Mission Impossible I

Cultural terms are all the more difficult to translate when there is almost no known social equivalent. This post is dedicated to those terms which are almost completely impossible to transfer across without some sort of loss (and gain):

Buaya darat (Indonesian): a man who fools women into thinking he is a very faithful lover when in fact he goes out with many different women at the same time (literally, land crocodile)

Okuri-okami (Japanese): a man who feigns thoughtfulness by offering to see a girl home only to try to molest her once he gets in the door (literally, a see-you-home wolf)

Traer la lengua de corbata (Latin American Spanish): to be worn out; to be exhausted (literally, to have your tongue hanging out like a man’s tie)

L’esprit d’escalier (French): used to describe the precise moment a person comes up with a clever retort to an embarrassing insult (literally, spirit of the staircase)

Tantenverführer (German): a young man with suspiciously good manners (literally, aunt seducer)

Nito-onna (Japanese): a woman so dedicated to her career that she has no time to iron blouses and so resorts to dressing only in knitted tops

Faire du leche-vitrines (French): window-shopping (literally, to lick the windows)

Amakudari (Japanese): describes the phenomenon of being employed by a firm in an industry one has previously, as a government bureaucrat, been involved in regulating (literally, descent from heaven)

Harami (Arabic): an electrical plug adapter that allows more than one plug to be plugged into the same socket (literally, a thief)

Handschuhschneeballwerfer (German): coward (literally, somebody, who wears gloves to throw snow balls)

Pune-ti pofta-n cui (Romanian): forget about getting something (literally, hang your craving on a nail on the wall)

More to follow…


23 thoughts on “Mission Impossible I

  1. I can add to this list the word ilunga which — according to “The Times” — is said to be the most untranslatable word in the world (Source: THE TIMES TUESDAY, JUNE 22 2004). The word comes from the Bantu language of Tshiluba and it simply means a person ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time. Any equivalent in Polish? 😉

  2. Essential book for lovers of such curiosities; ‘The meaning of Tingo’, by Adam Jacot de Boinod (Penguin Books, 2005), collecting all those weird words which don’t have ready equivalents in English. Includes:

    koshatnik (Russian); a dealer in stolen cats
    fucha (Polish <– really??); to use company time and resources for one’s own purposes
    pu’ukaula (Hawaiian); to set up one’s wife as a stake in gambling
    dhurna (‘Anglo-Indian’); extorting payment by sitting at the debtor’s door and staying there without food, threatening violence until your demands are met


  3. Apparently Spanish uses the same word for Arabic’s “harami”… we use “ladrón” – also meaning thief – for the same type of electrical outlet multiplier.

  4. Hi Transubtantiation,

    Nice blog. Just a minor point of order : the “multi-plugs” you linked to in the Maplin catalog are called that because they all have more than two outputs. Here in the Land of Oz, the majority of such adapters have only two outputs, and are usually referred to as “double adapters”. There is also a (now rare) type of plug which allows another plug to be inserted into its top. There is an unfortunate colloquial name which is often applied to it, which I may just not quote here in full. It’s something like P*** Plug, and makes reference to male gays. As always, the main point to watch is not to exceed the power point’s current rating, which is easy to do (but of course that has mothing to do with your delightful exploration of language on this blog). Incidentally, the term Handschuhschneeballwerfer is only one of literally thousands of such invented German terms – here are links to a couple of wonderful and hugely entertaining sites : http://www.warmduscher-abc.ch/warmduscher_abc.asp, http://www.clickpix.de/weichei.htm and http://www.8ung.at/svdah/warmduscher.htm. Unfortunately, they are all in German. Sorry !

