LINGUISTIC ENIGMAS: 7 Words Without Translations

December 5, 2023
LINGUISTIC ENIGMAS: 7 Words Without Translations

Learning a new language is tough. Unique grammar, foreign slang, bizarre cultural connotations... these elements make translation a subtle art. And to top it all off, some words aren’t just difficult to translate, they’re virtually impossible to! 

But that won’t stop us from trying. Here are some rough translations of the trickiest (and most delightful) words to translate from around the world.

ILUNGA (Tshiluba - Congo)

According to a decision by 1,000 linguists cited by BBC, ilunga is the “most untranslatable word.” It means a person ready to forgive any sin the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time. 

Because my father is a staunch ilunga, I grew up trying everything mischievous exactly once.


Thinking of a clever comeback when it’s too late. 

She had a knack for l’esprit de l’escalier but none for comedic timing.


 “Donald Duck-ing” – wearing a shirt but no pants nor underpants. 

The police keep trying to explain to my nudist uncle that donaldkacsázás is not appropriate outside the house.

JAYUS (Indonesian)

Someone who tells a joke so badly you laugh out loud – at them, not with them. 

My friends were cruel as teenagers and would always have a proven jayus around in case they got bored.

TINGO (Pascuense - Easter Island)

To borrow objects one by one from a neighbor’s house till nothing’s left.

The innocent looking new neighbor turned out to be such an expert in tingo that he never needed to buy a single household item.

GIGIL (Filipino)

Pronounced “gheegle,” the urge to pinch or squeeze something unbearably cute.

I want to get a kitten but I’m afraid I’ll experience gigil so strong I’ll accidentally hurt it.


The feeling of anticipation that makes you go outside to check if anyone is coming.

You were so late that my iktsuarpok almost killed me!

FAIR (English)

In an Atlantic economics article, Bart Wilson argues that the word “fair” is distinctly and untranslatable English! 

It’s not fair that only English speakers can read this sentence.

Every culture shares many basic characteristics (all consist of humans, for example), yet its values and expressions can be so diverse! What makes a word or concept unique? Are there elegant ways to bridge those linguistic and cultural gaps?

By Ofer Tirosh

Ofer Tirosh is the founder and CEO of Tomedes, a language technology and translation company that supports business growth through a range of innovative localization strategies. He has been helping companies reach their global goals since 2007.



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