Each language looks at the world through a slightly different lens and develops its own idiosyncratic expressions. To be sure many experiences are common to humans everywhere and many ideas are expressed in similar ways. But certain perceptions escape this shared sameness and generate their own vocabulary. The Germans, for instance, have their own Weltanschauung. But wait, say you. Isn’t that a fancy word for worldview? Certain linguists maintain that it represents a more comprehensive outlook, a more exalted vision than the pedestrian “worldview.”
Two more such ostentatious German words have invaded our language: Zeitgeist is a one-word way of saying: “the intellectual fashion of the day.” Its virtue is brevity. Gestalt refers to “the whole nature of something.” It too is a useful shortcut. There are some more: Leitmotiv is used in music and literature. It is a recurrent theme associated with a character or a situation. Still another German word is considered to be untranslatable: gemutlich, which has a connotation of cozy and pleasantly comfortable. I think that “comfy” conveys the same feeling.
I am not aware of any Russian words that have entered the English language but Vladimir Nabokov who wrote both in Russian and in English cites two that have no equivalents: Toska means “spiritual anguish tinged with nostalgia.” Poshlost refers to a certain vulgarity of taste and moral tackiness. It is a little like the German word “kitsch” which we have adopted. The Germans have also given us “ersatz”. During World War II it was used to describe a poor imitation. When there was no real butter or leather there was ersatz. Nowadays we like to say”faux” (like faux fur) to designate a fake.
The French say the word “depaysement” cannot be adequately translated. Literally it means being out of your country, something like: out of your comfort zone. And while we are talking about French, “enjoy your meal” is just not the same as “Bon Appetit.”
The whole Yiddish language is in a category by itself. It is much easier to steal it wholesale than to develop satisfactory equivalents. Isn’t “Oy vey” more expressive than “Woe is me?” Doesn’t kvetch sound better than complain and isn’t “schlep” a lot more colorful than drag? “Schmooze” conveys something different from just mingling and “chutzpah” will beat nerve or audacity any day.
Saul Bellow says that oppressed people tend to be witty. Being self-deprecating is a defense mechanism. You laugh at yourself to disarm “the enemy.” It is a preemptive strike against them laughing at you.
Finally I have come up against two Hebrew words for which there is truly no translation. The first one is used when a woman is wearing a new outfit which you have never seen before. You are then supposed to say”titkhadshi lakh” which means roughly “renew yourself.” For a man, it’s tikhadesh lekha.
The other word is “davka” which has no equivalent in English. It has a number of uses and meanings and contains elements of contrariness, emphasis, paradox, irony and spite. Example: “She knows I am here every day except Friday. Davka she came on Friday.”
Do you know other untranslatable words or expressions? I would love to hear about them.