Syntax & The Un-Translatable

If you are reading this and a language enthusiast like yours truly, it is likely that you have established some sort of language-learning routine. Now, the race has truly begun. I would like to point out that after a few dozen times around the track (metaphorically speaking), you will begin to notice oddities, or so-called quirks in your target language. Similar to getting to know someone better, you come to appreciate said peculiarities: they enhance the relationship, rather than detract from it.

Many of these linguistic quirks will fall in the category of syntax–the arrangement of words and phrases; or, how language is organized–that differs from your native tongue. “Juice of orange/jugo de naranja” instead of orange juice (Spanish); “I doctor/Я доктор”, instead of “I am a doctor” (Russian); “Electric brain/电脑“, instead of “computer” (Mandarin Chinese). You may not be here yet, but when you arrive, try to be flexible in your thinking. “We” are not any more right than “they” are. This is where the beautiful flower of language begins to blossom.

In addition, there can also be more nebulous types of translations, or even completely untranslatable phrases. Regarding the former, Spanish does not have as many words as English, so one word can encompass numerous meanings and nuances; in English, we might have a more specific term. In fact, I have heard before that Swahili is, by necessity, incredibly metaphorical because it has fewer words than other languages. Spanish has many more words–rough estimates might say around 150,000. Below, see a few more thoughts on the subject:

This is still all comparing apples to oranges, though, because you can only compare the number of dictionary entries, not the actual number of words from one language to another. Consider that, “[Were you one of those people whom we could not make into a Czechoslovak?]” translates as ONE word in Turkish: Çekoslovakyalılaştıramadıklarımızdanmışsınız. Sorry, say what?! German combines multiple words together in the same way, which makes quantifying any of this nearly impossible.

With respect to untranslatable words and along the same lines, komorebi/木漏れ日 (in Japanese) means ‘sunlight that filters through the leaves of trees’; there is no English equivalent. Pisanzapra (in Malay) is the time needed to eat a banana. In case you are interested, Ella Frances Sanders has two books devoted entirely to this fascinating topic. Here is one of my favorite untranslatable words:

Interestingly enough, and while English does not have an equivalent for mångata, Turkish does:

Yakamoz is that beautiful phenomenon that happens at night when the shimmering moonlight reflects on the water. It also describes the blue, fluorescent glow created by bioluminescent plankton in the water.”


On closer examination, yakamoz would seem to encompass more than the Swedish term, extending to bioluminescence. However, to be fair, I speak neither Swedish nor Turkish, and so cannot know with absolute certainty that the Swedish does not connect or allude to a florescent glow.

Regardless, how deep the ocean of a single word! How utterly magnificent, these layers of language(s)! How incandescently happy the linguist who chances upon them! If could compose an Ode to Language, I would. Until then, be sure to delight in the language learning process, in upside down syntax, in untranslatable phrases, in an ever-expanding linguistic relationship, in devouring sheets of our metaphorical tiramisu language cake.

To read another article about translation, please click HERE.