10 of the best words in the world (that don't translate into English) (2023)

One of the many great things about languages worldwide is the sizeable number of words for which there is no real English translation. Often they tell us about concepts and ideas that we are missing out on in the anglophone world.

As the northern hemisphere heads abroad in the coming holiday season, here are a few to be looking out for:

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SPAIN: sobremesa

You may have witnessed the ritual, knowingly or not, while on the hunt for a coffee or a cold beer towards the end of another long Spanish afternoon.

Sitting clumped around tables inside restaurants or spilling out on to their terrazas, are friends, families and colleagues, preserved in the post-prandial moment like replete insects in amber.

Lunch – and it is more usually lunch than dinner – will long since have yielded to the important act of the sobremesa, that languid time when food gives way to hours of talking, drinking and joking. Coffee and digestivos will have been taken, or perhaps the large gin and tonic that follows a meal rather than precedes it here.

The sobremesa is a digestive period that allows for the slow settling of food, gossip, ideas and conversations. It is also a sybaritic time; a recognition that there is more to life than working long hours and that few pleasures are greater than sharing a table and then chatting nonsense for a hefty portion of what remains of the day.

The world may not have been put completely to rights by the end of the sobremesa, but it will seem a calmer, more benign place.

Ask Mariano Rajoy. At the end of May, as it became clear that he was going to be turfed out of office in a no-confidence vote, the then-prime minister did something very Spanish: he and his close circle retreated to a private room in a smart Madrid restaurant. Lunch was followed by a seven-hour sobremesa, and, reportedly, a couple of bottles of whisky.

After all, what does the loss of a premiership matter after a fine meal, a good cigar and some booze-soaked reminiscing? ¡Salud! Sam Jones in Madrid

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PORTUGAL: esperto/esperta

It feels almost counterintuitive to have to explain what esperto/esperta means, a Portuguese word without true parallel in the English dictionary.

There are words that come close, that encapsulate something of the spirit of this word – and the word itself is spirited. On the ball, quick-witted, with-it, canny, having common sense, intuitive, someone who gets things done: these all help shade in the space occupied by esperto.

I grew up in Portugal and have always felt an undercurrent of admiration, almost affection, for the espertas.

A Brazilian friend, Tatiana, though, warns of a negative sense. Someone esperto can, she says, use his or her instincts to take advantage of others; to trap or fool them into trouble.

Sometimes it’s easier to understand something by what it is not. Esperta is definitely not slow, dim, unimaginative. If these characteristics were on a spectrum, esperto would be at one end, with “plodding” at the other.

If you understand it, you probably are. Juliette Jowit

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ITALY: bella figura

Before celebrating a confirmation in Sicily last year, my aunt breathed a sigh of relief when she saw that her British niece was dressed appropriately enough so as not to make a bad impression in front of the extended family.

I was also relieved, as it meant I had not inflicted the curse of the brutta figura, which literally translates as bad figure, on my family.

In pretty much all areas of life, whether it be in the way people dress, how they behave, how well their homes are kept or how impeccably a cake is presented and a gift wrapped, Italians strive to achieve the bella figura, or beautiful figure.

Such importance is placed on keeping up appearances and the finer detail that for unwitting foreigners there’s a sense of being sized up in everything you do, even going as far as to what you eat and drink and at what time of the day you indulge in such activities.

“What matters is not what you do but how you appear,” said an Italian friend, likening it to posting the perfect photograph on social media. It’s a tactic that enables people to get promoted at work and politicians to win over admirers while giving the impression that they are achieving something.

“I call it ‘selfie and spot’,” the friend said. “For example, the politician takes a selfie against a beautiful backdrop, posts it on Facebook with a promise to do something, but then doesn’t follow it through. With a good selfie and a good spot, you can survive an entire career without doing anything.” Angela Giuffrida in Rome

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GERMANY: Feierabend

One of the most misleading, but also most enduring, myths about German culture is that it values hard work over a good siesta. Northern Europeans, the legend goes, have a “Protestant work ethic” that means they get the job done even if it means staying in the office late into the night, while the southern Europeans wave it off with a mañana, mañana.

Anyone who sincerely believes that to be the case has never tried to call a German office at one minute past five. When German workers say Ich mach’ Feierabend (“I am calling it a day”), it rarely carries an apologetic undertone but usually comes with the confidence of someone claiming an ancient right.

Dating back to the 16th century, the term Feierabend, or “celebration evening”, used to denote the evening before a public holiday, but has come to refer to the free time between leaving the office and bedtime on any working day.

The key to understanding Feierabend is that it isn’t time for going to the cinema or gym, but time for doing nothing. In 1880, the cultural historian Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl described the concept as “an atmosphere of carefree wellbeing, of deep inner reconciliation, of the pure and clear quiet of the evening”.

Germany’s adherence to the Feierabend rulebook can frustrate when you are trying to make a work call on a Friday afternoon or buy an aspirin from a pharmacy on a Sunday (Sundays being a 24-hour celebration evening).

