A few days ago, I wrote about the extended meaning of words, and how some words in a language we learn take on a wider meaning because we have an approaching word in our own language. This made me think about the words that one learns in a foreign language which just don't have a satisfying translation.

Speaking another language is a difficult endeavour, but it is also a very rewarding one. However, while learning the language in the country it is spoken is probably the best way to learn it, rather than at school, it brings on whole new set of challenges in speaking your mother tongue.

There is a whole context to learning a new word, which we probably forget because we were too young when we learned words, or too engrossed in learning to remember the circumstances in which we learned them. My theory goes though, that you don't know a word fully until you have tried to translate it.

How many times have I come across words that just "say it best" in another language than the one I am speaking at the time?

Let me try a few examples.

Wilderness. Wilderness is a word I learned at the foot of the rockies, in the middle of nowhere. In the wilderness. But when I came back to France and had to translate it, I just couldn't. There is so much to the word that it takes at least a full French sentence to even come close to it. The wild, the fauna, the flora, the outdoors, what do I know. It's a concept that simply does not really exist in French. I noticed that for example, the translation of Jack London's White Fang in French used the Wild in English, because there is simply no French word that carries the same meaning.

Mensch. Mensch is a German word which means something like human being. But not really. Or rather, more than that. It's a human being which carries the whole of Humanity (notice the capital H) with it. A concept that neither French nor English really have.

N'importe quoi. N'importe quoi means "anything", but it also means "silly things" or "silly words". N'importe quoi is used as an interjection in French, which would mean something like 'nonsense". But it's also used in conjunction with the verb 'make'. you can "make n'importe quoi" but you can't make nonsense. Again, untranslatable.

I find it absolutely fantastic to be able to have an array of vocabulary that goes beyond one's mother tongue. It is also highly frustrating, to know of words, and the concept behind them, and not be able to translate them accurately in the language you are speaking at a moment M. It's a bit like looking at the world with a magnifying glass and seeing things which you can't show other people because you can't give them that magnifying glass.

There are probably thousands of other examples, which I simply can't think of right now, but I'll try to keep a list. I'd be interested to hear what words you have stumbled upon and which you have not been able to translate in one or the other language you speak.