Thursday, June 24, 2004

Department of Words With Borders
(a.k.a. Department of Sticky Subjects)

The BBC reports that a poll of 1,000 translators found the most untranslatable word in the world to be ilunga, from the Bantu language Tshiluba, spoken in the southeastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

What does ilunga mean? "A person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time."

Coming in second was shlimazl, the Yiddish word for a person who is chronically unlucky.

This surprised me, as the Czechs have a word that means exactly the same thing: smolař. I sent an e-mail to the BBC yesterday, saying as much, as well as one to the translating firm that commissioned the poll.

The roots of the two words are entirely different, however. Shlimazl is a compound of the German schlimm ("bad") and the Yiddish mazl ("luck"). (As one site helpfully explains, by way of contrast: "The difference between a shlemiel and a schlemazl is described through the aphorism 'A shlemiel is somebody who often spills his soup; a shlemazl is the person the soup lands on.'")

Smolař, on the other hand, comes from the Czech word for "bad luck," smůla, literally "sap," i.e. the stuff that oozes out of tree trunks. "To have bad luck" in Czech is mít smůlu, and when someone is dogged by bad luck, Czechs say, smůla se mu lepí na páty, i.e., "sap sticks to his heels."

Here is the list of the 10 most-untranslatable words:

1) ilunga [Tshiluba word for a person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time; to tolerate it a second time; but never a third time. Note: Tshiluba is a Bantu language spoken in southeastern Congo, and Zaire]

2) shlimazl [Yiddish for a chonically unlucky person]

3) radioukacz [Polish for a person who worked as a telegraphist for the resistance movements on the Soviet side of the Iron Curtain]

4) naa [Japanese word only used in the Kansai area of Japan, to emphasize statements or agree with someone]

5) altahmam [Arabic for a kind of deep sadness]

6) gezellig [Dutch for cosy]

7) saudade [Portuguese for a certain type of longing]

8) selathirupavar [Tamil for a certain type of truancy]

9) pochemuchka [Russian for a person who asks a lot of questions]

10) klloshar [Albanian for loser]

And, for the sake of completeness, here is the list of the 10 English words most difficult to translate:

1) plenipotentiary

2) gobbledegook

3) serendipity

4) poppycock

5) googly

6) Spam

7) whimsy

8) bumf

9) chuffed

10) kitsch

I think there are more debatable words in the lists above. The Dutch word gezellig, for instance, ranked number 6 and supposedly meaning "cozy," sounds no tougher a nut to crack than the Danish word hygge, which Danish friends of mine have assured me is one of the keys to understanding what Danes are all about (see The Danish Art of Hygge for more on the phenomenon).