BBC Culture

Eleven untranslatable words

  • Utepils (Norwegian)
    ‘To sit outside on a sunny day enjoying a beer’ (Anjana Iyer)
  • Waldeinsamkeit (German)
    ‘The feeling of being alone in the woods’ (Anjana Iyer)
  • Komorebi (Japanese)
    ‘The sort of scattered, dappled light effect that happens when sunlight shines in through trees’ (Anjana Iyer)
  • Tingo (Pascuense)
    ‘To gradually steal all the possessions out of a neighbour’s house by borrowing and not returning’ (Anjana Iyer)
  • Itsuarok (Inuit)
    ‘The frustration of waiting for someone to turn up’ (Anjana Iyer)
  • Prozvonit (Czech)
    ‘To call a mobile phone only to have it ring once so that the other person would call back, allowing the caller not to spend money on minutes’ (Anjana Iyer)
  • Rire dans sa barbe (French)
    ‘To laugh in your beard quietly while thinking about something that happened in the past’ (Anjana Iyer)
  • Fernweh (German)
    ‘Feeling homesick for a place you have never been to’ (Anjana Iyer)
  • Bakku-shan (Japanese)
    ‘A beautiful girl… as long as she’s being viewed from behind’ (Anjana Iyer)
  • Ilunga (Tshiluba)
    ‘A person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time’ (Anjana Iyer)
  • Backpfeifengesicht (German)
    ‘A face badly in need of a fist’ (Anjana Iyer)

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Norwegians have a word that means ‘to sit outside on a sunny day enjoying a beer’. BBC Culture meets an artist fascinated by languages’ unique terms.

In 1983, the writers Douglas Adams and John Lloyd compiled The Meaning of Liff, “a dictionary of things that there aren't any words for yet”. It included such words as ‘ahenny’, meaning ‘the way people stand when examining other people's bookshelves’. Similarly, designer Anjana Iyer illustrates words that describe emotions and situations so precisely they summon a smile of recognition.

There is one clear difference, though: Iyer has not invented them. The definitions she illustrates – 60 so far, from 30 different languages – match The Meaning of Liff for absurdity, but all of them are real. There is komorebi, Japanese for ‘the sort of scattered dappled light effect that happens when sunlight shines in through trees’; or rire dans sa barbe, a French expression meaning ‘to laugh in your beard quietly while thinking about something that happened in the past’.

Backpfeifengesicht (German)

‘A face badly in need of a fist’ (Anjana Iyer)

Iyer’s Found in Translation project will be published as a book later in 2014. She has been a polyglot since childhood. “My parents come from different parts of India, so I grew up learning five languages,” she says. “I’d always loved the word Fernweh, which is German for ‘longing for a place you’ve never been to’, and then one day I started collecting more.”

Some are humorous, while others have definitions that read like poetry. “I love the German word Waldeinsamkeit, ‘the feeling of being alone in the woods’. “It captures a sense of solitude and at the same time that feeling of oneness with nature.” Her favourite is the Inuit word Iktsuarpok, which means ‘the frustration of waiting for someone to turn up’, because “it holds so much meaning. It’s waiting, whether you are waiting for the bus to show up or for the love of your life. It perfectly describes that inner anguish associated with waiting.”

Waldeinsamkeit (German)

‘The feeling of being alone in the woods’ (Anjana Iyer)

The project has expanded Iyer’s vocabulary. “I use the words in my conversations a lot. Even when I’m Tweeting, I use these words because it’s an easier way to explain things – if I want to grab a beer with some friends, I use the Norwegian word utepils,” which means ‘to sit outside on a sunny day enjoying a beer’. But she doesn’t just see the words as a form of shorthand: “By expanding people’s vocabularies, you’re expanding their imaginations as well; you’re expanding what they can imagine.”

Bakku-shan (Japanese)

‘A beautiful girl… as long as she’s being viewed from behind’ (Anjana Iyer)

Iyer was careful to research how the words were used as well as their literal definition. “What I found is that with the internet, you can find out the meaning of a word but you don’t necessarily understand its cultural context.

“Each language has all these unique ways to express things and unique stories to tell, and you’re missing out on all of that if you’re just using Google Translate – you’re losing the beauty of it. You can’t just use machines for translation, you need the human touch.”

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