How Do You Say ...? For Some Words, There's No Easy Translation : Parallels The feeling of solitude in the woods ... the sunlight that filters through trees ... someone who tells a joke so badly that you have to laugh. In English, these things require a whole string of words. Not so in German, Japanese and Indonesian, respectively.
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How Do You Say ...? For Some Words, There's No Easy Translation

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How Do You Say ...? For Some Words, There's No Easy Translation

How Do You Say ...? For Some Words, There's No Easy Translation

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel. Just as good writing demands brevity, so too does spoken language. Sentences and phrases get whittled down over time. And one result is single words that are packed with meaning, words that are so succinct and detailed in what they connote in one language that they may have no corresponding word in another language. Such words aroused the curiosity of the folks at a website called Maptia. Maptia encourages people to tell stories about places, and they ask people across the globe to give them examples of words that didn't translate easily to English. Dorothy Sanders is co-founder and CEO, and she joins us from Taghazout, Morocco, where Maptia is currently headquartered. Welcome to the program.

DOROTHY SANDERS: Hi, Robert. We're delighted to be on the program. Thanks for having us.

SIEGEL: Well, good. How did this idea occur to you?

SANDERS: We decided it would be interesting to create an illustrated list of words that don't have a direct translation into the English language.

SIEGEL: One of which comes from Spanish. The word is sobremesa.

SANDERS: This word describes the period of time after a meal when you have a somewhat contemplative discussion and conversation with the people you shared the meal with, between 1 and 5 o'clock, usually, I think.

SIEGEL: That's a time of day that, I guess, deserves a word of its own.



SIEGEL: Well, also on the list are several words that we had people at the International Center for Language Studies here in Washington say. We'll start with this German word.

SYBILLA BRAUM: Waldeinsamkeit.

SIEGEL: Spoken by Sybilla Braum and defined by her this way.

BRAUM: It is a feeling of solitude when you're out in nature. And Claire Dejah provided us with this uniquely French word.

CLAIRE DEJAH: Depaysement.

SIEGEL: Which she defines as...

DEJAH: The feeling of a person when you're out of your country and everything seems weird and new.

SIEGEL: Well, let's move to a Japanese word on your list.


SIEGEL: Ahjean Keyen says means...

KEYEN: The sunlight comes through some trees.

SIEGEL: That is sunlight. Now, we hear a Swedish word from Mareah Washburn that refers to moonlight.


SIEGEL: And it means...

WASHBURN: The reflection of the moonlight over the water.

SIEGEL: I think the closest we get to that in English, Dorothy, is moon river. There are some other words on your list that we didn't go get recorded here in Washington. The Urdu word goya. What does that mean?

SANDERS: Well, I believe this particular Urdu word describes the suspension of disbelief, which often happens through good storytelling.

SIEGEL: That has one word in Urdu?

SANDERS: I believe so, and I think it's a Persian or Farsi word as well.

SIEGEL: Uh-huh. Then you also have the Indonesian word jayus.

SANDERS: Yes, I believe that's their slang for someone who tells a joke so badly that it's so unfunny you can't help but laugh out loud.

SIEGEL: They must have a lot of terrible comedians in Indonesia.


SANDERS: I guess so.

SIEGEL: Finally, the Hawaiian word pana po'o.

SANDERS: Well, the way we described that one was you know when you forget where you put your keys and you scratch your head because it somehow seems to help you remember. Well, that - they have a word for that.

SIEGEL: I find that an increasingly useful word to - I wish I had one for that.


SIEGEL: What were your favorite responses here?

SANDERS: Another word I really like was poronkusema, which is a Finnish word that describes the distance a reindeer can comfortably travel without taking a break.

SIEGEL: That - well, what was that word again?

SANDERS: Poronkusema.

SIEGEL: That's a word that comes up in conversations with your reindeer dealer?


SANDERS: Well, you know, we have alternative methods of transport for a permanently-on-the-move travel startup.


SIEGEL: Well, Dorothy, thanks for talking with us about these words.

SANDERS: Oh, you're welcome.

SIEGEL: Dorothy Sanders of the travel website Maptia speaking with us about a list of foreign words they've put together that are not directly translatable into an English word.

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