English words that can't be translated

November 16, 2015
English words that can't be translated

** This article is updated regularly. It was last updated in January 2023**

We previously looked on the Tomedes blog at ten words that have no English translation. However, there are also English words that cannot be translated in Filipino or into other languages with a single word. Here are a few of the most interesting. 

1. Awkward

Awkward is the perfect word to describe that peculiarly British blend of embarrassment, discomfort and uncertainty that arises most often in social situations when someone has said something that they shouldn’t. There is no direct equivalent in Italian – the closest word is ‘scomodo,’ which means uncomfortable. 

2. Jinx

Jinx can either refer to an object (or person) that brings bad luck, or be used as a verb. There is no single word equivalent in Polish, so ‘jinx’ has to be translated to ‘something that brings bad luck.’

3. Shallow

The use of ‘shallow’ to mean something that is not deep has no direct equivalent in French, so has to be translated as ‘peu profond.’ The same is true in Italian. This is distinct from ‘superficial,’ which in French is ‘superficiel.’ 

4. Insight

Insight is the ability to gain a deep, accurate and intuitive understanding of someone or something. It cannot be directly translated into Spanish, so the words for ‘perspicacity,’ ‘perception,’ ‘penetration’ or ‘intuition’ have to be used instead. 

5. Nice

The word ‘nice’ is used a great deal in England and, depending on the context and tone of voice of the speaker can actually have quite a subtle range of different meanings. It is a word that many other languages struggle to incorporate in quite the same way. 

6. Put

There is no direct equivalent in German of the word ‘put.’ Instead, Germans have to opt for ‘set,’ ‘place,’ ‘lay’ or a similar suitable substitute. 

7. Off

The word ‘off’ is hard to translate into French. As a preposition, it tends to be covered by ‘de,’ though this more accurately translates as ‘of,’ ‘to,’ ‘from,’ ‘by,’ or ‘with.’ 

8. Bully 

The Portuguese don't have a single word that translates as 'bully,' though they do have some fantastic words that we don't have a direct equivalent for in English ('tez' meaning 'the skin of your face' is a great example). There are also some English words that, while they do translate into Portuguese, lose much of their definition in the process. 'Pasta' becomes 'massa' in Portuguese. 'Pastry' also becomes 'massa.' 'Dough,' 'batter' and 'cake mix,' meanwhile, all translate to... yes, you guessed it: 'massa.'

9. Fortnight 

Interestingly, the word 'fortnight' in English (meaning a period of two weeks) doesn't have a direct equivalent in US English, where it is not commonly used. Though 'biweekly' is used to mean 'fortnightly' in the US, the word 'fortnight' itself doesn't have a 'translation' between the two versions of English. 

November 2019 Update

The English language is continually evolving. That's why those responsible for collating it in the Oxford English Dictionary see fit to issue an update every quarter. Some of the updates see revised versions of words and their meanings replacing outdated versions. Others relate to the addition of new words, phrases and senses. 

This is a sizeable task. The October 2019 update, for example, saw some 650 new words, phrases and senses added to the dictionary. Many of these have evolved in the English language very recently as a result of cultural and political occurrences. This means that they often have no direct, single-word equivalent in many other languages. As such, we thought it would be fun to add a few to this article. 

Let's start with omnishambles. A former Oxford Dictionaries Word for the Year, this word is uniquely appropriate to the UK's recent (and, at the time of writing, ongoing) attempts to leave the European Union. It is defined as: "A situation that has been comprehensively mismanaged, characterized by a string of blunders and miscalculations."

Then there's angels' share, which refers to the portion of whisky that is lost through evaporatio while the whisky ages in oak barrels - a term that non-whisky-producing countries will certainly struggle to replicate simply in their own languages. 

Finally, we couldn't leave out xoxo. Social media has been a big influence in spreading this word, which means 'hugs and kisses' - something for which many languages have seperate words, but which few combine into one. 

Final Thoughts

Which English words have no equivalent in your native language? How do you get around the problem when you're faced with translating them? And how do you deal with newly created words that have come into common usage in one language that you translate but not the other(s)? Let us know via the comments! 

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