Lost in translation


Taken somewhere in Curitiba, Brazil, where I used to live

So, I am learning Dutch. Yes, Dutch. This north-germanic language might be one of the most difficult ever, first because of their letter G, and its “Holly cow so crazy” complicated guttural sound, something that we don’t have in most of the Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America. Well, with this I just want to say that languages can be truly crazy sometimes, taking us to an infinite babel tower.

Anyways, in my pursue of a better “dutch” understanding and pronunciation, I found out that there are other languages with pretty difficult words to translate, and which meaning is truly understood by the native speaker. So, these next 7 words are almost untranslatable:

TOCKA – Russian

So I start with the list with a very “sad” word very popular in Russia. According to Google Translator, Tocka (that it´s pronouns tosca) means just depression. But the author of Lolita, Vladimir Nabokv, said that Tocka is a sensation os spiritual anguish. Is the kind of anguish I hope no one has had before. It could be a smooth sensation like feeling bored, or much more deeper and acute, something like a “soul-ache”.

LITOST – Tchek

Lítost is something between sadness, sorrow or compassion. Is a very, super deep pain that you feel due to your own mediocrity (wow, so horrible!). So I believe it must be something like a “soul-torture”. Lovely! The Czech writer Milan Kundera tried to explain Litost´s meaning in “The book of laughter and forgetting”, where he said that he cannot imagine how other people get to understand the soul without first understanding the true sense of Litost. There is also an adjective that derives from the word: litostivy, which means “someone that gets really excited, doesn´t stand criticism and takes everything too personal”.


In this case the word isn´t untranslatable. It means “the staircase’s spirit” But, WTF?? What do they want to express with this? Well, it turns out that l’espirit d’escalier is what we all probably have felt just after a discussion. Something like “Wow, I can’t belive I’ve just said that. Now the damage is done”.

TARDEL – Scottish

Your are at a party with a friend. Between one drink and another, an old friend – or acquaintance let’s say – is walking towards you, so you feel the obligation to introduce both you friend and that person you haven’t seen in years. The problem is that you don’t remember, exactly if her name is Mary or Alice, and you feel pretty embarrassed to ask.  Now you are feeling some kind of discomfort and ashamed because, eventually, you’ll have to say her name, taking the risk that you’ll say it all wrong making the situation even worse. Ok, the feeling can be less exaggerated. But it has a name: Tartle.

HYGGE – Denmark/Norway

In Scandinavia hygge is a way of life. This is one of the names that are given to: the happiness of life, the thrill to be among friends with whom we share really cool moments. I have lived in Scandinavia and, I must say that it is one of my favorite words.  It is just beautiful. Hygge is like the complete absence of worries and sadness, and the enjoyment of happy things, nice and simple. Maybe in the Netherlands a word that can be used to express all those good things is Gelukkig that could be translated to “being happy” or “could it be happiness”. Now, in the cold Netherlands, I guess everyone have their Gelukkig moment.

ILUNGA – Bantu

There are, at least, 3000 different languages spoken in Africa. One of them is the Bantu language, which is a sub-branch of the Niger-Congo language. And there are about 250 variations of it. In Bantu’s vocabulary there are a bunch of words that are very hard to translate. However, few are as difficult to explain as this one: Ilunga. So, Ilunga can be defined as a person that gets to forgive someone who once (or twice), did him/her wrong.  If that person does wrong a third time to an Ilunga person, he/she will not tolerate anymore. Simplifying, being ilunga means being tolerant, but to some extent.


Yaghan was an indigenous language spoken by the inhabitants in Tierra del Fuego, a province in the southern Chilean region. With the passage of time, the number of native Yaghan speakers was reduced up to a current record of: one. There are still thousands of Yaghan people, but only Cristina Calderon can speak the language fluently and, therefore, defines the meaning of mamihlapinatapai. So, let’s try: it is the exchange of looks between two people when one of them wishes the other to have the initiative of doing something both of them want, but are reluctant to do. I can say that is that awkward feeling that teens have when they fall in love for the first time.

Anyways, I am learning Dutch. Very slowly, but I am progressing. I’ve been here for just 4 months and I already know how to build some very simple sentences, or the meaning of some words or even phrases. It isn’t a difficult language at all – except for the pronunciation – but it is hard to learn when nearly everyone here speaks english fluently. And this characteristic is both a good and bad. If I was living in France or Brazil, for instance, I would speak the language already, not fluently, but I wouldn’t probably have any problem buying things or asking for stuff. I will learn dutch just for my solely interest of learning the language, not because I feel pushed to do so.