  5. Hi Transubstantiation (anything to do with train subway stations ?) 😉
    (Sorry, can’t help myself sometimes).

    Thanks for your thanks. You’re most welcome, but I thought of something else now, and this *is* to do with language – and that is about the word I used in my post, which was “adapter”. There is also the “adaptor” version, and as a technocrat with a German background and a bent for language introspection (not to mention a quirky mind) I sometimes wonder 1. how and why these closely related versions come into being in the first place (and I guess it’s to do with the quirks of English, which started without firm rules of spelling and was thus open to all sorts of contributions), 2. how there are many arbiters of what shall be “official” who want to put into place firm rules about how their little pet version shall be “the” version (and who will often quote various dictionaries and other “official documents”, not always realising that such “standards” are simply a documentation, often very belated, of popular usages, and not necessarily authorities in their own right. That does not even consider other issues such as regional usage, etc.), and 3. about where all this is leading us to in the future (eg. will “SMS-speak” and “SMS-write” finally win out, and we all start writing again in whatever way we feel like, as in Chaucer’s and Shakespeare’s time ?) To my weird mind, there’s a lot of food for thought there. I used to be very judgmental about people’s general mental state, based on their spelling and grammar (the term “spell-Nazi” comes to mind), but I have come to be more forgiving and broad-minded as time has passed. I still think that clear thinking is important, but I try to get beyond mere words. That’s not to say that I am prepared to compromise when I do professional translation jobs, but I’m more forgiving on the input side … Perhaps that is what is needed to achieve the “gist of things” type of translation that you have mentioned ?

  6. Incredible site ! Many thanks, Transubstantiation !

    There *is* one author who doesn’t get a mention on that site, and who also included many interesting words in his writings. IMHO he deserves a mention : G.I. Gurdjieff. His “All and everything Vol. 1 – Beelzebub’s tales to his grandson” in particular is a remarkable tour de force, not only through the history and the “what makes us tick” of mankind, but one which includes generous sprinklings of words from a huge palette of languages. (In fact, there is a companion volume to this, which is a kind of mini-dictionary of these terms. They are often really interesting in their own right). For the reader who can persevere through the large number of pages written in an extremely eclectic style, this is a treasure-trove of ideas. (Many people can’t, or don’t want to, persevere). His second book “Meetings with remarkable men” was much more popular, and also turned into a movie. The third book in the trilogy is a little more obscure for the casual reader.

    In summary, very insightful site you provided the link for – many hours of happy reading there. Thanks !

  7. Yet another thought, triggered by the “Untranslatable words” concept : how about idiomatic expressions ? Some of these are classic. They are cultural concepts that are meaningless in other contexts. For instance, in German, there is an expressions which is : “Du kannst mir den Puckel herunter rutschen”. Literally, it means “You can slide down my hunchback”. Doesn’t seem to mean much in English. The idea is that you are telling someone to bug off. How about Yiddish : “Hack mir nisht in tsheinik arain”. (Don’t get on my nerves). But literally translated, it means : “Don’t bang (into) my kettle”. In German, that same idea would be conveyed by “Fall mir nicht auf den Wecker”, which literally translated is “Don’t fall on my alarm clock”. Hmmm …

    Endless hours of fun and amusement … There must be thousands of these.

  8. Hi there,

    Read through the amusing list and stopped at “Nito-onna.” What? Never heard of it. But the following explanation solved the problem. Aha,”nitto.”

    By “nito,” the first word that came to my mind was 二刀, meaning two swords, which can mean something else politically *in*correct – you know what I mean. …Corrupted, aren’t I?

    Fantastic blog! Cheers!

  9. Dear Sir

    Thank you for writing about my Tingo Books on foreign words.

    I wondered if you might like a mutual link to my English word website or press release details of my ensuing book with Penguin Press on amusing and interesting English vocabulary?


    with best wishes

    Adam Jacot de Boinod

    (author of The Meaning of Tingo)



    or wish to include:

    The Wonder of Whiffling is a tour of English around the globe (with fine
    coinages from our English-speaking cousins across the pond, Down Under
    and elsewhere).
    Discover all sorts of words you’ve always wished existed but never knew,
    such as fornale, to spend one’s money before it has been earned; cagg, a solemn vow or resolution not to get drunk for a certain time; and
    petrichor, the pleasant smell that accompanies the first rain after a
    dry spell.
    Delving passionately into the English language, I also discover why it
    is you wouldn’t want to have dinner with a vice admiral of the narrow
    seas, why Jacobites toasted the little gentleman in black velvet, and
    why a Nottingham Goodnight is better than one from anywhere else. See
    more on http://www.thewonderofwhiffling.com

    with best wishes


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