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Translation Teasers

From time to time throughout my teaching career, which has now spanned 13 years across 7 different countries, I have come across words in English which do not seem to have a suitable translation. Despite my earnest attempts to fully describe the meaning of the word, often resorting to childlike sketches on the board and ‘give us a clue’ style mime antics, my students have been left scratching their heads because the word apparently is non-existent in their native language.

For example, in my first teaching post in Greece, I remember trying to explain to my Proficiency students the meaning of ‘hazy’ to describe the weather. I tried desperately to think of other examples such as hazy memory or hazy vision but they all drew a blank. We decided that maybe due to the brilliant blue skies typical of Greece there perhaps wasn’t such a word to fittingly describe the sunshine.

Similarly, with a group of Hungarian teenagers, we were discussing various problems encountered by school children and I brought up the subject of bullying. We read an article about bullying in Britain and while they completely understood the concept, they were unable to find a direct translation for the word ‘bully’. I remember being quite pleased about this, thinking that maybe it was a problem that hadn’t yet found its ugly way into Hungarian schools (and hopefully won’t).

On the other side of the coin, I’ve also encountered several words that are either difficult or impossible to translate into English and as a result I have sometimes adopted the word into my own vocabulary. One example is the Japanese word ‘genki’, which describes someone who has an enviable abundance of energy and enthusiasm. We might say ‘lively’ or ‘fun-loving’ in English, but it doesn’t really encapsulate the essence of being ‘genki’ which has connotations of youth and free spirit.

In contrast, I’m reminded of the Portuguese word ‘saudade’, which describes a very different emotion. Unlike ‘genki’, it is used to convey a rather depressing sentiment of longing and sadness and is intrinsically linked to the Portuguese music of Fado. Again, we might try to translate it as ‘nostalgic’ or ‘meloncholy’, but neither of these truly captures the fatalistic feeling of ‘saudade’.

Having lived in Spain for almost 5 years, I really should have more Spanish or Catalan words infiltrating my lexis but there are only a few I can think of. The most obvious one perhaps is ‘siesta’ although we could easily apply ‘afternoon nap’ for this one. Another of my favourites is ‘merienda’ which is what you eat when you come out of school, usually a sandwich of sorts or a sugary snack to keep you going until dinner time. The English equivalent would be ‘afternoon tea’ but since it conjures up images of a quintessential England, sitting on the lawn being served tea with cucumber sandwiches, its usage has become almost extinct amongst us common folk.

A quick google search for the top ten most difficult words to translate and I find that ‘saudade’ is actually there at Number 7. However my favourite one would have to be Number 9; the Russian word ‘pochemuchka’. It apparently means a person who asks a lot of questions. Not quite sure how to pronounce it correctly but I think I will use it as a new pet name for my 4 year old son. It describes him perfectly!



Comment On This Post


Thanks for that comment Elsie. For anyone who’s interested in that book there’s a podcast about it on the British Council Learn English website. I’ve just found another word in Spanish that I can’t really think of an English equivalent for.

It’s ‘prepotente’ and is used to describe people in authority who abuse their power to the detriment of others; namely corrupt politicians, judges, bosses, coppers, you know the sort. I’m sure we could all think of a few words to describe such people but maybe not one that you could use in polite company.

Or maybe these unsavoury characters are just more common in Spain and that’s why a very distinct word is needed to describe them? It’s possible ... but unlikely.

My Spanish-English dictionary gave ‘arrogant’ as the closest translation but I don’t think this is a very good match. Otherwise it would mean that the majority of bosses abuse their position of authority and we all know that isn’t true ..... don’t we?

By Jenny Bedwell on 2009 04 28

I always like to read something like this. That is usually a bit hard to find valuable information on the internet. And I found your post using Yahoo and I can say I the time spent was worth reading.

By ReversePhoneLookup on 2009 05 15

My friend emailed me your post URL. I thought it will be something not worth my time, but I was wrong. Will tell my friend thanks.

By Kim on 2009 06 02

In our country Malaysia, I also come across some Malay words that cannot be translated directly into English. An example of this is ‘Menteri Besar’ or short form ‘MB’ which apparently means chief minister. However, the real meaning is ‘the head of the state government where the state have a ruler from the royal blood. In the context of our country, chief minister means the head of the state government where the state do not have a ruler. Break down ‘MB’ into individual words, ‘Menteri’ means minister and ‘Besar’ means ‘Big’. So, it is weird to translate this into Big Minister. Therefore, to avoid confusion, the newpapers in our country choose to retain ‘Menteri Besar’.

By RCSC on 2009 06 14

This is fantastic! I love it! I think so its very useful and knowledge able.I would like to thank you for the efforts you have made in writing this article. I am hoping the same best work Quotes future as well.

By make more friends on 2009 07 04

I have long been looking for a translation to the word tease. There are several words with that spelling in English.

By Digital Arts School on 2009 07 23

Do you mean in relation to a ‘translation teaser’?

In this context it means something that is puzzling or difficult to work out.

By Jenny Bedwell on 2009 07 24

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Karolina, Poland

Karolina, Poland

Hi Jenny! I’ve just received my exam results. I got overall band 7: speaking 7.5, listening 7, writing and reading 6.5. I am very happy and I want to say thank you, You helped me a lot. Thank you very much.

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