Kyoikumama, Tartle & L’abbioccio...have any idea what they mean? Despite these three words coming from separate languages, they all share a common trait. These words can't be translated directly into English, but this is the closest translation:

  • Kyoikumama (Japanese) - A mother who pushes her children to achieve academically.
  • Tartle (Scottish) - The hesitation before introducing someone when you’ve forgotten their name.
  • L’abbioccio (Italian) - The groggy, sleepy, happy feeling after a large meal.

These untranslatable words are linguistic treasures that resist a perfect equivalent in other languages. Their complexity lies in their cultural context and nuanced meanings, making them a delightful puzzle for language enthusiasts worldwide. In this blog, we delve into the challenges of handling untranslatable words and discover the intriguing beauty they hold.


We often strive for direct translations of words between languages. However, some concepts are so deeply embedded in a culture that they lose their significance when translated. While untranslatable words may seem like obstacles, they provide an opportunity to foster cross-cultural understanding and empathy.

Instead of searching for a direct translation, we can focus on conveying these words' underlying emotions and concepts, using linguistic creativity to bridge the gap between languages.

Here are some examples:

  • Fernweh - which is German for "A longing for faraway places. Similar to wanderlust, but it can also refer to places you’ve never visited."
  • Hiraeth - which is Welsh & it originates "from traditional Welsh poetry. This is a feeling of homesickness for a home you can never return to, which might not have existed in the first place."

So what happens when a word can't be directly translated? Creativity becomes a translator's closest ally when faced with an untranslatable word. Through ingenious techniques like borrowing or adopting a related concept, translators can convey the essence of untranslatable words while maintaining the authenticity of the source language.


When it comes to adoption, they employ alternate expressions in the target language to capture both meaning and nuance. Instead of replicating words verbatim. It ensures faithful conveyance of untranslatable concepts while preserving the core message. But it shouldn't be confused with localization, which suits dialectal differences within a language.

For example (according to, the Thai proverb, “ปิดทองหลังพระ” (“pid tong lang pra”) which literally translates to “putting gold behind the Buddha”, doesn't quite make sense in English. However:

"In Thailand’s religious and cultural landscape, it is common practice to apply gold leaves onto Buddha statues when visiting the temple. This is to receive merits for upkeeping the statues. Temple-goers usually place gold leaves at the front of the statue so that other worshippers can see their contribution."

However, placing the leaves at Buddha’s back means you are doing something good without seeking attention. Thus, the translation of the Thai proverb “pid tong lang pra” can be adapted to “doing a good deed without seeking acknowledgement”.

When direct translation and adoption doesn't work, translators can use "borrowing". This can mean taking words, adjusting its meaning/grammar and even the spelling. To bolster the point (according to

"English has borrowed many words from Latin, French, and other languages. Alias, bona fide, Eau de Cologne, and hors d’oeuvres are just a few examples."

In global communication, encountering untranslatable words is an inevitable part of the journey. Rather than being discouraged, let's cherish the opportunity to delve into new cultures, celebrate linguistic diversity, and forge connections with people around the world through the universal language of empathy.

Translation & Localization - Get the expertise you need to communicate clearly at any scale in over 290 languages. Download the guide