But as a philosophy, it underpins the proudest achievements of the German labour movement and may just explain why the country has some of the highest productivity levels in Europe: to truly cherish the evening, you make sure you get the job done before five o’clock. Philip Oltermann in Berlin

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Sisu is an untranslatable Finnish term that blends resilience, tenacity, persistence, determination, perseverance and sustained, rather than momentary, courage: the psychological strength to ensure that regardless of the cost or the consequences, what has to be done will be done.

It originates from the word sisus, meaning “intestines” or “guts”; Daniel Juslenius, author of the first Finnish-language dictionary in 1745, defined sisucunda as the place in the body where strong emotions live. In a harsh environment and with powerful neighbours, it was what a young nation needed.

Sisu is what, in 1939-40, allowed an army of 350,000 Finns to twice fight off Soviet forces three times their number, inflicting losses five times heavier than those they sustained.

More prosaically, it has helped Finns get through a lot of long, lonely, dark and freezing winters, building in the process one of the wealthiest, safest, most stable and best-governed countries in the world. It is not all good, of course. Sisu can lead to stubbornness, a refusal to take advice, an inability to admit weakness, a lack of compassion.

It has become a bit of cliché in Finland – a brand name for trucks and strongly-flavoured sweets. Research shows it holds little appeal to the young. But ask a Finn to define the national character, and it’s the word most still reach for. Jon Henley

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IRAN: Ta’arof

Ta’arof is a Persian word that has no English equivalent, referring to the art of etiquette ubiquitous in everyday Iranian life.

“You go first,” says Mr A as he meets Mr B at the doorstep, as they try to enter a building. “No, it’s not possible, you go first,” Mr B insists in response. Ta’arof dictates a ritual that may see them both waiting for a couple of unnecessary minutes before one steps forward to enter.

It is an etiquette that is seen almost in all aspects of Iranian life, from hosts insisting on guests taking more food from the table, to the exchanges in the bazaar. “How much is this carpet?” asks Ms A after choosing her favourite in the shop. “It’s worthless, you can just take it,” responds the seller, quite disingenuously.

Although Ms A in reality cannot take the carpet out of the shop without paying for it, the seller might insist up to three times that she should just do that, until the amount of the price is finally mentioned.

The awkward exchanges may have originated out of politeness; ultimately, they may work to the seller’s favour, as the buyer feels a certain obligation to respond to such deference with a purchase, even if the final price is more than she expected.

Another example: you are walking with a friend and you end up doing Ta’arof, asking him to come to yours for lunch, even though you don’t have anything prepared and you don’t really want him to accept.

The friend insists out of Ta’arof that he wouldn’t come because he knows you’re tired and doesn’t want to be a burden, even though deep down he really wants to have lunch at your place.

“Oh, don’t Ta’arof,” you say in a Ta’arof asking your friend not to Ta’arof. He ends up accepting your reluctant Ta’arof. You’re a bit irked, but you’ll have to be all smiles. Not all Taa’rofs are insincere; some are, some aren’t. You’d Ta’arof even if you badly want something, saying you don’t want it; you’d Ta’arof if you really hate something, pretending you want it. Saeed Kamali Dehghan

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RUSSIA: тоска (toska)

Leave it to Russia to serve up the melancholy: toska translates as yearning or ennui. Except it doesn’t, because no English word can accurately reflect all the shades of the word, to paraphrase Vladimir Nabokov.

What can toska (pronounced tahs-kah) mean? Spiritual anguish, a deep pining, perhaps the product of nostalgia or love-sickness, toska is depression plus longing, an unbearable feeling that you need to escape but lack the hope or energy to do so.

Visually to me, toska conjures up an endless field of birch on the edge of St Petersburg, in the dead of winter when the clouds never part, and it’s only light for five hours a day anyway.

Toska is the stuff of great literature. Evgeny Onegin, the foundational Russian novel-in-verse about superfluous men, unrequited love and duels? Loads of toska.

Anton Chekhov wrote an entire short story called Toska about a cabman who recently lost his son and searches for someone to talk to about his grief. He ends up talking to his horse. All that broodiness in the great (and not-so-great) Russian novels? You get the picture.

So why choose toska for this list of positivity? Because if the Russian soul s the place where great emotions reside, then toska pays the rent. Without toska there cannot be delirious happiness, endless heartfelt conversations at 4am at the kitchen table, boundless generosity at obvious personal expense.

Toska is a sign that your emotions go beyond logic and that you are really, truly living your emotions. Perhaps you’ve felt toska and you didn’t realise it, but it’s a good thing: it means you’ve got a little bit of the Russian soul in you. Andrew Roth in Moscow

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JAPAN: shoganai

As inhabitants of an archipelago that is regularly struck by earthquakes and tsunamis, and – as recent events have tragically demonstrated – floods and landslides, it is little wonder that the Japanese have a well-developed sense of fatalism. Any verbal reflection on humans’ powerlessness to control nature’s most destructive forces often elicit the phrase shoganai.

