Posted by: janecronin | March 6, 2016

Translating the Untranslatable

You may have heard at some time that “Eskimos have a lot of different words for snow”.  This statement is meant to demonstrate that language is conditioned by culture and environment.  In other words, because snow is particularly important to Eskimos, they need more words to describe its different states.  Following on from this is the argument that our perception of reality is conditioned by the language we speak.   In other words, an Eskimos child will become aware of all the different types of snow because their language conditions them to do so.  Although this assertion about Eskimos has been much questioned over the years, the concepts it seeks to demonstrate are still alive and well.

I’ve always thought it was interesting that when two languages such as Spanish and English are compared, there are words that exist in one language which has no translation in the other.  Applying Eskimo logic, this would mean that there are concepts that exist in one culture which do not exist in the other, and therefore do not require a word to describe them.  That might all sound a bit high-flown so I thought it would be interesting to look at some real examples.

Here are some Spanish words that have no single word translation in English:  “Sobremesa” (the period of time spent talking around a table after a meal is finished); “Estrenar” (to use or wear something for the first time); “Friolero” (a person who feels the cold); “Ganas” (a feeling of desire or attitude of willingness to do something); “Tutear” (to address someone using the familiar “tu” form). I’ll leave you to imagine your own explanations for these strange lacks in English, as they will no doubt be just as informative as mine.

Now here are some words we use in English which the Spanish do not have one-word translations for:  “Shallow” (that is in depth, not personality); “Helpful”; “To look forward to” (I know it´s not one word, but it´s an expression we use all the time which can´t be captured exactly in Spanish) and finally “stuff”.  Can you imagine a language in which you can´t refer to “stuff”?  It seems almost impossible!

There are many other examples in both languages and I can assure you they are a translator’s nightmare.   So the answer to the question: “How do you say such and such a thing in Spanish or in English?” is sometimes, simply, that you don’t.


  1. ¿Esperar con ilusión?

    They also have many more words for different types of cake (pastel, magdalena, bizcocho etc. etc. … one can draw one’s own conclusions!

  2. Yes, I like “esperar con ilusión. Thank you.

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