German Words That Are Impossible to Translate
by Lingoda Team
August 18, 2016

When studying different languages from around the world, it is important to remember that each of them has evolved independently, so will have its own particularities. You may notice, for instance, that one language has multiple different words for a concept that another language has just the one word for. However, to take this point a step further, some languages also contain words that do not have a direct equivalent in other languages. In many cases, this is because the word is used to describe a concept that is exclusive to a certain culture. As a result, these words then become very difficult to translate or define. Below, we take a look at eight examples of such words within the German language.

1. Kehrwoche

A strong example of a word linked to the culture of a country, ‘Kehrwoche’ literally translates to “sweeping week” and refers to cleaning duties that are imposed in order to improve communal living standards. Within Germany, a rota is often created, allocating a ‘Kehrwoche’ to each household. The concept has existed for more than 500 years and examples of duties include cleaning shared staircases, shovelling snow, or sweeping common areas.

2. Kummerspeck

‘Kummerspeck’ refers to excess fat, gained from over-eating during times of stress or heightened emotion. The two component words are ‘Kummer’, meaning “emotional pain or grief” and ‘Speck’, which is the German word for “bacon”. Therefore, it is sometimes said that ‘Kummerspeck’ literally translates to “grief bacon”. In truth, the word ‘Speck’ is also used to refer to fat found within meat, so it is more likely to translate to something akin to “grief fat”.

3. Schadenfreude

Perhaps the most famous example of a German word without an equivalent in many other languages, ‘Schadenfreude’ refers to “pleasure derived from the misfortune of others”. Both the word itself and its meaning have been adopted by many other languages, including English. It stems from a combination of the German words ‘Schaden’, meaning “harm”, and ‘Freude’, meaning “joy”; so a literal translation would be “harm-joy”.

4. Fernweh

While the English language has a word for ‘Heimweh’, or “homesickness”, it does not have an equivalent word for ‘Fernweh’, which is essentially the opposite. ‘Fernweh’ describes a longing to see and experience distant places, as well as a sadness when not doing so. It is somewhat similar to the concept of ‘Wanderlust’, which describes “an irresistible impulse to travel”, but ‘Fernweh’ is a more negative emotion, resembling depression.

5. Schnapsidee

Formed from the words ‘Schnaps’ (alcohol or liquor) and ‘Idee’ (idea), a ‘Schnapsidee’ is the sort of terrible idea that seems sensible only when intoxicated. It can be used to describe a literal bad idea that was formulated when drunk, but also to describe an idea that is so bad that only a drunk person could ever think was good.

6. Torschlusspanik

The word ‘Torschlusspanik’ is created from three separate German words: ‘Tor’ (gate), ‘Schluss’ (close, or shut) and ‘Panik’ (panic) and while the concept of “gate-shut-panic” doesn’t exist in English, it is somewhat comparable to the idea of a “mid-life crisis”. With that said, ‘Torschlusspanik’ can occur at any stage in life and refers specifically to a fear that time is running out for a certain thing to occur. It usually relates to a life goal, or an ambition.

7. Erklärungsnot

Combining ‘Erklärung, meaning “explanation”, and ‘Not’, meaning “emergency”, the German word ‘Erklärungsnot’ refers to a situation where you have a lot of explaining to do. More specifically, it refers to the state of having to come up with a credible explanation very quickly, in order to justify your actions. You may experience this if you have been caught lying, or if you need an excuse for not doing something you were supposed to.

8. Treppenwitz

Finally, if you have ever thought of a witty remark, or the perfect response to win a debate, but the remark or response came to you about 20 minutes too late, you have experienced what the Germans call ‘Treppenwitz’. The word is created from the words ‘Treppen’ (stairs) and ‘Witz’ (wit), so directly translates to “staircase wit”. It is used to describe any idea or course of action that occurs to you too late to be used effectively.

Learn German with Lingoda

Here at Lingoda, all of our online language classes are all taught by fully-qualified native speakers. This means that those enrolled in our German language courses will learn authentic German, as it is really spoken, and master even tricky words like those listed above, which do not have direct equivalents in other languages. Lingoda courses are based on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages and as a student, you will have the opportunity to earn official language certificates, charting your progress. Best of all, these certificates are recognised by employers and academic institutions all around the world. Students have the option of learning in virtual classrooms with other learners, or through private one-to-one lessons. Moreover, our courses offer complete flexibility, meaning you can book lessons whenever you want, as often as you want, to fit around your commitments and lifestyle. To learn more about our German language courses, click here.

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