Spanish Translation Blog: Spanish Translation US » Blog Archive Untranslatables


In 2004, a surveyed linguists from all over the world to find out what the hardest words to translate. They took every language into account. The winner was ilunga (from a language spoken in the southeast of the Democratic Republic of the Congo: tshiluba o luba-kasai), and means ” a person capable of forgiving an offense or wrongdoing once, tolerating a second , but never a third.”  Another word from this top ten list was radioukacz (Polish), which is used to refer to a “person who works as a telegraph operator for the resistance on the Soviet side of the iron curtain.” According to the Guinness Book of Records, the hardest word to translate would be: mamihlapinatapai, from the Yaghan language from Tierra del Fuego, which means something like: “a look shared by two people who are each waiting for the other to start doing something that they both want, but that neither takes the initiative to begin.”
Some , such as , have just a single word for “ice,” “cold” and snow, while it is widely known that the Eskimos have many different words for “snow,” depending on whether it’s “falling snow,” “snow on the ground,” “hardened snow,” “melted snow,” “wind-swept snow,” etc. Words are used to give a name to things that we are familiar with. This is why there are multiple ways to name something in one language and zero ways in another. The picturesque season when the leaves change in Finland (as opposed to so much white the rest of the year) is called ruska, which has a in very few languages.
Apart from these linguistic curiosities, another post here mentioned a few things that are hard to translate (poetry and jokes, for example). I’d like to talk a little about some particular words found in our daily work that .
What do we come across in our everyday translations that should not be translated?
•    People’s names: although we know that “María” is “Mary,” “Pedro” is “Peter,” etc., we should leave the name as it appears in the original (or we may refer to a certain ex-president as Jorge Arbusto…);
•    names of organizations that are recognized across the world by their original name (“USA Today,” “al-Qaeda,” “New York Giants,” etc.);
•    trademarks and brand names, even if the words could be translated (“Dunkin Donuts,” “Goodyear”): some do have a different version in other languages (“Coke” = “Coca-Cola,” “Disneyland” = “Disneylandia”)’
•    Anglicisms or other : (”jeans,” “blog,” “bluetooth,” “amateur,” “mousse”);
•    names of private companies, even if they are translatable (“United Airlines”): sometimes this is not an easy decision and you will need to consult the client about his or her preference (”International Sales Company” could be “la empresa de ventas International,” or “empresa International Sales,” or something else entirely);
•    a show with an internationally recognized commercial name: “Bodies, the exhibition,” “Cirque du Soleil”;
•    bibliography.

These “untranslatables” could be included in the exclusion list, like in the TagEditor QA Checker (a tool for checking a text but excluding certain words or phrases that “should stay as they are”).