Feelings Without Words: Words With No English Translation
Words! Words! Words!
English is a very rich language. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, there are about a quarter of a million words in the language. Even with all those words, there are some words from other languages that do not have a counterpart in English. It takes a phrase or a sentence to provide the meaning.
Emotions and feelings are important to people the world over. Sometimes English does not have the exact word for a particular feeling, but the word exists in another language. Below are some words describing feelings that have no direct translation into English.
The words that are used in other languages reveal a great deal about the cultures of these countries. And the fact that English lacks these words may reveal something about the English-speaking people.
Paging Dr. Freud
Sigmund Freud, the “Father of Psychoanalysis” focused on the darkness hidden in the human soul. He lived in Vienna, Austria and thus spoke German. I wonder if he had in mind the following two German words for two very dark emotions.
These two words do not have an exact translation into English, but they have been borrowed from German and are often used in English. They even appear in English dictionaries.
- Schadenfreude means the feeling of pleasure one feels from learning of the misfortunes of others.
- Freudenschade is a mirror image of schadenfreude. It means the feeling of sadness one gets upon learning of someone’s good fortune.
Yiddish is a language that arose as the lingua franca of European Jews. It is very closely related to German, but we find a word for the exact emotion diametrically opposed to the above two emotions.
- Fargin is a Yiddish word that means to be glad for another person’s success or happiness.
Have you ever felt embarrassed by another person’s humiliating public behavior especially when this action reflects badly on you? There’s no word in English for this feeling—it requires a whole sentence like, “I’m embarrassed for you.” However, several other languages have just the right word for this.
- Pena ajena (Spanish) (Technically two words, but close enough)
- Fremdschämen (German)
- Myötähäpeä (Finnish)
My Achy Breaky Heart
People the world over sometimes feel aggrieved about how someone has treated their feelings. We say our feelings have been hurt because being mistreated can feel as painful as a punch to the gut.
In English, we often use vivid metaphors to express the pain of hurt feelings by comparing this pain to physical harm or bodily pain. We say we feel wounded, cut to the quick, stung, etc. We describe the feeling as an ache, a pang, a soreness, etc.
How should we react when we feel when others have hurt our feelings? There is a word for this in the Philippines.
- Tampo is a Filipino word that means withdrawing affection from a person when your feelings have been hurt. It refers to non-verbal behavior. The closest English equivalent is “sulking.”
Another person’s bad behavior often makes us angry—so angry that we wish we could punch the offending person in the face. (Please forgive the intrusion of politics into this essay, but I feel the best way to illustrate this word is to tel you that Donald Trump often makes me feel like this.)
- Backpfeifengesicht is a German word for a situation like this. It literally means “a face badly in need of a fist.”
Love Is a Many Splendored Thing
Love springs eternal in the human breast*, and so there are many words for love in every language. I did a quick search for synonyms for love in English and found close to 50 words. (It would have been many more if I included phrases like “fallen for” or “doting on.”)
[Note: The actual phrase is “hope springs eternal,” and it comes from “An Essay on Man” by Alexander Pope, the 17th century English poet. I stole it because it seems so appropriate for the feeling of love.]
Even with all those words for love, there are still words found in other languages that have no direct translation into English.
Here are two wonderful words that express some of the subtle emotions you may experience with romantic love.
- Koi No Yokan comes from Japanese and it means the feeling you have when you first meet someone and you know that falling in love with this person is inevitable. It differs from “love at first sight” because you are not yet in love, but you are certain that you soon will be in love with this person.
- Forelsket is a Norwegian word which refers to the feeling you have when first falling in love, but prior to being “in love.” It describes the euphoric state when you are beginning to fall in love.
We also have words that express the deepness of romantic love.
- Cafuné is the Portuguese word for tenderly running your fingers through your loved one’s hair.
- Ta’aburnee is Arabic and it literally means “You bury me.” When someone says this it means he wants to die before the other because he wouldn’t be able to live without this other person.
But, of course, romantic love does not always last. There ae a few words for this also.
- Razbliuto is a Russian word for the sentimental feelings of love lost. It describes the tender feelings a person has for someone he or she once loved, but is no longer in love with.
- Saudade is a Portuguese word that refers to the melancholy feeling of longing for someone (or something) once deeply loved, but now gone forever. The sadness is very great, but the person seems to enjoy wallowing in it. It is often expressed in the music known as “fado.”
Interestingly, although there is no direct translation for saudade in English, other languages do have a word for it:
- Clivota or Cnenie (Slovak)
- Stesk (Czech)
- Sehnsucht (German)
In English, the feeling is best expressed in music, in the genre known as the blues
Words with Friends (and Family)
Every culture celebrates the role of family and friends. There are so many good feelings associated with family and friends. And where there are feelings, there are words to express those feelings. And some of those words are found in non-English languages and have no direct translation.
We all enjoy relaxing at home among family and friends.
- Hygge comes from Danish and it refers to the feeling experienced when enjoying the cozy atmosphere created by the act of relaxing with the people you love, usually while sharing good food and drink, and especially if one is sitting indoors around a warm fire while winter rages outside.
- Iktsuarpok is an Inuit word for when you are so greatly anticipating the arrival of someone at your home that you keep going outside to see if they are there yet.
- Parea is a Greek word for a group of friends that get together to enjoy sharing their life experiences, philosophies, values, and ideas.
- Craic is pronounced “crack” and it is Irish for the rip roaring exuberance of a big night out among a group of friends. (If usually involves substantial consumption of alcoholic beverages.)
The Unbearable Sadness of Being
Sometimes we feel in the depths of despair, overwhelmed by an existential melancholy. English does not have a word for this, but many other languages do.
- Toska is the Russian word for a deep malaise.
- Litost is the Czech word for a state of agony and torment induced by the sudden glimpse of one’s own misery. The feeling is a combination of grief, sympathy, remorse, and longing.
- Lebensmüde is German for the feeling of being weary of life.
Japanese has several words to explain how to combat melancholy.
- Yūgen is a Japanese word that refers to a sense of the profound and mysterious beauty of the universe, together with a recognition of the sad beauty of human suffering. It represents an acceptance of, and even an appreciation for, the mixture of beauty and sadness that is human life.
- Shouganai is a Japanese word connected to the idea of fate--it means that if something can’t be helped, why worry about it? Worrying won’t prevent the bad things from happening; it will only stop you from enjoying the good ones.
The final word of this essay will provide a happy ending after the gloom found in many of the former sections.
- Ikigai is a hopeful Japanese word. It means a reason for existing. According to Japanese culture, everyone has an ikigai, but finding it may require deep soul-searching.
I don’t know if this makes any sense in Japanese, but I wish you good ikigai.
Le Bon Mot: The Word on the Tip of Your Tongue
My problem is not that English lacks the right word, but that my mind can’t recall the right word. How often does this happen to you?
Questions & Answers
© 2017 Catherine Giordano