Category : The Untranslatables

The Untranslatables: #6 Toska


Sometimes, no matter what you’re doing and no matter how well things are going in life, you just feel blue. It happens to the best of us. And apparently it happens so frequently to Russians that a whole magnificently untranslatable word has been dedicated to it: Toska.

In a nutshell, toska (written ‘TOCKA’ in Cyrillic) describes a sort of existential sadness. But to say that it represents this alone would be a great injustice to the true complexity of the concept. More than just sadness, this word expresses depression, melancholy, nostalgia, boredom, weariness, anguish, yearning, longing, missing, pining, ennui…

… and the list goes on. You name it: if it has depressing undertones, it forms part of ‘toska’.

One of the most frequently referenced definitions of the word was provided by Vladimir Nabokov (see below), but even this is considered to be lacking by some.

The issue, according to linguist Anna Wierzbicka, is that the word represents a range of emotions which are “blended together and are all present at the same time, even though different contexts may highlight different components of this complex but unitary concept”.

It is no doubt the constant malleability of the word’s significance that thus makes it so tricky to define to non-Russians. But even if we can’t enjoy the true meaning of the word, we can at least enjoy saying it next time we feel blue. Or bored. Or melancholy. Or weary. Or anguished. Or… you get the idea.

« No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.” – Vladimir Nabokov

The Untranslatables: #5 Age-Otori


Have you ever left the hairdresser’s with the distinct feeling you should start wearing a hat? Or been forced to stifle your laughter as your friend shows off her new ‘do? Well, in Japan there is (supposedly) a word for such an unfortunate moment: Age-Otori.

Broadly speaking, ‘Age-Otori’ means ‘to look worse after a haircut’. It’s a neat little term which I’m sure almost all of us could use at some point. And it certainly has no simple equivalent in English. But despite this, I hesitated to include it in my list of ‘Untranslatables’.

The problem is, ‘Age-Otori’ is surrounded by a great deal of controversy. Ok, that’s perhaps an exaggeration. It’s surrounded by a little bit of controversy: a number of slightly snooty and smug internet users claim the term doesn’t really exist.

This is often a problem with so-called ‘untranslatable’ words. Several francophone friends have told me similar things for the terms ‘feuillemort’ and ‘esprit d’escalier’, both common culprits on lists of such words.

But after a great deal of snooping, I have decided that ‘Age-Otori’ does deserve to be included in my list. Although not commonly used nowadays (except by language nerds who like to make lists of fun words from other countries), it seems the word did feature in a very old novel and was even included in an edition of the Japanese Kojien (sort of like the OED). And just because something is old, it doesn’t mean it’s non-existant! So, Age-Otori, welcome to my list of Untranslatables!

And who knows? Perhaps if enough of us start using it, we’ll get it reinserted into the OED as a loan word!

The Untranslatables: #4 Ya’aburnee


Much as I would like it if all of the words on my list of Untranslatables were hilarious and wacky, unfortunately, it is not the case. Some words are beautiful. And some are a little spooky. And some are both: enter ‘ya’aburnee’.

This word comes from the Arabic language and is primarily used in the Levant. Although it is pronounced differently by speakers of different dialects (the glottal stop between ‘ya’ and ‘aburnee’ may be replaced by a ‘q’ sound, for instance), the meaning remains the same: ‘you bury me’.

Not surprisingly, the implication of this slightly creepy statement goes beyond its literal meaning to create one far more romantic:

The speaker is expressing their desire to die before their interlocuter, as they simply would not be able to live without them.

Cute, right?

Some people consider that an English language equivalent for this could be ‘I love you to distraction’, but I would be inclined to disagree. For starters, I don’t feel that the level of passion expressed when in the two phrases is the same: one involves wishing your own death, for goodness sake!

Secondly, ‘ya’aburnee’ is a phrase used by parents towards their children. I would be somewhat surprised if my parents were to inform me that they ‘loved me to distraction’, as this phrase is more appropriate in non-platonic relationships.

And finally, leading on from this, I would honestly be surprised to hear anyone saying they loved someone to distraction nowadays (unless they were quoting a Jane Austin novel), whereas ‘ya’aburnee’ is a phrase in common use in Levantine Arabic.

So, to conclude, this lovely but gloomy sentiment does not seem to have a compact, functional equivalent in the English language, making it delightfully untranslatable.

Bonus piece of information – this is how you write it in Arabic: يعبرني

The Untranslatables: #2 Pålegg


How many times have you been stuck looking for a generic way to describe an item that you can put on a piece of bread or in a sandwich, but have been unable to find a simple answer? Nightmare, I know.

