Untranslatable words, not really

From time to time, lists of supposedly untranslatable words appear on the Internet. They consist of a list of words from various languages with their meaning in English. (How did they do that if they are not translatable!?) Here’s an example.

Hawaiian: Pana Poʻo:
You know when you forget where you’ve put the keys, and you scratch your head because it somehow seems to help your remember? This is the word for it. (credit: maptia.com)


In reality, these words are phrases and not untranslatable. They are simply complex and require unpacking. “Tree hugger” is an example of a set of complex ideas rolled up into a small phrase. Merriam-Webster defines it as:

someone who is regarded as foolish or annoying because of being too concerned about protecting trees, animals, and other parts of the natural world from pollution and other threats

A language is a reflection of the thoughts and ideas in a culture. So when a culture has a complicated idea shared by all those in the culture, that complicated idea often gets expressed as one word or a short phrase. German’s like to feel connected to nature. They like walks in the woods. So, it is not surprising that they have a word – Waldeinsamkeit – which means

a feeling of solitude, of being alone in the woods and connected to nature. (credit maptia.com)

The idea is complex, but because it is important to them, they roll it all up into one word. Another culture and its language can understand that complicated idea, even if they do not have one word for it. It might take some hard work on the part of the translator and it might even require a footnote, a glossary entry or even a drawing, but it can be translated.

The authors of the books of the Bible had complex ideas in their heads. Some of those came from their culture and some were God’s revelation to them. Those complex ideas sometimes got put into one word or a short phrase. Jesus’ use of the phrase “kingdom of God” is a great example. Talk about packing a lot of meaning into a little phrase! The thing is, the people listening to Jesus had those complex ideas in their heads already, just Americans have the complex concept of “tree hugger” in their heads, and Hawaiians immediately understand all the complexity of “Pana Po’o” and Germans automatically unpack all the ideas in “Waldeinsamkeit”.

So good translators will put a glossary in their translation where readers get an explanation of the complex ideas behind some words and phrases. In English, we also have Bible dictionaries. Some translations try to deal with the complexity directly. Here is Matthew 6:33 in the ESV and the CEV. You can see how the CEV attempted to unpack the complex meanings of “Kingdom of God”  and “righteousness”.

But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (ESV)
But more than anything else, put God’s work first and do what he wants. Then the other things will be yours as well. (CEV)

Lendu translatorsSo, use the glossary in your Bible, consult a translation like the CEV, buy a Bible dictionary or consult one online. Also, pray for Bible translators as they grapple with complex meanings, including preparing glossaries. By the way, in working with churches in Ghana we find that they want Study Bibles in some languages. We are excited to see that.

Just for fun, here are links to articles about supposedly untranslatable words.

Untranslatable words from other cultures

12 Untranslatable words – and their translations

4 thoughts on “Untranslatable words, not really

  1. Hi Ed (and Dayle), Thanks for being so faithful in keeping us posted as to what/how you’re doing, where you’re clicking the camera and the results. We’r doing fine north of the border. I would speculate that Wilma keeps either you and /or Dale abreast of what’s happening here. Fall is just coming. the air is cooling a bit, the Canada geese are gathering and training their young for the journey south. The blue Jays are squawking (not the baseball kind) and the tree next door is just starting to turn. Of course YOU know all about fall colours!

    The reno to our house is finished. Yes!!! Now it’s just the little things like curtains and accessories that need to be taken care of. That and a replenishing of the wallet. It was beaucoup de bucks to do all this stuff. It’s worth it though. If/when you’re up in the north east Syracuse NY or there abouts, we’ll come down and pick you up and you can spend a couple of days here. We’d love to show you through the region.

    We’re happy in our home church. It’s a wonderful place to worship in a way that honours the Lord and builds us up in our faith. I’m doing a lot of preaching in the area and enjoying that. I believe I still have something to give the body. It’s nice not having the responsibility of a congregation. Mind you I haven’t had one since 2010. I served as a chaplain during my last 4 years in Oregon. Wilma is still finding her place here. She’s been doing a lot with her Mom and her sister. She visits her Mom for a couple of days every 3 weeks or so.

    We wish you both God’s best as you continue on your ministry. I trust the boys are doing splendid?

    In our prayers and thoughts,

    Ken and Wilma


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