What are the hardest words to translate into English?
There’s a running debate among translators about what word is hardest to translate. Obviously, the challenges vary from language to language, with languages that have less in common creating more elusive word to word translations. Let’s acknowledge that determining the hardest word to translate is more of a game than any sort of realistic exercise. That said, here are a few contenders that make the hypothetical list.
Jayus is an Indonesian word that conveys the awkward humor behind a joke delivered so badly that you can’t help but laugh. In English, we sarcastically say, “That’s so funny I forgot to laugh.”
Tartle is a Scottish word for the hesitation one feels when introducing people but having forgotten someone’s name.
Prozvonit is a Czech word for “dropped call” but it refers to a mobile phone user who calls, lets the phone ring once then hangs up. The person who was called then dials the caller, saving the caller the cost of the call.
Saudade is a Portuguese word for longing for someone or something that someone has loved and lost. It is stronger than the sense of the English nostalgia.
A Spanish word, duende, is considered difficult for similar reasons.
In the dictionary, the word is listed as “elf” or “magic.” However, in actual practice, when the word shows up in text, it is rarely in the context of a woodland spirit, although that is where the word’s etymology begins.
In 1933 Spanish poet and theater director Federico Garcia Lorca gave a lecture in Buenos Aires titled “Play and Theory of the Duende” in which he addressed the fiery spirit behind what makes great performance stir the emotions:
“The duende, then, is a power, not a work. It is a struggle, not a thought. I have heard an old maestro of the guitar say, ”The duende is not in the throat; the duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet.’ Meaning this: it is not a question of ability, but of true, living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation … everything that has black sounds in it, has duende.”
So, could this quality be translated via the use of a calque as “black sounds?” That doesn’t quite work, although Lorca does use that term in describing the qualities of duende. A meaning for the untranslatable usually ends up being borrowed from the original language and becoming a loan word.
The word “duende” often represents an emotion or response to a selected piece of art. Perhaps this is exactly what makes it so difficult to translate; can you ever really translate a feeling? How would you translate this beautiful, if difficult concept into English?
Cafune is a Brazilian Portuguese verb for running your fingers through someone’s hair tenderly.
The Danish word Hyggelig literally translates as “cozy,” but the modern connotation has more to do with how Danes see themselves.
One of the hardest English words to translate into other tongues is gobbledygook, meaning “jargon-filled language that is difficult to read, maybe intentionally confusing.” It’s based on the onomatopoeic sound of a turkey’s gobble. Given the confusion that language learning students face when deciphering new words that would be a handy word to have available to describe what a poor translation looks like.