I find it fascinating how you can express something very specific in one language, yet be at a loss for words in another. My friend sent me this list of 20 words that remain beautifully untranslatable and particular to one language, and I really believe that when we come across these language nuances, they give us a peek of what the history, culture, and people surrounding the language are like; what they’re all about. Like how “Kyoikumama” in Japanese translates to “A mother who relentlessly pushes her children toward academic achievement”. A child’s academic ability is quite a big worry for Asian parents, and so is reflected in their language. Pretty nifty.

So I’ve decided to put up my own list, since I didn’t see any Chinese words up there, which is pretty sad.

  1. Ga yau” – Cantonese. Can literally translate to “add oil”, which is said when one person wants to encourage another. “Jia you” is the Mandarin version.
  2. But sam but sei” – Cantonese, literally “not three, not four”. It’s used to describe a person or the way they’re acting when they’re hovering between different opinions or decisions. A smart person would say, “Then they’re three-point-five!”. Yeah. “Bu san bu si” is the Mandarin for the same thing.
  3. Shoujo” – Japanese. Although it’s usually used to describe a certain genre of Japanese literature that’s specifically geared towards young girls (fans of manga should know this), I actually learned in my English class that it can be much more specific than that. It describes the kind of book where the male and female protagonists gradually get closer to one another, until they’re so familiar with each other that they are almost like lovers. But for some reason, the story never quite gets there. The protagonists never really fall in love and maintain a distance for one reason or another, and prefer to take care of and watch over one another instead. Kind of a relationship in limbo or at a stasis. For such a small word, it’s meaning is quite confusing.

That’s all I can think of right now, but I’ll add to it as I come across more nuggets of gold. I wish I knew more languages to be able to create a really, really long list of words that are beautifully lost in translation.

I wish someone would compile a “World Dictionary”.


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