A sobremesa with the consuegros can be a real nightmare, most of all for a translator. An encounter with spam or with a packed lunch box can have the same effect. And it’s not because our professional translator doesn’t get along with the family, or because receiving spam makes then sick, it’s just that sobremesa, consuegro, spam and lunch box are among some of the untranslatable words in English and Spanish. At Okodia, we´ve prepared a list of a dozen of these words, to follow:
Untranslatable words in Spanish
Start with sobremesa, this after-dinner conversation we, the Spanish, love so much and that enriches our social life. However, in English, there is no such word to define this Spanish habit.
The British also have consuegros, obviously, but they haven’t yet created a word for the parents of their son/daughter´s in-laws; we imagine that they referred to them as “Alison and Chris” or as “Tom/Sarah’s father-in-law and mother-in-law”. Phew! What long-winded way of saying the same thing!
The British don’t know what they’re missing by not being able to enjoy a puente. They happen to be very organised by properly arranging their bank holidays. We tend to forget such strictness in our culture and we will make a long weekend out of any midweek holiday. How considerate we are!
We also have the ability to tutear (addressing someone by using the informal pronoun “tu”) to someone of our age, or to our friends and family. But how is a literary translator supposed to express it, for example? It’s impossible by using one single word. No doubt they would have to resort to using colloquial words or tags so that it clearly understood.
Another untranslatable word in Spanish is duende (which can also mean goblin), not the little creature with big pointy ears, but this power of attraction or gift that artists are said to possess, especially in the world of flamenco.
Estrenar is the last on our list of own untranslatable words in Spanish. In English there is no exact equivalent for this word and the translator has to describe this action with a whole sentence (for example, to use or wear something new for the first time). In fact, it’s quite interesting that only a few languages have one word to define this action which is so closely linked to consumerism.
Untranaslatable words in English
Next word is spam, one of the English language´s untranslatable words. Untranslatable because it cannot be translated into Spanish with one single word, and in reality, we could use correo basura (junk mail) or just use the English words in italics or in inverted commas, as recommended by the BBVA fund.
One untranslatable word that we love is tartle, which is used in Scotland to describe that awkward situation when you need to introduce someone but don’t remember their name. This should be translated into Spanish with a verbal syntagm which clearly explains the nuances of this embarrassing situation.
A Spanish child would be surprised to discover everything that in a lunch box, commonly seen in British primary schools. Here we are more accustomed to a sandwich wrapped in aluminium foil or a small packet of biscuits at break time. The different customs between countries obliges languages to create words for the different objects in each tongue.
Kettle is another untranslatable word in English. If we use tetera, we will probably transport the Spanish reader back several centuries, to imagine a ceramic teapot with cups and saucers at five o´clock in the afternoon. It couldn’t be further from reality. So what are we left with? Jarra eléctrica (electric jar)? Hervidor (boiler)? Without a doubt, a very common word in English can be a headache for the translator who has the task of converting the text into Spanish.
When a British person despairs at a situation, this can be shown with a facepalm. In Spain we use gestures a lot, but interestingly, we don’t have a verb to describe this, where somebody shows exasperation by putting the palm of their hand against their face.
Our last untranslatable word in English is conservatory, this room in British houses which is almost a cross between a terrace and porch. The climatic conditions in the country have influenced house design, and as a result, the vocabulary of the language.
These words show us only a tiny sample of how rich language can be, and its inevitable connection with culture, its adaptation to the changes in society, its versatility, among many other amazing things. The translator is a craftsman of language, who has the tools and possesses the creativity and talent – or the “duende” to bring two realities together without losing their nuances along the way.