English idioms that can’t be translated easily

Untranslatable English idioms

English idioms that can’t be translated easily

English idioms that can’t be translated easily

(Last Updated On: December 4, 2023)

It should not be surprising that there are hundreds of words which only exist in the English language, making it challenging to find a literal translation in other languages. English, with its over 250,000 unique words and continual emergence of new vocabulary, is one of the richest languages. Here are some examples of English idioms and expressions, like “grief bacon,” a German idiom, which prove difficult to translate directly into other languages. Native speakers and professional translators often encounter such linguistic nuances in their work. In our translation services forum, numerous threads discuss these untranslatable or challenging-to-translate words, with consensus among translators that certain terms lack direct equivalents in the languages they specialize in. Even common phrases can pose challenges, illustrating how a bad or difficult situation arises when conveying nuances across different languages. Discussions about these linguistic intricacies have drawn attention to the complexity of translation, even for experienced professionals familiar with multiple languages, including those spoken in countries like Sri Lanka..

 

Untranslatable English idioms

 

Pimp

This word pertains to the transitive verb “pimp”, instead of the noun. Pimp translates to “gussying up”. It started in hip hop culture and has now become quite popular in everyday use.  The closest word to pimp is “pompear”, which is Spanish. It is used in Latin America and has a pretty close meaning.

Auto-tuned

Due to our familiarity with unnatural, robotic sounding voices from singers, we have actually created a term for it. This word is used to describe the digitally covered mistakes of singers, usually to enhance to their music. Also, since this is term is quite new, there has not been a translation to any language yet.

Trade-off

This word describes an event when one has to lose something to acquire something else. It involves a person who has properly deliberated on the pros and cons of a decision. This term is hard to translate to other languages without the use of at least 5 words to explain the term.

Spam

Spam is described as the use of messaging systems to send unwanted messages in bulk.  None of the other languages has a translation for spam. Other languages even borrow the word since there is no other that can replicate it. Spam can also refer to canned meat. Yum.

Bromance

This is a term from the past that is not as common as it used to be. Founded in the 90’s, it refers to a close and platonic relationship between a group of men. In many countries, bromance is confused for homosexuality. This is why no other language  has  translations for this unusual word.

Facepalm

This frequently used term refers to the slapping with the palm to one’s face as a show of frustration. This term is commonly used in English, however no other language has an exact term for this common behavior.

Kitsch

This word describes an artwork that is a lesser duplicate of an existing one. It is also used for any artwork that seems obsolete or pretentious. It may have a translation in German, but it does not seem to have one in any other language.

Gobbledygook

This term refers to any jargonized text, that causes it to be too difficult to comprehend. It was first coined in 1944, by a past US Representative name Maury Maverick. This word still presents a challenge to translate even by the most experienced translators.

Serendipity

Serendipity describes any experience that is unexpected but appreciated. Some may call it coincidence or a stroke of luck. In June 2004, it has been labeled as one of the top 10 hardest words to translate. Since it has been used for sociology, it has been brought to many other languages for usage.

Googly

Google is delivery by a right arm bowler in cricket. It is a major tactic of leg spin bowlers, and is potentially one of the most useful wicket-taking balls. It is not use much, since it is effective only as much as it is a surprise. This term is so unique to English that it cannot be translated to any other language even by its Wikipedia article. Typically it would take a hefty amount of words to translate googly to any other language.

Conclusion

 

In exploring the richness of the English language, it becomes evident that certain idiomatic expressions defy easy translation into other linguistic landscapes. The depth and nuance within these idioms encapsulate cultural contexts, historical evolution, and peculiarities unique to English. For non-native English speakers, grappling with idiomatic nuances poses a formidable challenge, as the idioms draw from the native language’s subtleties and historical evolution. From terms like “pimp” and “auto-tuned” rooted in contemporary culture to nuanced expressions like “trade-off” and “serendipity” that encapsulate complex concepts succinctly, these idioms challenge English learners and translators alike. The absence of equivalent terms in other languages not only underscores the richness of English but also presents a challenge for translators seeking precise renditions. Each of these idioms carries its own narrative, making them not merely linguistic expressions but vessels of cultural insight, challenging the boundaries of language and translation, and demonstrating the intricate interplay between native and foreign languages.

Do you know some more English idioms which are untranslatable? Join the discussion and we’ll add them to this post mentioning your contribution.

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