5 Phrases from Around the World that Have No Translation in English, But Totally Capture What You’ve Always Wanted to Say

Suddenly everything’s going to seem “Wabi-Sabi” and you’ll be extolling the virtues of “Sitzfleisch.”

Photo Credit: Bychykhin_Olexandr/Getty

You’ve likely heard (and used) some popular phrases from abroad that have made it into our lexicon, like schadenfreude, the German word for taking pleasure from another’s misfortune, or my personal favorite, hygge, the Danish term for a feeling of coziness that’s suddenly everywhere stateside. Peppering our everyday conversations with the life-illuminating expressions of other cultures links us to our shared humanity, reminds us that we have something to learn from others, and sometimes just makes us laugh.

Here are 5 words that quickly and beautifully distill some very Thrivey concepts less elegantly rendered in English. Which will you work into your dinner conversation tonight?

1. Ilunga

From Tshiluba, a language in the southeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, this has been called one of the most untranslatable phrases. It expresses, in a single breath, the willingness of a person to forgive a first slight while growing more cautious upon enduring — and forgiving — a second one, and finally ceasing to pardon the wrongdoer for a third and final transgression. What I like about ilunga is that it acknowledges that forgiveness of ourselves and those around us is essential to our wellbeing and evolution, but also grants that we must recognize when it’s no longer in our best interest to tolerate another’s unwillingness or inability to appreciate the generosity of our continued forgiveness without changing their behavior.

2. Forelsket

This Norwegian word captures the euphoria of falling in love. I love the idea of using a linguistic construction from a foreign tongue to say what is ultimately unsayable because, really, the bliss of first love defies language. It is ineffable, a word young adult novelist Laurie Oliver once described as “a feeling so big or vast that it [can not] be expressed in words.” It’s meant, in other words, to be experienced rather than understood and articulated.

3. Saudade

A Portuguese word that communicates a state of longing for that which has been loved and lost or for something that is no longer tangible or can never exist. Sometimes, I think what we long for says more, if not as much, about us as our lived realities. Saudade speaks to that private space in our hearts — a secret gallery — where our truest self and desires come to life in the most vibrant colors and defined shapes. It may be tinged with sadness, even loneliness because it can’t be manifested in reality, but there is also a bittersweet joy in knowing it is a place to retreat to that belongs to us alone.

4. Sitzfleisch

According to the Quartzy newsletter, this German word roughly translates to “chair glue,” getting at the power of situating your butt in a seat to persevere your way through a difficult task or problem. It reminds me of a famous Oliver Stone edict about how to write: Ass + chair = pages. Or, as the old adage clunkily goes in English, “putting your nose to the grindstone.” To achieve sitzfleisch, Quartzy writer Ephrat Livny recommends that you “Forget your feels. Ignore your boredom. Muscle through. Like Yoda says, ‘Do or do not. There is no try.’”

5. Wabi-Sabi

This lovely Japanese phrase encourages us to see beauty in imperfection. I think of our imperfections as the chisel that molds ordinary things into the extraordinary — and unique. The nicks and dents in an old treasure chest, or that chip in a favorite cup, represent the beautiful messiness of the lives we’re living and the memories we’ve made. 

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