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Lost in Translation: Five Words We Should Import

People often ask me if I collect anything. I do, but it's not a tangible collection the way a collection of toy figurines, or Swiss posters, or snowglobes would. I "collect" words that aren't translatable in English. Not just unusual words, but words that are don't have an equivalent in English, for these show us where the holes are in our thought patterns. The classic example used to illustrate this kind of word is the German word schadenfreude, which means "the happiness felt at another's misfortune." As a personal project, I create flashcards to depict these strange species that live outside our language.

schadenfreude mokita

Another word with a similar spirit would be mokita, New Guinea for "the truth everyone knows but nobody says."

Many of these words are useful concepts that take a closer look at what is valued and beautiful, which are helpful in rethinking how we live and design.

wabi sabi

For instance, the Japanese word wabi sabi, means a beauty that comes from irregularity (wabi) and age (sabi) . A favorite pair of worn jeans, the cracked glazed texture of pottery, the patina of a metal wall, all of these illustrate wabi sabi. It's not about mass produced, pretty and smooth. I like my sleek iPhone as much as the next person, but there is value in recognizing the beauty that improves with time. It can influence how much and how fast we consume, and bring our attention to more crafted, unique things.


The Dutch word gezellig can be described as a cozy, communal feeling, like the warm sensation one has surrounded by good friends at a long meal, with the conversation flowing. The energy of a good party—that is also gezellig. This concept is not about being merely efficient or transactional in our daily interactions, but instead places importance on feeling a connection with each other.

My current favorite is lagom, which is Swedish for "just enough." Unlike the idea that "just enough" means "it'll do"—which suggests some sort of lacking— lagom expresses that there is something that is "just right." It is the perfect amount or size, no more, no less. It would be great to stock shelves of Ikea with this word, which suggests that there is a happy, contented level that we can aspire to, that isn't about excess. A Swedish saying states "Enough is as good as a feast." Lagom could be a powerful design term if we were to adopt it as our ideal.


Now I ask you if you might know any of these untranslatables from other languages, so that I can add them to the collection. Words have a way of making the invisible visible, and can expand our worldview, becoming agents for change. Let's find a way to import them.

[Images copyright Karin Fong]

Read more of Karin Fong's The In-Between Spaces blog
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Karin Fong is a director and designer based in New York City. As one of the founding members of Imaginary Forces, Karin's work spans the diverse worlds of entertainment, experience design, and advertising. Among her best-known projects are title sequences for such films as Terminator Salvation, The Pink Panther 2, Ray, Definitely Maybe, and Charlotte's Web. Her work in designing television titles earned her an Emmy Award for Masterpiece Theatre's American Collection and a nomination for the hit NBC series Chuck.

Karin's interest in pushing the boundaries of cinematic experiences has resulted in numerous environmental design projects across the country, including sites as diverse as Las Vegas, Lincoln Center, and the Los Angeles Opera, while her expertise in both live action and design ultimately led to directing television commercials for such clients as Target, Honda, Sears, and Herman Miller. Recently named as one the Top 100 Most Creative People in Business by Fast Company magazine. Karin has had work in the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, Artists Space, and The Wexner Center, as well as in numerous publications on film and design.

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  • Karen Breytenbach

    I've only found this article 2 years after it was written, so I'm not sure you'll see my suggestion. I wanted to tell you about two wonderful Afrikaans words, "lekker" and "kuier" (which is closely related to "gezellig"). Afrikaans is spoken in South Africa and has its roots in Dutch, German, English, and even a bit of Malaysian and old local languages. It sounds a lot like Flemish. Anyway, lekker is a word that expresses enjoyment. It's kind of like nice, delicious, enjoyble, good, all rolled into one. You can say the meal I'm having is lekker, the outing is lekker, it's a lekker vacation, she's a lekker friend, I had a lekker big slice of cake, I'm having a lekker chat with a friend. It can even be used for emphasis, for instance, the opposing team suffered lekker in the game. "Kuier" means to socialise,party or visit, for instance, my friends are coming over to "kuier" at my house tonight, or my friends and I "kuier"ed at my house, but you can also say I "kuier"ed too much - meaning you had too much to drink. However, you can "kuier" without alcohol, it can mean socialising on any level, even having tea and cake together. And finally we South Africans like to say "Ek het lekker gekuier gisteraand"/ I socialised/partied enjoyably last night.

