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The Power Of Untranslatable Words

When we think about language learning, we often think about dictionaries and translation. But learning a language can be so much more than that, and not every word has a simple definition. Part of the joy of languages is to be found in the countless words and cultural concepts that defy definition. These words give you an especially unique glimpse into different cultures, while also expanding your own personal worldview. To explore this idea further, let’s take a look at a day lived through untranslatable words.


Today’s a special day, which means that you madrugas (Spanish), that is, you wake up with the dawn. It’s still a bit dark outside, but you don’t mind because you’re going to meet up with an old friend. To avoid catching cold from the wind and becoming ill from the colpo d’aria (Italian), you put on a warm hat, coat, and scarf. Your scarf is one of those enormous chunky knitted ones, and this is the first time you’ve worn it - today is a special occasion after all. You might say that you are estrenándola (Spanish).


Waiting at the station, you suddenly see her! It’s been so long since you and Marie have met up in person, but that makes the retrouvailles (French) all the sweeter. There’s nothing like that feeling of meeting up again after a long time apart. You both decide to flâner (French), aimlessly taking in the sights and sounds of the city as it wakes up. Vendors are setting up stalls in the market square, and you know it’s going to be a busy day.


Your friend tells you about their menefreghista (Italian) boss who doesn’t seem to care about anything (they’re the type to always be saying non me ne frega, or I don’t care). Marie had a particularly annoying day at work when she tried to bring up some work issues with her boss and he completely dismissed her. It was only when she’d left his office and was standing on the stairs that she came up with a good comeback. A true example of l’esprit d’escalier (French).


It’s almost lunchtime. You both decide to go to an Italian place, where you order pasta al dente (Italian) which has been cooked to perfection. The consistency is good and not too soft. The meal comes with a breadbasket, and when you’re done with the pasta, there is still enough sauce to fare la scarpetta (Italian), using the bread to mop it all up. Luckily there’s bread – you wouldn’t want all that delicious sauce to go to waste. You both stay talking at the table for a while… you love this type of sobremesa (Spanish), when the food is gone but the conversation continues flowing.


After a while though, you start feeling the abbiocco (Italian) coming over you, that drowsy feeling you get when you’ve eaten a particularly satisfying and filling meal. As you and Marie say your goodbyes, you look forward to your afternoon siesta (Spanish), or perhaps it'd be better to say pennichella (Italian) since the food you’ve just eaten is Italian. Time for a nap.


About The Author: Rene is an Olea Ambassador (Team 1.0, March - Sept 2023) and an undergraduate student of Modern and Medieval Languages at the University of Cambridge.

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