Untranslatable Words

Ryan Phillips

One of the most beautiful things about a language is how much it can reveal about the many intricacies and complexities of the culture that speaks it. When translating between languages, one word in one language will very likely have a specific translation into another language. However, there are those words in probably every language that are untranslatable; that is, they are too conceptually complex to equal any one word or phrase in another language. Untranslatable words can be very telling about the cultures they come from. Two words in particular, saudade in Portuguese and gezelligheid in Dutch, epitomize untranslatability.

Saudade (soh-dah-duh) is defined by Wikipedia as “a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves.” Saudade is most often felt for a loved one or for some kind of place or time, and carries the hidden assumption that what is gone will never return. It is a powerful, multi-layered concept that no other cultures can convey with one word. Saudade translated into English will give results like “longing,” “yearning,” or “nostalgia.” However, as close as any of these words may be to defining saudade, none of them convey the concept of saudade in its entirety. I will miss you can translate to Eu vou sentir saudade (I will feel saudade) in Portuguese, even though feeling saudade for someone, a deep, overpowering longing, is quite different and much more intense than simply feeling a sadness because they are no longer present. Along with sadness, saudade sometimes includes joy, because what happened in the past happened, and can convey a hope that something will eventually fill the sense of emptiness.

According to historians, the word saudade originated in the 15th century when Portuguese sailors went across the ocean to Asia or Africa to establish an empire overseas, and often never returned. The loved ones these sailors left behind felt a deep longing for them, and they would often remember all of the great times they had once shared. Today, Portuguese speakers take great linguistic pride in saudade, and it appears extremely often in literature, music, and even in daily conversation. One could say that this unique word, and the concept it conveys, represents their passionate culture in a way no other word can, and for that, it is an excellent example of an untranslatable word.

Gezelligheid (huh-zel-uh-hade) is an untranslatable Dutch word that describes another feeling too complex for another language to express in a single word. This word derives from gezel, meaning a companion, or friend. Although it cannot necessarily be described to its full extent, it is a deep sense of coziness that can come from a friendly, loving, or soothing atmosphere of family and friends that makes one feel at home. Gezelligheid can be felt anywhere in Amsterdam. Cafés will often have sleeping cats, or flickering candles that induce a profound sense of comfort. For some, there may be many variables to consider in order to achieve gezelligheid. There may need to be just the right combination of people, temperature, lighting, food, and music to create gezelligheid. Someone else’s idea of gezelligheid may simply be a boat ride with friends down one of Amsterdam’s many canals, with laughs being shared as the architecture of the city slowly drifts by.

Regardless of what exactly gezelligheid encompasses as a concept, many agree that it is highly valued by the Dutch, and that it captures Dutch culture perfectly. Because gezelligheid epitomizes Dutch culture in the same way that saudade epitomizes Portuguese and Brazilian culture, it must accompany saudade as the epitome of untranslatability.