Beautiful, Untranslatable Words

The beauty of untranslatable words is in their ability to capture the feelings we don’t know how to put into words. I am glad there are languages out there which capture the unspeakable subtleties of our soul with one simple word.

Following my earlier post on beautiful, untranslatable Japanese words, here are some more words from around the world that capture the essence of one of my favourite Japanese untranslatables; Shibui, the true sophistication in simple things.

Sunny fields

Ikigai (Japanese)

Ikigai is a Japanese word meaning “reason for being.” On the island of Okinawa, it is thought of as “a reason to get up in the morning,” a philosophy which has been linked to the longevity of the people there.

Xingfu (Chinese)

A sort of happiness or contentedness felt through having everything you want in life and/or not having any looming worries. It describes a long-term feeling about one’s life situation rather than a happiness achieved through a singular outcome or situation.

Wei-wu-wei (Chinese)

Conscious non-action. The deliberate and principled decision to do nothing for a particular reason.

Koi No Yokan (Japanese)

The sense one can have upon first meeting a person that the two of you are going to fall in love. Differs from “love at first sight” as it does not imply that the feeling of love exists, only the knowledge that a future love is inevitable.

Toski (Russian)

At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. On of more subtle level it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases, it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.

Litost (Czech)

Milan Kundera said of the word, “I have looked in vain in other languages for an equivalent, though I find it difficult to imagine how anyone can understand the human soul without it.” The closest definition is a state of agony and torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery.

Ya’aburnee (Arabic)

Literally meaning “You bury me,” Ya’aburnee is used to describe someone’s hope that they’ll die before another person because of how difficult it would be to live without them.



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  1. I love this post, because it reminds me of my own handling and mixture of the various languages swirling around in my head, as I bounce among three and somtimes four languages on a given day. But the two words which come to mind now are Scandinavian : the beautiful Danish word “hygge, and the ever-practical and all-encompassing Finnish word “sisu”. 🙂

    • Just googled ‘Sisu’. I like! Next time I start to cry while barely twenty minutes into a hike, I’ll bear in mind what the hardy Finns would repeat to themselves: Sisu. Suck it up. Be resilient. Have some guts.

      • Alisa, I like to think that a little bit of Finn/Sisu resides within all of us. Those are some beautiful mountains and views up there in the Rockies, too!

        • There sure are! I’m excited to explore! Just one problem with moving to Canada after a backpacking trip through Mexico: flip flops and a pair of tired old Converse sneakers aren’t going to cut it on the mountain trails. Need to find a second-hand hiking boots shop, fast. Enjoy your Sunday!

        • Hi, Alisa. I had a great Sunday; sunny, beautiful, and very spring-like here in Vancouver. Yes, the everyday wear (and tear) is going to be a waeee different in the Rockies compared to life in Mexico. Speaking of which, I miss being in the D.F.!

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