According to the Merriam-Webster website, there are roughly around 1 million words in the English language. No other language has a vocabulary that’s as vast as this one. With such a huge figure, you might think that every foreign word has an English equivalent.

Unfortunately, that is not always the case. The BBC Language Guide noted that “up to 7,000 different languages are spoken around the world.” Even with a million words, the English language is not enough to paint a picture of the entire human experience because some foreign words can be defined, but cannot be translated. In these instances, you need to interpret the terms.

Keep in mind that translation and interpretation are two different methods. The former deals with conveying the sense of a word in another language, while the latter is about explaining the meaning of the word. For untranslatable words, it is vital that you provide a clear and accurate interpretation so that you can reach your international customers or target market better.

Below is a list of untranslatable foreign words along with their interpretations.

Foreign words that cannot be translated in English

  1. Abbiocco (Italian) – this refers to the sleepy feeling that you experience after eating a huge meal.
  2. Utepils (Norwegian) – the bottle of beer that you enjoy drinking outdoors. In Norwegia, winters can be harsh. After staying indoors for several months, the locals can be really enthusiastic to hit the pub and drink their first utepils when the snow finally melts.
  3. Bakku-shan (Japanese) – a girl who has an attractive back.
  4. Verschlimmbessern (German) – an attempt to fix a problem, but accidentally making it worse instead.
  5. Hyggelig (Danish) – an all-in-one adjective that describes the feeling of comfort, intimacy, cosiness, and contentment.
  6. Espirit d’escalier (French) – that moment when you finally thought of the perfect witty remark, but realised that it’s too late to use it.
  7. Mamihlapinatapai (Yaghan) – an intimate, but wordless look shared by two people who both want to start something, but are both shy to express what they want.
  8. Nunchi (Korean) – the art of listening to a person and identifying his or her moods or emotions.
  9. Tsundoku (Japanese) – the habit of buying and piling unread books.
  10. Waldeinsamkeit (German) – a feeling of being alone in the woods.
  11. Iktsuarpok (Inuit) – the anxious feeling that you get while waiting for someone to show up.
  12. Papakata (Cook Islands Maori) – a physical condition wherein one of your legs is shorter than the other.
  13. Friolero (Spanish) – someone who is sensitive to cold temperature.
  14. Schilderwald (German) – a street where you can get lost because of so many road signs.
  15. Culaccino (Italian) – the mark or spot that a moist glass leaves behind when it is left on a table for a certain amount of time.
  16. Chai-Pani (Hindi) – a payment given to a bureaucrat in order to get some work done.


English words that cannot be translated

There are also English words which in many languages have no direct equivalent. Examples are:

  • Flabbergasted
  • Mind-boggling
  • Shallow
  • Glisten
  • Stuff (collection of things)
  • Impeach
  • Bully
  • Anglophile
  • Various words referring to walking (wander, stagger, stride, etc.)

It is important to remember that even though there are many words which could not be translated in English, you can always find ways to reach your international market through clear interpretation. Understand what the word means, and convey it in terms which your audience can grasp.