The Italian expression traduttore traditore may be translated as “the translator is a traitor”—meaning that any translation is always a betrayal of the true meaning of the original. This may be true, but it’s also a troublesome fact that some words pose particular challenges when you try to express them in other than their original languages.
Today Translations, a British company, has conducted a survey of translators worldwide, asking them the most difficult words they have encountered. Jurga Zilinskiene, head of the company, points out that while it may be easy enough to find a definition in a dictionary, true translation requires conveying the cultural experience and social context into a different language.
On that basis, the translators who were surveyed chose these as the ten words with the most elusive meanings:
ilunga - Tshiluba for a person who will forgive any abuse for the first time and tolerate it a second time--but never a third time. Tshiluba is a Bantu language spoken in southeastern Congo and Zaire.
shlimaz - Yiddish for a chronically unlucky person.
radioukacz - Polish for a person who worked as a telegraphist for the resistance movements on the Soviet side of the Iron Curtain.
naa - Japanese word only used in the Kansai area of Japan, to express agreement or emphasis.
altahmam - Arabic for a kind of deep sadness.
gezellig - Dutch for cosy.
saudade - Portuguese for a certain type of longing.
selathirupavar - Tamil for a certain type of truancy.
pochemuchka - Russian for a person who asks a lot of questions.
klloshar -Albanian for loser.
What’s that? Oh, you don’t speak Tshiluba or Tamil and you want to know the most untranslatable words in English. Okay, here’s what the experts said—but you have to provide the definitions yourself:
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou’s works have never been translated into any language, including English.
Some say it’s debatable
If words are translatable
When they're untransmittable,
Or just not admittable
Because they’re inscrutable,
Or maybe unsuitable.
So since they’re not quotable
And won’t ever be notable,
Because they’re not writable
Or not even citable,
It may be regrettable,
But they’re just forgettable.