‘Spread’ might work sometimes, but what about when you’re talking about a piece of pastrami? That’s not spreadable. So, in that case you could say ‘cold cuts’, but then that really refers to meat products, and perhaps you were meaning cheese, or cucumber, or tomatoes. ‘Sliced edibles’ could fit the bill, but then what if you were talking about flaked salmon? If only there were a one-word solution to encompass all of these things!

Well, in Norwegian, there is: Pålegg.

Pålegg refers to anything and everything that you can put on a slice of bread, or between two slices, to eat.

Literally, the word means ‘in addition to’, and it is interesting to note that in a more formal context (and with the help of a few prefixes), it actually takes on a range of legal meanings.

Although a similar word exists in Swedish to refer to sandwich contents, and the concept is also present in a range of other languages (take German ‘belag’, for instance, or Icelandic ‘àlegg’), linguists will generally be confident in stating that no exact functional equivalent for Pålegg exists in English.

However, technically speaking, they’d be wrong. As pointed out on the ‘Norwegian American’ website, the word ‘opsony’ from the Latin opsonium is the English word you’re looking for.

The catch? This word fell out of common usage in the 1800s. It’s not even included in the OED anymore. For this reason, Pålegg has been allowed to stay on my list of ‘Untranslatables’…unless anyone is keen to get ‘opsony’ retrending in contemporary English? Anyone? No?

The Untranslatables: #3 Tretår


When you think of typical coffee lovers, who springs to mind? Italians? New Yorkers? George Clooney? Well, you may be surprised to learn that according to the Telegraph, on a worldwide scale, it is in fact the Scandinavian nations who consume the most coffee. Who knew?

Of these countries, Sweden ranks a mighty 6th (just one away from my adoptive home nation, Switzerland!). With an annual coffee consumption of 8.2 kg per capita, the Swedish have effectively proven themselves to be coffee-lovers through and through. And when you poke your nose in a little further, you learn that the country has developed a whole culture around this passion!

The traditional ‘Fika’ (loosely translated as a social meeting for drinking coffee and eating cake) is of course a staple of this culture. But a slightly lesser known aspect is the ‘Tretår’.

Made up of the words ‘Tre’ (three) and ‘tår’ (a small amount of liquid – in this case coffee), Tretår refers to a refill of coffee. But not just the first refill, the second one.

A second second-helping of caffeine, or a ‘threefill’, if you will.

This may seem like a heck of a lot of Joe, only accessible to the particularly sturdy of heart, and yet it would appear that it’s more common than you might think.

Several sources suggest that a first coffee refill (påtår) is standard practice and free of charge in Sweden (a theory to be tested during your next holiday!). Indeed, it would appear that this cultural love of caffeine is the reason behind Ikea’s ‘free refill’ policy (so not just the fact that the shop is so massive then).

A fun addition to this spot of learning is that Swedish coffee is traditionally a little stronger than the standard brew, making the Swedish true masters of both caffeine consumption and handling the jitters, as well as fun word creation.

The Untranslatables: #1 Kalsarikänni


“A drink. At home. In your underwear. And there is a word for it. Kalsarikänni.”

This is how the website ‘this is’ happily describes the concept of ‘Kalsarikänni’, a.k.a, Päntsdrunk, the fun and slightly more accessible Finnish version of ‘Hygge’.

We all know Hygge. It’s the lovely Danish trend of snuggly cosiness that’s been sweeping through recent winters like a whimsical blizzard of patterned jumpers, photogenic hot chocolates and stylish interior design. If you’ve not lived it yourself, you’ll at least have seen it on Instagram.

Well, I am delighted to now introduce you to Hygge’s easygoing and slightly more alcoholic neighbour, Kalsarikänni: the concept of having a drink, at home, in your underwear, with absolutely no intention of going out whatsoever. And the best bit? In Finland this is seen in a positive light!

Far from equating to stereotypical, antisocial binge drinking, the idea of Päntsdrunk is to give yourself a moment of calm, cut off from the ‘real world’. According to writer Miska Rantanen:

“In Finland, Päntsdrunk is considered a path to recovery and self-empowerment to help you face your future challenges.”

Never before has drinking alone been so socially acceptable.

The original word is a compound, made up of ‘kalsari’ (underpants) and ‘känni’ (intoxication), but the more anglicised (and easily pronounceable) version, ‘Päntsdrunk’ was introduced through Rantanen’s recent book, Päntsdrunk: Kalsärikanni: The Finnish Path to Relaxation.

With even the OED blog citing Päntsdrunk as one of this Summer’s buzz words, Kalsarikänni is sure to be this Winter’s craze. So, get the log fire burning, strip down to your unmentionables, whack some Baileys in your hot chocolate and snuggle up to Päntsdrunk.