Are Some English Terms Simply Untranslatable?

Category: Languages

by Faye Milburn, Linguist

Choosing the right word to accurately convey moods or abstract ideas can be tricky when there is no direct equivalent in the target language. Recently, linguistic exports such as “hygge” and “sobremesa” have proven extremely popular, fascinating English speakers with their subtle nuances. Maybe it is time we considered some of the lesser-known terms in English that can hamper translation by lacking a direct equivalent.

  1. Serendipity

Thought of as one of the more beautiful words in the English language, “serendipity” is notoriously hard to translate. It essentially refers to a “happy coincidence”- encountering something amazing that you didn’t know you were looking for. Although certain languages have adopted it as a term, most translations lose the subtlety of the word, leading to simplifications such as “lucky”. Thankfully, we have the film “Serendipity” to provide us with a better idea of the word.

  1. Trade-off

A trade-off occurs when two opposing situations or qualities are exchanged and is usually translated into other languages as “compromise”. While these two may appear to have a similar meaning, a compromise is an agreement whereby concessions are made, whereas a trade-off does not necessarily have these negative connotations; it can simply be a trade of one set of skills for another.

  1. Cheesy/corny

When faced with the word “cheesy” or its American counterpart “corny”, translators usually go for something along the lines of “false”, “tacky” or “trying too hard”. However, these don’t quite capture the “cringeworthy” undertones of the term.

  1. Kitsch

With the exception of German – the originator of this term – kitsch does not translate especially well. Defined as “something garish or poor in taste”, kitsch can be used as either a noun or an adjective e.g. “Sixties kitsch”, “kitsch ornaments”. Interestingly, “cheesy” is often translated into German as “kitschig” while in English there is a distinct difference between the two.

  1. Insight

“Insight” is another troublesome term, especially when translating into Spanish, as there is no equivalent for it. Often, translators need to resort to “percepción” (perception) and, although “perception” is widely viewed as a synonym of “insight” there are slight differences. Perception refers to the way in which you perceive things and situations, whereas insight is better described as the ability to draw on past experience so as to gain a deeper understanding of a situation.

  1. Awkward

Perhaps as a reflection of their culture, there is no equivalent for the word “awkward” in Italian. Frequently, translators are forced to resort to terms such as “scomodo” (uncomfortable), “imbarazzante” (embarrassing), or “goffo” (clumsy), but there is no single word that captures the blend of these three.

  1. Cogent

Similarly to “awkward”, “cogent” is also a combination of different ideas, which leads in turn to varying interpretations across different languages. The term itself is difficult to define but generally refers to an argument or case that is “clear, convincing and logical”. In many languages, a term simply doesn’t exist that merges these concepts in quite the same way. 

  1. Gobbledygook

Defined as language characterised by incomprehensible jargon, “gobbledygook” can be difficult to translate for a number of reasons, with other languages using it far less than English. More often than not, it is translated as a term closer to “gibberish” – an umbrella term for nonsensical language – when this doesn’t really do the word justice.


For a bit of fun and to get a better understanding, why not try the “Gobbledygook generator”:


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