5 Difficult Words to Translate

There are some foreign words that just don’t have an English equivalent. These types of words are often dynamic and multi-faceted, originating out of cultural practices that are different from those of English speakers.

Language professionals face an incredible challenge when they’re called upon to translate concepts or words that don’t exist in the target language. We’ve taken a look at some such tricky words in the past. Below, check out five new ‘untranslatable’ terms and our explanations of what makes them so difficult to render into English.

Стушеваться (Stushevatsya)

If you’ve seen the popular gif of Homer Simpson quietly retreating into the cover of a bush, you know the feeling of this word. Stushevatsya is a Russian word meaning to retreat into the background, noticeably leave the scene, or become meek. Many linguists believe that this figurative usage of stushevatsya was coined by Fyodor Dostoevsky, who appears to have used it for the first time in The Double. If you’ve got stage fright or you’ve just made an embarrassing scene in front of a group of people, you might just want to stushevatsya – timidly disappear from the public eye.


In Spanish, tu is the informal form of address. It can be used with friends, close family members, and other people in one’s age group, as in the sentence, “tu eres mi amigo” – “you are my friend.” Usted, on the other hand, is the form of address used to demonstrate respect in formal situations. You might use usted when talking to an older acquaintance, a boss, or a teacher.

Tutear is the concept of habitually speaking informally with someone, using tu rather than usted. You might, for example, ask your friend, “do you and your new colleague tutear each other?” As in, “do you and your new colleague address each other informally?” People in Spanish-speaking countries must be careful to use the correct form of address, which can be tricky since what’s appropriate often varies from country to country. In Colombia and Bolivia, formal usted is used with nearly everyone, from doctors and teachers to friends and significant others. In Peru, Ecuador, and Chile, usted is reserved for unfamiliar elders and people in positions of authority.


This Hindi word relays intense, exuberant emotion. Jijivisha is the robust desire to live and to continuing living in the fullest sense possible.
A person encapsulating jijivisha has a general love for life and its possibilities. In fact, the word is often translated into French as ‘joy de vivant’ – the joy of living.

君子 (Jūn Zǐ)

This Mandarin Chinese word is based on a philosophical concept from Confucianism: a jūn zǐ is a person who acts with virtue and leads by example.

Though the term is often translated as ‘gentleman’ or ‘superior person,’ jūn zǐ encapsulates a set of characteristics than are not necessarily inherent to either of these somewhat vague English equivalents. According to Chinese culture and the values of Confucianism, a jūn zǐ is the ideal man. He is loyal, obedient, and disciplined, never egotistical. He does more and speaks less, and he bases his decisions on potential long-term effects, never on short-sighted impulses. Although jūn zǐ was originally only used to describe political leaders, its application has been expanded, and it can now be used to describe any man that possesses the specified characteristics.

مدعوك (madʿūk)

A madʿūk is a person who has been on the receiving end of trouble and lived to tell the tale. This unique adjective captures elements of both of the sometimes contradictory concepts of ‘street smart’ and ‘world-wearied.’ It is literally translated as ‘rubbed soft,’ which suggest that a madʿūk is someone who has been so pummeled down by life that he or she has gone soft. At the same time, a madʿūk knows how to tackle life’s hardships, otherwise they likely wouldn’t have made it this far.

If you want to learn more ‘untranslatable’ words, try studying a new language with ALTA Language Services’ onsite and language training programs. ALTA also offers translation and interpretation services, providing skilled professionals who work to convey the meaning of every word. Contact us for more information!

About the author:
Danielle Martin has taught multiple subjects to students in three different states. She previously spent time as a literary agent’s assistant and video editor. Danielle writes about education, organizational culture, health, and lifestyle topics, and she also enjoys writing fiction.

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