The world’s most difficult word to translate loses much in translation

The world’s most difficult word to translate loses much in translation


In an article published by the BBC on June 22, 2004, “ilunga” was deemed the world’s most difficult word to translate. According to the article by Oliver Conway, “ilunga” topped a list compiled by 1,000 linguists as the “hardest word to translate.” It was reported that “ilunga,” which comes from the Tshiluba language, spoken in south-eastern Congo, means “a person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time”.

The survey was conducted by Today Translations, which emphasized, while the ilunga’s definition can be found in the dictionary, the difficulty in translation comes from its cultural connotations and usage.

BUT WAIT, there is a problem.

According to an article in Wikipedia: There is no independent evidence supporting Today Translations’ claim that “ilunga” is in fact the world’s most difficult word to translate.  In fact ilunga is apparently a reasonably common family name in the DR Congo, and it has nothing to do with a conditionally forgiving person. Furthermore, according to Wikipedia, the translation company failed to respond to inquiries regarding the survey, made by the same reporter. Also, according to an entry in Nation Master Encyclopedia, not all of the words on Today Translations’ list were even legitimate. Some of them turned out to be mistakes and hoaxes.   

In my opinion, the category the “most untranslatable word” is on its face problematic to begin with.  It appears the article infers that these words are the hardest to translate into English, but there is no specific mention of this. Despite the 226,000 hits for “ilunga” from my July 19, 2008, Google search (many of which represent blogs recycling the original BBC article), it seems Today Translations’ linguistics need better translators. It also appears the BBC could have done a better job deciphering fact from fiction.

 Even so, the list “The ten foreign words voted hardest to translate,”  is fun to consider, so here it is:

1. Ilunga [Tshiluba word for a person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time; to tolerate it a second time; but never a third time. Note: Tshiluba is a Bantu language spoken in south-eastern Congo, and Zaire]

2. Shlimazl [Yiddish for a chronically unlucky person]

3. Radioukacz [Polish for a person who worked as a telegraphist for the resistance movements on the Soviet side of the Iron Curtain]

4. Naa [Japanese word only used in the Kansai area of Japan, to emphasise statements or agree with someone]

5. Altahmam  [Arabic for a kind of deep sadness]

6. Gezellig [Dutch for cosy]

7. Saudade [Portuguese for a certain type of longing]

8. Selathirupavar  [Tamil for a certain type of truancy]

9. Pochemuchka [Russian for a person who asks a lot of questions]

10. Klloshar [Albanian for loser]

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About robertstevenson

Dr. Robert Stevenson is a Professor of Journalism and Director of Student Publications for the Department of Mass Communications and Theater at Lander University in Greenwood, SC. He received the Distinguished Faculty of the Year award for 2007-'08, and the Lander University Young Faculty Scholar Award in 2005-06. Stevenson also serves as chair of the Lander University American Democracy Project. First and Formost I am a dad of two wonderful boys.
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30 Responses to The world’s most difficult word to translate loses much in translation

  1. Ekim941 says:

    You learn something new everyday. I just found out that I am a Shlimazl.

  2. Erik Johnels says:

    There is a Swedish word ” Lagom ” that translates into “not too much and not too little. Which loses much of its power in translation. Espcially considering that much of the socialistic swedish society is based on the “lagom” principle. Apparently Swedish is the only language that has a single word for the meaning. Most other languages uses either a descriptive phrase or a full sentence to convey the same message.

    Most translations will lose the cultural weight of the word and just translate it to the exact meaning.

    Good article though, i think that most will forget that translation will never be right without interpretation of the actual words used.

  3. polybore says:

    How about the Welsh town named

    yep it is one word.

    It translates as ‘St Mary’s church in the hollow of the white hazel near a rapid whirlpool and the church of St Tysilio of the red cave’.

  4. E.D.Beale says:

    That is the most awesome translation of anything ever (even if it might not be accurate).

    What a cool article!

  5. alapoet says:

    You’re such a pochemucka!

    Watch out; you’re edging past shlimazl and getting dangerously close to klloshar…

  6. kavitha says:

    hmm, not sure about the Tamil word… there are many more hard words to translate in Tamil language! This one is very simple in terms of using Tamil as a foreign language!

  7. cooper says:

    Figures that word comes from the Congo where women are routinely raped and beaten as a result of war and ethnic conflict.

    Sorry couldn’t help that, it is off topic, but the first thing which came to mind.