  • Ivan J

    The absolutely most-missing English word is the Hungarian "ö". Hungarian has no gender whatsoever, not even in the case of personal pronouns. So, for over a thousand years, Hungarians only had one third person pronoun (the same for male as for female), not this foolish, politically-correct he/she or his/hers, etc. Now, in English we should invent this word, and add it to he language, say something easy to pronoince like "lo" - to repleace the pronouns he and she. I repeat, there is no equivalent of "he" or "she" in Hungarian, only a genderless third person. It always amazed me that in English, which, quite correctly, took gender out of nouns (who cares if a tree is a "he" or a "she" or a "das"), somehow the native speakers don't seem to understand that the same could be done to persons... This would be the end of all of this politically tainted foolishness of he/she, his/hers, etc.

  • Rembrand Compte

    Nice round-up! As a Dutch-speaking Belgian, I'm kinda proud to see 'gezellig' in the list.

  • r edgerton

    "new guinea" isn't a language--and they have more than 300 in the one tiny country--which language is it?

  • Dvorah Chanah

    It is actually from a Kiriwina the Trobriand Islands...refer Malinowski's "Sexual Lives of the Savages"and "Argonauts of the Coral Seas" inter alia...

  • Paul Sawers

    Very interesting read. Language is a wonderful thing and the types of example that fascinate me are what are known as 'pseudo-anglicisms' - that is, words that are borrowed from English but used in a way that would probably not be understood or recognised by a native English speaker.

    One example would be a 'talkmaster', which is a talk-show host in Germany, and a 'dressman', which is a term often used for a male model in Germany. Also, a mobile phone in Germany is a 'handy'.

    As a global translation company, we are constantly faced with language issues such as this - and the only way we can avoid potential translation faux-pas is to use native speakers living 'in-country'.



  • Jacob Gall

    Personally, I would add "anteayer," which is Spanish for "the day before yesterday" to this list.

  • Rikard Savén

    thank you for the positive remarks on the word LAGOM. As a native swede, I have always tried to explain the optimistic meaning of the word to Americans - who somehow never seem to agree or grasp the value of this one word expression. I suppose it translates better in minimalistic Scandinavian cultures...

  • Rikard Savén

    thank you for the positive remarks on the word LAGOM. As a native swede, I have always tried to explain the optimistic meaning of the word to Americans - who somehow never seem to agree or grasp the value of this one word expression. I suppose it translates better in minimalistic Scandinavian cultures...

  • Rikard Savén

    thank you for the positive remarks on the word LAGOM. As a native swede, I have always tried to explain the optimistic meaning of the word to Americans - who somehow never seem to agree or grasp the value of this one word expression. I suppose it translates better in minimalistic Scandinavian cultures...

  • Jeff Campen

    I always thought that the French word "dépaysé" should be imported into English. It literally means "de-countried." I've seen it translated as "homesickness," but it's not quite the same thing.

    It means being in an environment you're not used to, out of your element.

    I often think of the word "dépaysé" when I encounter a group of people outside the circles I usually travel in, when I'm becoming aware of the assumptions that I make because of the people speak with on a regular basis.

    In a way, I guess it's the opposite "gezellig."

    Unfortunately, it's one of those French words that's not easily pronounced in English.

  • Imre Beke

    In Hungarian, the word "sőt" means "as a matter of fact, it's just the opposite."

    For instance, if someone misunderstands your description of a person:

    "So, you're saying he's a coward?"

    You would reply:

    "No, sőt." or "No, just the opposite, in fact. He is quite brave."

    The "s" is pronounced as "sh" in English. The "ő" is like "eu" in the French "adieu," although held a bit longer in time, about twice as long.

  • Jeremiah Nelson

    In Brazilian Portuguese, there is the word Saudades. It indicates the longing, nostalgic or homesick type emotion that you have for a person, place or thing. You may have saudades for family when away, for a certain food you ate, a place your were, or of something a cherished memory. Deeper than missing, it's a celebration of the value something or someone brought into your life and a longing to experience that moment in time again.