Lost in Translation: Five Words We Should Import

Karin Fong collects words that aren’t translatable to the English language and makes flashcards for them.

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]

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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 T
erminator 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

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.


About the author

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