as “to stay like a stone.” For example, in order to say “I was shocked when I saw the car crash in front of me,” a Spanish speaker might say me quedé de piedra cuando vi el accidente de coche. “I stayed like a stone when I saw the car crash.”

4. Consuegro, consuegra

Explaining consuegro and consuegra in English requires multiple words and considerable mental calculation on the part of the translator. Most simply, it describes “the father/mother of one’s son/daughter-in-law.” This can make translation between the two languages challenging when a concise statement in Spanish like “That’s John; he is my consuegro” becomes “That’s John; he’s the father of my son/daughter-in-law.”

5. ¡El mundo es un pañuelo!

When you run into someone you don’t expect, the world isn’t just small, it’s un pañuelo — a handkerchief. Why a handkerchief? For a Spaniard, a handkerchief is something small enough to tuck in your pocket — and with only four corners to explore, there’s always a chance you’ll run into someone.

6. Empalagar

The Spanish language has one verb to illustrate the unpleasant feeling after eating too much of something sweet. Next time you go for that second piece of chocolate cake — and immediately regret it — you can say No debería haber comido ese pastel, es demasiado dulce y empalaga, or “I shouldn’t have eaten that cake; it’s too sugary and overly sweet-ed me.”

7. ¡Nada del otro mundo!

That news is nada del otro mundo, or literally, “nothing from the other world.” Often accompanied by a sarcastic tone, the speaker uses this phrase to convey that they are unsurprised by a particular piece of news. Apparently for Spanish speakers, news is only impressive when it comes from another world.

8. Estrenar

Estrenar is another case of the Spanish language containing verbs that don’t exist in English.

This term depicts the action of wearing or using something for the first time. For example, in the phrase “yesterday, I wore my new shoes for the first time,” Spanish-speakers can replace “wore for the first time” with estrenar. Ayer estrené mis zapatos nuevos. “Yesterday, I ‘first-time-wore’ my new shoes.”

9. Ponerse las botas

Ponerse las botas literally translates as “to put on the boots.” But don’t worry if a Spanish speaker says this after a meal. They’re not looking to leave in a hurry. Rather, it’s a way of expressing that they were well-fed. The origin of this phrase dates back to a time when boot-owners were wealthy and regularly enjoyed bountiful feasts.

10. Sobremesa

It’s not uncommon for the average Spaniard to spend hours at the dinner table, savoring a delicious meal and catching up with family or friends. The importance of this experience is reflected in their language. Sobremesa describes the time spent at the table chatting and digesting.

Tags:, ,
+ posts

Sophia Eakins is a marketing content specialist for Lionbridge, a global company delivering localization and AI training data services in 350+ languages. Her bachelor in linguistics comes from Wellesley College, with additional study at the Laboratoire Parole et Langage in Aix-en-Provence, France.


Related News: