Languages are deeply rooted in the cultures from which they come and are even synonymous with them. Like cultures, languages are fluid and evolve through the people that use them and according to the circumstances in which they are found. A translator’s job is much more than exchanging some words for others: they are responsible for conveying meaning and cultivating understanding. So what happens when a word is “untranslatable”? Is there such a thing? What are some untranslatable words in Spanish?
Usually when a word is considered untranslatable, it depends on several things, including the language it is being translated into and how many words it requires translating into. Most of the time, the untranslatable word is translatable but requires more explanation in the target language than a simple word-for-word translation.
Translators tend to take a few routes when it comes to untranslatable words. Sometimes they will simply keep the word if it is well-known enough and will use it as-is in the target language. Other times, they will keep the word in the source language and add a longer translation of the meaning in the target language in parentheses after its first appearance in the text. Other times, they may take the time to write out an explanation of the term in the target language to avoid any confusion, accepting that a translation of the meaning of a text is more important than the word count!
Of course, the Spanish language is not exempt from having untranslatables and oftentimes the hardest words to convey the meaning of are the cultural favorites! They capture a snapshot of something very particular and meaningful to a group of people – so particular, others don’t even have a word for it! In Spanish, some of my favourites include:
Sobremesa: Is there anything more Spanish or Latin American than this? For a group of cultures centred on sharing good food, cherished friendships and quality time, it makes sense that sobremesa wouldn’t have a ready equivalent in other languages. Sobremesa actually refers to the period after a meal when the food is finished but the conversation continues to flow.
Merendar: Another food/social one! Merendar refers to an afternoon snack taken out of the house or by inviting people over.
Anteayer: Derived from the longer phrase antes de ayer, this is a short-hand single word for saying “the day before yesterday”.
Friolento: Someone who is easily affected by or sensitive to the cold.
Estrenar: The act of using or wearing an item for the very first time.
Madrugar: To wake up very early, at the crack of dawn.
Trasnochar: Of course, there is also the opposite meaning to stay up all night.
Etrecenjo: You don’t really think about how there isn’t a word for something until someone else has one. This term refers to the space between the eyebrows on a person’s face.
Until next time!