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!