REBLOG: The Top 10 Relationship Words That Are Not Translatable Into English

I read a lot of blogs…lots. I truly find what other people write about fascinating! My husband has gotten into it too.  Last week, he sent me the following piece…It’s pretty awesome, so I thought it would be fun to share it here.

I definitely recommend checking out this site, big think.  On the site, Pamela Haag writes a section called Marriage 3.0.

Here’s her article:

Here are my top ten words, compiled from online collections, to describe love, desire and relationships that have no real English translation, but that capture subtle realities that even we English speakers have felt once or twice. As I came across these words I’d have the occasional epiphany: “Oh yeah! That’s what I was feeling…”

Mamihlapinatapei (Yagan, an indigenous language of Tierra del Fuego): The wordless yet meaningful look shared by two people who desire to initiate something, but are both reluctant to start. Oh yes, this is an exquisite word, compressing a thrilling and scary relationship moment. It’s that delicious, cusp-y moment of imminent seduction. Neither of you has mustered the courage to make a move, yet. Hands haven’t been placed on knees; you’ve not kissed. But you’ve both conveyed enough to know that it will happen soon… very soon.

Yuanfen (Chinese): A relationship by fate or destiny. This is a complex concept. It draws on principles of predetermination in Chinese culture, which dictate relationships, encounters and affinities, mostly among lovers and friends. From what I glean, in common usage yuanfen means the “binding force” that links two people together in any relationship. But interestingly, “fate” isn’t the same thing as “destiny.” Even if lovers are fated to find each other they may not end up together. The proverb, “have fate without destiny,” describes couples who meet, but who don’t stay together, for whatever reason. It’s interesting, to distinguish in love between the fated and the destined. Romantic comedies, of course, confound the two.

Cafuné (Brazilian Portuguese): The act of tenderly running your fingers through someone’s hair.

Retrouvailles (French): The happiness of meeting again after a long time. This is such a basic concept, and so familiar to the growing ranks of commuter relationships, or to a relationship of lovers, who see each other only periodically for intense bursts of pleasure. I’m surprised we don’t have any equivalent word for this subset of relationship bliss. It’s a handy one for modern life.

Ilunga (Bantu): A person who is willing to forgive abuse the first time; tolerate it the second time, but never a third time. Apparently, in 2004, this word won the award as the world’s most difficult to translate. Although at first, I thought it did have a clear phrase equivalent in English: It’s the “three strikes and you’re out” policy. But ilunga conveys a subtler concept, because the feelings are different with each “strike.” The word elegantly conveys the progression toward intolerance, and the different shades of emotion that we feel at each stop along the way.

Ilunga captures what I’ve described as the shade of gray complexity in marriages—Not abusive marriages, but marriages that involve infidelity, for example. We’ve got tolerance, within reason, and we’ve got gradations of tolerance, and for different reasons. And then, we have our limit. The English language to describe this state of limits and tolerance flattens out the complexity into black and white, or binary code. You put up with it, or you don’t. You “stick it out,” or not.

Ilunga restores the gray scale, where many of us at least occasionally find ourselves in relationships, trying to love imperfect people who’ve failed us and whom we ourselves have failed.

La Douleur Exquise (French): The heart-wrenching pain of wanting someone you can’t have. When I came across this word I thought of “unrequited” love. It’s not quite the same, though. “Unrequited love” describes a relationship state, but not a state of mind. Unrequited love encompasses the lover who isn’t reciprocating, as well as the lover who desires. La douleur exquise gets at the emotional heartache, specifically, of being the one whose love is unreciprocated.

Koi No Yokan (Japanese): The sense upon first meeting a person that the two of you are going to fall into love. This is different than “love at first sight,” since it implies that you might have a sense of imminent love, somewhere down the road, without yet feeling it. The term captures the intimation of inevitable love in the future, rather than the instant attraction implied by love at first sight.

Ya’aburnee (Arabic): “You bury me.” It’s a declaration of one’s hope that they’ll die before another person, because of how difficult it would be to live without them. The online dictionary that lists this word calls it “morbid and beautiful.” It’s the “How Could I Live Without You?” slickly insincere cliché of dating, polished into a more earnest, poetic term.

Forelsket: (Norwegian): The euphoria you experience when you’re first falling in love. This is a wonderful term for that blissful state, when all your senses are acute for the beloved, the pins and needles thrill of the novelty. There’s a phrase in English for this, but it’s clunky. It’s “New Relationship Energy,” or NRE.

Saudade (Portuguese): The feeling of longing for someone that you love and is lost. Another linguist describes it as a “vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist.” It’s interesting that saudade accommodates in one word the haunting desire for a lost love, or for an imaginary, impossible, never-to-be-experienced love. Whether the object has been lost or will never exist, it feels the same to the seeker, and leaves her in the same place: She has a desire with no future. Saudade doesn’t distinguish between a ghost, and a fantasy. Nor do our broken hearts, much of the time.

So, what do you think? Cool, huh? Do any of these words resonate with you?

Image credit: GRwitters’ Flickr photostream


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Categories: Tips


I'm a married publicist who holds a Master's degree in psychology, with a concentration in Marriage and Family Therapy. I'd like to make the world a better relationship at a time.

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7 Comments on “REBLOG: The Top 10 Relationship Words That Are Not Translatable Into English”

  1. December 21, 2011 at 3:52 pm #

    Add Tizta to the list, it’s an Amharic word, Ethiopia’s official language, which conveys the subtle feelings of Melancholy, Memory, or Nostalgia, all combined together, but has no equivalent translation in English. 🙂 People usually use one of the three words trying to translate it, but it’s quite inaccurate. Tizta is best expressed in music, and the music we call Tizta in Ethiopia is one unique expression of feelings, longings, desires of lost or unrequited love or past time or homesickness; and it’s one of the unique musical styles of Ethiopian music. Here is one example of such music: (she’s one of my favorite singers) 🙂

    … From the above list, I think I can identify myself somehow with La Douleur Exquise lol

  2. December 21, 2011 at 7:39 pm #

    Bravo! this was great. I’ve got at least 4 of those!
    Also the word “keibo” in Japanese (kanji). It is one word with interwoven meaning: love and respect (I liked it so much I had it tattooed on my back!)

  3. December 26, 2011 at 8:36 pm #

    I love all these words but retrouvailles is my fav.

  4. December 29, 2011 at 4:06 am #

    These are amazing and so interesting. It’s amazing to consider how limiting our words can be when compared to what’s available in other languages. I love finding exactly the right word to convey how I feel, but I doubt I could pronounce any of these and make them sound right. Still, very lovely to consider.
    Enjoy always, T

  5. adalamar
    January 5, 2012 at 4:06 am #

    I have nominated you for the Kreatve Blogger Award!

  6. Candida Abrahamson PhD
    February 4, 2012 at 5:29 pm #

    This is a wonderfully creative, unique and expressive post–on a great topic. of course. Well-done!


  1. Foreign Relationship Words Difficult To Translate Into English « Kweschn! - December 21, 2011

    […] going through coupletastic’s re-blogged post of a list of relationship words that are difficult to translate into English, I couldn’t help but suggest […]

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