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Translation and the Untranslatable

Aidan Cross

Tuesday, 15 February 2022

Aidan explores words and concepts that cannot be directly translated into English and what they reveal about translation and culture.

The Anglophone world has evolved into a melting pot of languages and cultures. English is one of the world’s largest languages, both in terms of vocabulary and usage, and part of this is that it has adopted foreign words into its vocabulary. Yet, there remain words that simply can’t be translated into English, and these present an interesting question on the accuracy of translations. They also emphasise the importance of the culture behind a language.

Saudade - Portuguese

Perhaps the most famous, and my favourite, example of this phenomenon is the Portuguese word “saudade”. There is no direct translation of this beautiful, bittersweet word into English that carries the same weight and emotion as the original. “Saudade” is a deep state of nostalgia or longing for something or someone, often with the sense that what is longed for cannot be regained. It’s the memory of happiness and the presence of its absence.

The feeling of “saudade” is integral to Portuguese history – from the rise and fall of the Portuguese Empire, to emigrants longing for their homeland – culture - a popular theme of Portuguese music, particularly the 19th Century genre of fado – and literature. The problem in translating this word to English is that we lack an equivalent feeling, and therefore, we can’t capture the same emotion and have to settle for the most-often used translations of “bittersweet”, “nostalgia” or “longing”, although these are missing the depth of “saudade”.

효도 - Korean

As well as words that cannot be directly translated, there are concepts that don’t translate into English because of cultural differences. For example, the Korean word “효도”, romanised as hyodo, is an untranslatable concept of filial duty, a traditional moral duty to be a good son or daughter.

It relates to both in the way that you treat your parents and the way that you live your life, as family and respect for your elders are much more important in Korean culture than in western, English-speaking countries. Therefore, because no such concept exists for English-speakers, it’s hard to translate the word “hyodo” as we don’t have the cultural background, influenced by Confucianism, needed to fully understand it.

Mediodía and La Tarde - Spanish

Other words can be directly translated yet have distinct cultural meanings. Something that I have experienced whilst living in Spain, for example, is that whilst “midday” and “mediodía” is a direct translation, “midday” is used by English-speakers to refer to noon or 12p.m. whilst to Spanish-speakers, “mediodía” refers to the time that they eat lunch. This means that “tarde”, although a direct translation of “afternoon”, doesn’t refer to the same period of time; in England, most people consider “the afternoon” to start after 12p.m. whilst in Spain, “la tarde” starts after lunch, which could be as late as 3p.m.


The untranslatable is one of my favourite phenomenons because it requires us to not just know the language, but to truly understand the culture to which it belongs. It also presents an interesting challenge for translators to accurately convey the meaning of a word or concept that is foreign to English-speakers.


About the Author

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Barbara Dawson

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Lovely tasty dish. Try it you won’t be disappointed.

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Aunty Liz

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Very tasty and cheap. I often have this for tea!

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Being a bilingual family (French mother and British father,) living in France I thought your article was extremely interesting . Have you research on bilingualism ? It seems that when the mother is British and the father French and they both live in France their children seem to be more bilingual than when the mother is French and the father is British . This is what we called mother tongue , isn't it ?

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average rating is 3 out of 5

Such an interesting article!

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