  8. Mila Cross says:

    I can so see myself using the ‘klloshar’ word now, lol. yay bigger vocab now =D

  9. t532harry says:

    try malay/indonesian “lah”, chinese “mah”, and indian “rei,” “bei,” and “rah”

  10. Bahia says:

    I think there are other Japanese words that are harder to translate.

    But an interesting read, none-the-less.

  11. Rui Peres says:

    I am portuguese. “Saudade” is what you feel, when you miss someone or something.

  12. Jeff Lloyd says:

    Congrats on being the featured blog Rob!

  13. gia says:

    Ilunga, described as a word from the Bantu language of Tshiluba, was said to mean “a person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time”.
    in arabic it means:
    in farsi(persian) we called it:
    saboor صبور
    so i don’t think that it’s really hard to translate it.i already did it.

  14. shearyadi says:

    How about Takol, it’s from ancient language of native people of Jakarta, Indonesia, which mean “a condition where a person was tend to beat other person but he actually didn’t”, but in some cases, it also mean “being abused by someone else”.

  15. blackmachina says:

    Reply to Erik Johnels:
    the english word for “lagom” is “just”

    • ronja says:

      Um. No. How would you translate “the land of lagom”? or insult your boyfriend by saying he is “lagom.”

      A good way to make a fluent fool of yourself is to know a language without the culture.

  16. katemcnamara says:

    That is a truly wonderful word. I shall take it to heart.And try to develop stage 4 forgiveness. Clarissa Pinkola Este in her book “Women Who Run with the Wolves” has to date, written the most insightful work on forgiveness that I have ever read. Trust the Congo to deliver something equally complex, if dark hearted a la Joseph Conrad. Apocalypse tomorrow in the Galaxy that time forgot.
    Kate McNamara

  17. Great list. There are so many words in each language that are hard to translate. Sometimes though certain things are easier to express in one language. That’s why I usually speak Franglais with other Franglaphones (English / French).

  18. mrsweden says:

    Rui Peres: No, “just” isn’t really accurate. Just indicates the effort was sufficient, but “sufficient” doesn’t encompass the kind of meaning, as well as cultural grounding, that “lagom” does.

    As for Swedes being socialistic, well we may have some collective thinking going on coupled with some kickass welfare but we’re damn competitive too. 🙂

  19. Jon says:

    A Shlimiel is someone in the restaurant who spills the soup.
    A Shlamazal is the person which the soup is spilled onto.

  20. Lindsey says:

    Hahahaha, Jon.

  21. liam says:

    chornically unlucky? like a jynx

  22. Werner says:

    I think the Dutch word ‘gedogen’ (a verb) is even harder to translate. ‘gedogen’ means to explicitly prohibit something but in practice never punish the offenders.

  23. Jessica says:

    I don’t think “na” is tough at all as far as translations of Japanese goes. What about “muri” (meaning “can’t do it” but also “doubtful” and and about a hundred other things depending on context); aesthetic terms, like “mu” (Buddhist use of “emptiness”) or “wabi” (something like dignified in terms of taste), “sabi” (homey); and all the onomatopoeia that has no parallel in English (at least)… dunno.

  24. Melvin says:

    @ Werner: yea that one is always fun to explain to tourists who smoke weed.

    gezellig doesn’t mean cosy by the way, that’s only half its meaning.

    But I guess that almost goes for all words that only had a one word translation on that list.

  25. Anonymous says:

    wew who cares on those words there i will use it if it published in the dictionary

  26. momo says:

    i translated some of them into arabic:
    “sababa” الصبابة for portuguese word
    “Ilunga” is “الكاظم” alkazem
    “naa” is أود aodo
    Pochemuchka is سئيل sa’il and it is from Exaggeration formula

  27. Lieven says:

    Interesting: no similarities between Klloshar and Clochard (French) ? I am sure there are, since lots of Albanians emmigrated to other countries and somehow the words crossfertilised both languages ! Just a humble opinion ;-))

  28. Strange to find the word “schlemiel” in our dutch dictionary. It means literally the same!

    Also, “gedogen” is pretty easy to translate: it means “to tolerate”.
    It’s not because it’s used in some backward way to describe the tolerating of drug use in The Netherlands that it gets a special meaning.

    My guess is that the words describing a pretty ‘specific yet broad feeling’ (like “gezellig” or “saudade”) are the hardest words to translate.

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