The expression, meaning, “it can’t be helped,” is Japan’s catchall response to any situation, large or small, over which people believe they have no influence. A more voguish translation might be “it is what it is”. A French person would immediately recognise it as a version of “c’est la vie”.

It could be heard, delivered with deep reflection, amid the rubble of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami and, in resigned tones, after Japan’s agonising exit from the World Cup in Russia.

Shoganai, and its synonym shikata ga nai, are verbal coping mechanisms that apply equally to unwelcome developments in everyday life, from getting struck in a traffic jam to having to spend Friday evening at the office.

With its roots in the Zen Buddhist belief that suffering is a natural part of life, it could perhaps be described as Japan’s version of the serenity prayer – a personal and communal recognition that, on occasion, passive acceptance of an unfortunate truth is far easier than trying to deny it.

But resigning oneself to one’s fate with a muttered “shoganai” has its drawbacks. Some observers of Japanese culture note that it is too often applied in situations in which humans have more influence than they think.

For much of the seven decades since the end of the second world war, there has been a general acceptance of the dominance of the conservative Liberal Democratic party, even among liberal voters. Some have pointed to its role in allowing the rise of Japanese militarism in the first half of the 20th century.

Shikata ga nai is, then, partly to blame for weaknesses at the heart of Japan’s democracy, allowing one party to dominate even, as is the case today, when it is mired in scandal.

In a country with few energy resources of its own, nuclear power was for decades the beneficiary of the shoganai mindset, one that accepted the construction of dozens of nuclear reactors along the coastline as a necessary evil.

It took Fukushima to prove that Japan’s lauded sense of fatalism can sometimes be downright dangerous. Justin McCurry in Tokyo

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Het poldermodel and its associated verb, polderen, derive from the Dutch habit of working together to reclaim parts of their country from the sea. Since the Middle Ages, everyone on the same polder, regardless of religion, politics, class and local rivalries, has had to cooperate in maintaining the complex but vital system of windmills and dykes that kept their land dry.

The term, which has been defined as “pragmatic cooperation despite differences”, has been used since the mid-1970s to describe the kind of consensus political decision-making common in the Netherlands, which has been governed by coalitions for over a century, since no single party has ever held a majority.

In policymaking, the concept is exemplified by a Dutch institution known as the Social-Economic Council, a tripartite forum in which government, employers’ federations and unions air their differences, generally reaching consensus on issues such as wage restraint, working hours, job creation and productivity.

In politics, Dutch governments – the latest, a coalition between four parties with widely different views, took a record 208 days to hammer out – are the embodiment of the poldermodel, which has come in for increasing criticism, particularly from the radical right, since the financial crisis of 2008.

Politicians such as Thierry Baudet of the nativist, right-wing Forum for Democracy argue the poldermodel has led to a “political cartel” in which endless compromise has robbed the major parties of all distinguishing features and left them incapable of taking essential decisions. Jon Henley

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CHINA: tiáo 条

How do we categorise or classify things, thereby imagining them as one thing and not another? Unlike French or German, gender does not provide categories in Chinese, which groups things by something else entirely: shape.

Tiáo is one of at least 140 classifiers and measure words in the Chinese language. It’s a measure word for long-narrow-shape things. For example, bed sheets, fish, ships, bars of soap, cartons of cigarettes, avenues, trousers, dragons, rivers.

These measure words embrace the ways in which shape imprints itself upon us, while playfully noticing the relationships between all things. The measure word kē 颗 (kernel) is used for small, roundish things, or objects that appear small: pearls, teeth, bullets and seeds, as well as distant stars and satellites.

Gēn 根, for thin-slender objects, will appear before needles, bananas, fried chicken legs, lollipops, chopsticks, guitar strings and matches, among a thousand other things. “Flower-like” objects gather under the word duo 朵: bunches of flowers, clouds, mushrooms and ears.

It’s endlessly fascinating to me how we attempt to group anything or anyone together, and how formations change. Philosopher Wang Lianqing charts how tiáo was first applied to objects we can pick up by hand (belts, branches, string) and then expanded outward (streets, rivers, mountain ranges).

And finally tiáo extended metaphorically. News and events are also classified with tiáo, perhaps because news was written in long vertical lines, and events, as the 7th-century scholar Yan Shigu wrote, arrive in lists “one by one, as (arranging) long-shaped twigs”.

Onwards the idea broadened, so that an idea or opinion is also “long-shaped news,” and in the 14th century, tiáo was used for spirit, which was imagined as straight, high and lofty. In language, another geometry is at work, gathering recurrences through time and space. Madeleine Thien

What is your favourite word, concept or idea in the country you live in? Let us know in the comments, or at theupside@theguardian.com

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