Regular readers will know that we spend significant time explaining the different types of translation. We also champion a consultative approach to translation services that begins with deep market research and solid transcreation. (For more on transcreation, see The #1 Mistake Made by Most Translation Teams (and Four Examples of Why It Matters).
You’ll also know that we try to find humorous or cringeworthy examples of failed translations in an effort to illustrate our points. But transcreation and market knowledge are not just about avoiding disaster. Having a deep understanding of your target market is more importantly about serving your new clients and customers and connecting with them on a deeper level.
Here, we’ve gathered 22 examples of “untranslatable” words to show you how subtle differences in the way international markets view the world can open up a world of possibilities for more effective marketing communications. When we talk about a message being “lost in translation” or being “untranslatable”, we most often mean that there is no one word or simple phrase that conveys the same idea as that being expressed in the native language.
Why Hard to Translate Concepts Are So Important
Tapping into, understanding and capturing this difference in thinking and attitude yields opportunities for revenue growth that most of your competitors will never encounter. It allows you to communicate the core message behind your brand authentically while adapting to the different emotions and attitudes of your new market.
Before we get into these 22 examples, consider the case of Nike’s brand. Most people are aware of the “Just Do It” campaign and the famous Nike swoosh. Far fewer people are aware of the fact that Nike’s core brand message from the very start was “If you have a body, then you are an athlete”. In the U.S. market, this was a disruptive idea when it was first introduced – and the formulation of a conditional “If you… then…” was the key to helping Nike’s internal marketing team understand the brand’s core message and attitude. It’s easy to say “Everybody is an X!!” in American culture. Our ideas of equality and opportunity basically program us to accept that we can be or do anything (regardless of the reality of that idea). By making their statement and asking customers to do a subtle and unnoticeable self-check (“Do I have a body?… Yep… Then I must be an athlete.”) Nike turns the message into a category changing experience for shoppers.
And this understanding of how the message should feel to consumers allows Nike to convey it in different markets. “Just Do It” is a global tag line, but primarily used in the U.S. In Germany, Nike’s brand uses concepts like “Every Day Elite” and “Make Every Day Race Day.” Part of this comes from a more general cultural difference regarding the nature of “everyone being the same”. But the more interesting part is that German language and culture are more heavily dependent on idioms that convey emotions juxtaposed to situations (“Weltschmerz” – referring to world-weariness or melancholy, but doing so by describing it as “world pain”) as opposed to qualities juxtaposed to things (body = athlete).
Understanding these sorts of differences and incorporating them into your translation program are at the heart of our transcreation projects. And the difference these differences make is generally measured in increased revenue dollars – lots of them.
Examples Of Difficult To Translate, But Wonderful Terms From Other Languages
Here are 22 examples of terms that convey wonderful attitudes and subtleties across a variety of cultures. (Big thanks to artist Anjana Iyer for her illustrations of 30 of these terms. Seeing her pieces sparked this blog entry.)
- Fernweh – feeling homesick for a place you’ve never been to
- Backpfeifengesicht – a face that badly needs a fist
- Waldeinsamkeit – the feeling of being alone in the woods
- Schilderwald – a street crowded with so many street signs that you become lost
- Schadenfreude – the enjoyment gotten from the misery of others
- Komorebi – the scattered light effect that happens when sunlight shines through trees
- Bakku-shan – a beautiful woman who is only beautiful as long as she is viewed from behind
- Aware – the bittersweetness of a brief, transitory moment of profound beauty
- Tsundoku – the act of leaving a book unread after buying it and leaving it piled up with other similarly unread books
- Age-otori – to look worse after a haircut
- Wabi-Sabi – accepting the natural cycle of growth and decay
- Kyoikumama – a mother who pushes her children into academic achievements
- Pochemuchka – a person who asks too many questions
- Shlimazl – a chronically unlucky person
- Rire dans sa barbe – to laugh into your beard quietly while thinking of something that happened in the past
- Culaccino – the mark left on a table by a wet or dripping glass
- Gattara – a woman, often old and lonely, who devotes herself to stray cats
- Prozvonit – to call a mobile phone and only let it ring once so that the other person will have to call back allowing the original caller not to spend money on minutes
- Friolero – a person who is especially sensitive to cold weather and temperatures
- Utepils – to sit outside on a sunny day enjoying a beer
- Won – the reluctance to let go of an illusion
Finding and understanding terms like these helps a transcreation team do a more effective job of crafting a brand’s core message for a new market. For example, many of the more challenging terms in Scandinavian languages involve the relationship with and experience of nature. In Japanese and Korean, many terms that are difficult to translate center around ideas of beauty and aesthetics. German has a host of awesome words that evoke emotions from very specific situations or experiences.
Tapping into these differences and using them to inform how your brand communicates in a new market is well worth the additional up front effort and expense. And it almost always pays off with increased revenue.
Do you know of any terms we can add to the list? Got a sense of the subtle cultural differences in different markets and how they show up in the language? Get in touch and let us know!