10 Untranslatable Words

Friday, April 27th, 2012

Esther Inglis-Arkell shares 10 untranslatable words:

Aware (Japanese)

Aware is a word, quite well-known, for the bittersweetness of a brief and fading moment of transcendent beauty. It’s that “last burst of summer” feel, or the transience of early spring.

Maya (Sanskrit)

This word is one that could be applied to a lot of protest movements and many political speeches. It refers to belief — the often unfortunate belief — that the symbol of a thing is the same as the thing itself. It’s the, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” of the literary world.

Wei-wu-wei (Chinese)

Wei-wu-wei is conscious nonaction. It’s a deliberate, and principled, decision to do nothing whatsoever, and to do it for a particular reason.

Bricoleur (French)

A bricoleur is someone who starts building something with no clear plan, adding bits here and there, cobbling together a whole while flying by the seat of their pants.

Schlimmbesserung (German)

A schlimmbesserung is a supposed improvement that makes things worse. There are actually a lot of words for this in a lot of languages, and that makes me think that English needs to get on the ball and coin a native word for this concept. Everyone needs it.

Orenda (Huron)

Orenda is the invocation of the power of human will to change the world around us. It is set up to be the opposing force to fate or destiny. If powerful forces beyond your control are trying to force you one way, orenda is a kind of voiced summoning of personal strength to change fate.

Gachis (French)

This one means ‘a wasted opportunity.’ Specifically it means an opportunity that was wasted by ineptness being hurled at it from all directions.

Weltschmerz (German)

It could be termed world-weariness or ennui, but this particular has the quirk of almost only being applied to privileged young people.

Kalpa (Sanskrit)

Time passing on a cosmic scale

Razbliuto (Russian)

This word, pronounced ros-blee-OO-toe, describes the feeling that a person (generally meant to be a man) has for the person who he once loved, but now no longer loves.

Because the piece is for io9, each word’s definition is accompanied by a work from science-fiction or fantasy that could be described using that word.


  1. Wobbly says:

    Bricoleur (or bricolage) is no longer as floral as listed above. It just means DIY — people fixing their own homes. Now it is the installation of double glazed windows, a new shower and some kitchen tiles. Maybe a nice new wall of cinder block.

    There are shops here like Mr. Brico, BricoMarché and Brico Depôt that are smaller, French versions Home Depot.

  2. Abnoraddam says:

    Spesenritter – Literally translated as an “expense knight”. At a dinner or other social situation, it is a person who shows off by paying the bill with their firm’s money.

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