Much hay is made out of how nuances of language are slain through translation. I find the "lost in translation" conversation overblown and imprecise, a meager generalism that serves as a way to talk about translated literature when the actual substance or style or worldview of the text is presumed to be too confounding. I've seen some tiptoe around translated novels and poetry, qualifying each comment with how it may or may not pertain to the original, to the extent that they cannot talk about the text with even a single declarative sentence. In truth, translations can be better or worse (I'm reading a brilliant version of Dante's Inferno right now by Robert Pinsky), but expecting the original version to be word-for-word equivalent to its translation is to miss the point of literature.
That said, of course other cultures have created words and phrases that meet their place and time, and don't have precise English counterparts. Translators use the tools of English to work around them, to communicate the idea or feeling in way that will be understood by the new set of readers with their own cultural assumptions and linguistic habits.
Twenty-two volunteer translators for TEDTalks gathered in Edinburgh, Scotland last week to talk about their work: they've translated more than 3,000 talks among them so far. One of them, Dick Lundgren, collected 21 untranslatable words (yes, one of them is Klingon) and made artful trays that he shared with the other translators (pictured above). Here are my favorites from the words he collected:
pretoogjes: ‘fun-eyes,’ the eyes of a chuckling person who is up to
some benign mischief
мерак: pleasure derived from simple joys, such as spending time feasting and merrymaking
sobremesa: the time spent after lunch or dinner, talking to people you shared the meal with
чародей: an arch-Bulgarian wizard, magician, sorcerer, necromancer, enchanter
тьмутаракань: the back of beyond, the middle of nowhere, the underdeveloped depths of the country
いただきます: a phrase to start a meal with gratitude to all: from cooks and farmers to lives to be eaten
mångata: a roadlike reflection of the moon in the water
goya: a contemplative “as-if” which nonetheless feels like reality
Elsewhere, in Swahili, there is the word kazuri, which means something small and beautiful (and is the name a bead company), and bado, which means no, but with shades of "not yet, but later." Eight years ago, a group of 1,000 linguists decided that a Tshiluba word (a Bantu language located in southeastern Congo) is the most untranslatable: ilunga, which means " a person who is ready to forgive any abuse the first time, to tolerate it the second time, but never a third time."
And Vladimir Nabokov might also want to nominate the Russian word toska to the list, which he wrote about in the commentary to his translation of Pushkin's novel-in-verse, Eugene Onegin.
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.
Thanks for the TED link to Jacob C., whose music you should be exploring right now. (For free! Also, for joy!)