All languages bring their own unique words to the global conversation table that is life. While we do our best to translate each other’s languages so that we can understand one another as completely as possible, there are still words that don’t (or can’t) make that easy translation into another language. They are the remainders, so to speak, in the translation equation. The outliers in the lexicon canon.
While being able to translate words into one’s own language is satisfying in its own right, there is something to be said for hearing a word in its language of origin. The sound, the meaning, and its history all combine to make an audible delicacy, as rich in nuance as food might be to its cultural birthplace. I think Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov said it best, “No single word in English renders all the shades of ‘toska’. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.”
So let’s take a look at some Scandinavian words that lack that ‘je ne sais quoi’ when translated:
1. Fika: Essentially meaning ‘coffee and cake’, but don’t tell that to a Swede. In Sweden, fika is more meaningful than the individual components that make up this snack break.
2. Sisu: This word is inherently Finnish, meaning “to have both courage and perseverance in accepting defeat and quietly working towards a goal despite the adversities”.
3. Lagom: This Swedish word when translated into English will give you something close to ‘just right’. However, ‘just right’ would not be considered just right when it comes capturing the same meaning.
4. Hygge: Loosely translated, this Danish word means “complete absence of anything annoying, irritating or emotionally overwhelming, and the presence of and pleasure from comforting, gentle and soothing things”. Unless you must fill a word requirement, having a single word that encompasses all of that definitely helps.
5. Orka: Another Swedish word, this one meaning ‘to have the energy’. Which ironically, takes less energy to say than “have the energy”.
6. Uitwaaien: A Dutch word, Uitwaaien literally translates to ‘a walk in the wind’. However it is more commonly used in the figurative sense, meaning to take a break in the country to clear one’s head.
7. Dynke: This Norwegian word was undoubtedly made up by the youth. It means, 1. “[to throw someone in the snow and] try to get as much snow under the victim’s clothes/over the victim as possible”
2. “to make someone all wet by squirting water at him/her [with bottles or water balloons; not in the sea]”. I think its pretty evident by this example that one’s environment has a lot to do with the need to invent words.
8. Mjøll: I guess it’s true what they say, Norwegians have 100 different words for ‘snow’. Or were that the eskimos… either way, this Norwegian word is again snow-related, meaning “snow that’s too dry for making snowballs”.
9. Poronkusema: This Finnish word is one of those examples where you have to be a native to fully grasp its meaning. Translated literally, it means “Reindeer’s pee time” and used relating to travel distance. I don’t think I want to know exactly how though…
10. Voorpret: In the Netherlands, this word is used to mean “pre-fun”. The closest interpretation could be ‘anticipation’, but has a greater sense of joy more than anxiety. Essentially what you are feeling now as you wait for the next list of 10 best words in other languages!