Translation is successful because every language aims to describe the same or similar feelings, objects, relationships, etc. While the word used to describe the target description may not be the same, the commonality of the target object allows translators to easily match one for one. This is exactly how a bilingual dictionary works, matching one word to another.
However, some words lack a corollary in another language, hence there are untranslatable words. When translators encounter an untranslatable word, they typically translate the definition of the target word instead to avoid any errors or miscommunications. This does not work well with literary pieces that are designed to have specific flow or meter, or with professional works that have an intended tone and writing style. This forces the translator to match the intended stylistic choices of the writer while correctly translating the definition of the untranslatable words.
While the logistics of translating “untranslatable” words is rather mundane, the words themselves are rather interesting. Often times, they describe feelings and sentiments that we have, without being able to pinpoint to a specific descriptive noun. Here are some of them:
Backpfeifengesicht – A face badly in need of a fist.
Erklärungsnot – The state of having to quickly explain yourself
Fachidiot – Someone who knows a great deal about a very narrow subject.
Fahrvergnügen – The love of simply driving.
Fernweh – Feeling homesick for a place you have never been to.
Fisselig – Being flustered to the point of incompetence, it conveys a temporary state of inexactitude and sloppiness that is elicited by another person’s nagging.
Age-otori – To look worse after a haircut.
Arigata-meiwaku – An act someone does for you that you didn’t want to have them do and tried to avoid having them do, but they went ahead anyway, determined to do you a favour, and then things went wrong and caused you a lot of trouble, yet in the end social conventions required you to express gratitude.
Aware – The bittersweetness of a brief and fading moment of transcendent beauty.
Boketto – Gazing vacantly into the distance.
Chindogu – A solution to a common problem that’s pretty useless otherwise.
Ikigai – A reason to get up in the morning, a reason to live.