Lost in Translation

beautiful-untranslatable-words-1Linguistic anthropology studies how language shapes the group of people who use it.  One unanswered question posed in the textbook asked if people speaking different languages experience reality in the same way or in different ways.  Like cultural anthropology, linguistic anthropology can be used to compare different cultures and linguistics can be very useful in understanding other cultures.

When learning another language, it is very likely that you will encounter a word that does not have a direct English translation.  For example, in Spanish the word sobremesa does not have a direct English counterpart.  Instead, sobremesa is given the definition of “the time spent after lunch or dinner, talking to the people you shared the meal with” (Sanders, 2013).  Words like this are considered to be lost in translation.  These untranslatable words can give insight on different cultures and illustrate the gaps between cultures.

One way that we can begin to bridge the gap is by accepting the foreign terms and using them in our everyday lives.  The Indonesian word jayus is slang for “a joke that is told so poorly and unfunny that one cannot help but laugh” (Sanders, 2013).  For me, this word would be useful for when my dad tells one of his ‘jokes’; sometimes they are so stupid that he makes my family laugh.  While we normally would tell him that his joke was “so not funny that it was funny,” instead we could tell him that his joke was jayus.


The untranslatable words link back to the anthropological concept of linguistic relativity.  According to our textbook, linguistic relativity is “the idea that people speaking different languages perceive or interpret the world differently because of differences in their language” (Welsch, 2015).   Although the language differences do not necessarily prove that the people interpret the world differently, the importance of certain cultural norms is illustrated.   In this case, the words that are lost in translation can indicate the different values between the cultures of native English speakers and people who speak other languages.

These words also can be analyzed through sociolinguistics, which studies how “sociocultural context and norms shape language use and the effects of language on a society” (Welsch, 2015).  Words like jayus, sobremesa, and waldeinsamkeit provide us with insight on things that are important in that certain culture.  From learning about sobremesa, we can infer that Spaniards value the time spent conversing with others after a meal.  In Spain, it is common for you to sit at your restaurant table for hours after finishing your food.


The Urdu word goya originating in Pakistan means “the suspension of disbelief that can occur, often through good storytelling” (Sanders, 2013).  The presence of the word goya in Urdu suggests that storytelling was once (and maybe still is) an important component of Pakistani culture.  If an anthropologist were to do fieldwork in Pakistan, they might find that the Pakistani culture involves the tradition of storytelling in a large way.

Other examples of words with no direct English translation include pochemuchka (a Russian term for a person who asks too many questions), mångata (a Swedish word for the road-like reflection created when moonlight hits the water), and culaccino (an Italian word meaning the condensation left behind by a cold glass on a table).

Recognizing the link between language and culture is very important.  By studying linguistics, culture can be further understood and interpreted.  Reading about words that are lost in translation and have no English counterparts is very interesting because it demonstrates cultural values.  Similar to our class discussion about signs, symbols, and metaphors in language, untranslatable terms can be used to analyze a language.
Sanders, E. F. (2013, August 12). 11 Untranslatable Words From Other Cultures. Retrieved March 22, 2016, from http://blog.maptia.com/posts/untranslatable-words-from-other-cultures

Welsch, R. L., & Vivanco, L. A. (2015) Cultural anthropology: Asking questions about humanity. New York: Oxford University Press.


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