My favorite untranslatable words.

Full moon off The Transylvania.

The kids frequently ask me to translate a Romanian word for which I can find no simple English match. Over the years, they have learned to expect definitions which extend like kudzu in multiple directions and layers.

One of my favorite Romanian words- also the root of my father’s name- is impossible to translate. I cannot convey the way in which this tiny word tangles with the scent of moist mountain soil, the sonorous vocalizations of shepherd songs, the face of a woman caught laughing.

I’ve written poems up and down this word without coming any closer.

“Doina de Jale” (Poet’s International)
“Holy Bread” (Eunoia Review)
“Doina de Haiduc” (The Freeman)

The word is “dor”. The word is immense as a landscape. Here is the meaning, alongside a few other fascinating untranslatables.


Everything in the world is “homeschooling”. Everything and anything. Example: one fun way to play with these words is by asking your child to write a short story about how the word came about in the given language. To provide interesting details, encourage your child to research the country of origin, including its legends and religious stories. Perform the story. Or read it aloud with gestures. There are so many ways to play with magnificent words.

Dor (Romanian)
Begins with the longing for absent things or places or people but stretches beyond longing into an element of pleasure, a fondle which inhabits the pain.The feeling is elusive but it is not vague or passive, and it is always ‘directed at an object’, as the entry says.

Iktsuarpok (Inuit)
the frustration of waiting for someone to arrive or turn up.

Mamihlapinatapai (Yagan)
the wordless, yet meaningful look shared by two people who both desire to initiate something but are both reluctant to start. (Yagan is the native tongue of Tierra del Fuego, an archipelago off the coast of South America, the last stop before Antarctica)

Saudade (Portugese)
the feeling of longing for something or someone that you love, and which is lost.

literally, “You bury me,” a declaration of one’s hope that they’ll die before another person, because of how difficult it would be to live without them.

Litost (Czech)
a state of agony and torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery. Milan Kundera believes it is impossible to understand the human soul without this word.

Waldeinsamkeit (German)
the feeling of being alone in the woods.

Drugoj (Russian)
the other people or neighbors whom we are supposed to love as ourselves.

Esprit d’escalier (French)
literally, “the spirit of the staircase”. Refers to that witty comeback that you think of moments after leaving the situation in which you might have been able to use it. The staircase is a reference to your departure from the scene.

a complete absence of anything annoying, irritating or emotionally overwhelming, and the presence of and pleasure from comforting, gentle and soothing things.

a street covered with so many road sides that you become lost.

Uitwaaien (Dutch)
literally, “to walk in the wind”. Refers to the act of taking a brief break in the country side to clear one’s head.

Bakku-shan (Japanese)
the word for a girl who looks pretty from behind but ugly in front.

There should be a word for the way
moonlight swallows engulfs a girl
on a sailboat.

Culaccino (Italian)
the mark left on a table by a wet glass.

Zalatwic (Polish)
the use of friends, bribes, personal charm or connections to get something done.

Jayus (Indonesian)
a joke so poorly told and so unfunny that one cannot help but laugh.

the feeling that comes from not being in one’s home country.

Fernweh (German)
a feeling of homesickness for a place you have never visited.

Komorebi (Japaense)
the dappled effect which results from light shining between trees.

Pochemuchka (Russian)
a person who asks too many questions.

the reluctance to let go of an illusion or delusion.

Gökotta (Swedish)
to rise early in the morning for the purpose of going outside to hear the birds sing.

Backpfeifengesicht (German)
a face badly in need of a fist.

Shlimazl (Yiddish)
a person who is chronically unlucky.

Evighed (Danish)
literally, “eternity”. What makes it untranslatable, or at least worth thinking of in translation, is Kierkegaard’s use of the term to cover at least three different possibilities: the felt eternity of the present moment; a future eternity that corresponds to St Paul’s concept ‘the fullness of time’; and the sheer continuity of consciousness, which eludes time.

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