Oy vey! C’est la vie. – You Need an Interpreter for That

Communicating with multilingual customers takes more than changing from English to Spanish

If you speak more than one language, you can probably think of at least a few words or expressions that just do not translate accurately to the other. That’s because words and expressions not only transport our personal ideas but also reflect cultural ideas from the culture that originated them. Those cultural ideas form a cultural context that shapes the meaning and nuances of a word or phrase, making the word much more difficult to express to someone from a different culture.

Untranslatable Words From Around the World

There are so many interesting sayings/words from other cultures that don’t have a precise translation in any other language. Sometimes these phrases can be so specific as only to apply in say, Caribbean Spanish, but not in any other Spanish speaking country. In fact, over 20 countries have Spanish as their official language, and all of them have made their own mark on the language. That’s why, even if you or one of your staff know Spanish, you may still need an interpreter to help accurately adapt these idiosyncrasies from Spanish to English and from English to Spanish again when trying to communicate with a Spanish-speaking customer or employee.

Of course Spanish is far from the only language with words that have no equivalent in English.

Cultural Context Words

Here are some of our favorites:

  • Chuleta (Panamanian Spanish) – This is the word for pork chop in Spanish, however in Panamanian slang, it means “pity” or “disappointment” or even “damn”. To make it more confusing, “chuleta“ can also mean the exact opposite. When you’re excited about something, it also can mean “Wow!” It just depends on how and when you use it.


  • Cotisuelto (Carribean Spanish)This word is used to describe a man (typically a young man) who usually wears his shirt tails untucked. It’s often used in a negative context to convey a poor fashion trend.


  • Fernweh (German) – This German word means a longing for distant places—and while the English word wanderlust comes close, fernweh can also refer to a longing for a place you’ve never even been.


  • Frühjahrsmüdigkeit (German) – The Germans love to join words together to make progressively more specific words! Frühjahr means springtime, while Müdigkeit means tiredness. Together, it refers to a sort of reverse seasonal affective disorder—when people become depressed or lethargic at the onset of spring.


  • Lagom (Swedish) – This word most closely translates to just the right amount. It carries the connotation of appropriateness, although not necessarily perfection. The value of “just enough” for Swedes can be compared to the idiom “less is more”, and carries favorable meaning.


  • Layogenic (Tagalog) – This is a slang word from the Philippines for a person who is attractive from a distance but not from close up. “Layo” is the Filipino word for “far” while “-genic” is a term borrowed from English, particularly from the word “photogenic.”


  • Saudade (Portuguese) – The Portuguese use this to convey a beautiful, bittersweet longing for something absent. It could be something you’ve loved and lost or something that may not even have happened at all. Portuguese-speaking people from Portugal to Cape Verde to Brazil to Angola claim that this feeling is unable to be translated.


  • Schlemiel and Schlimazel (Yiddish) – Both of these terms refer to someone prone to bad luck. Yiddish distinguishes between the schlemiel and schlimazel, who would most closely be grouped under a term such as klutz in other languages. The schlemiel is the traditional bumbler, who spills his coffee; the schlimazel is the one on whom it’s spilled.


  • Shoganai (Japanese) – This term is frequently used Japanese response that means it can’t be helped. It is a catchall response to any situation, large or small, over which people believe they have no influence. Another translation might be It is what it is, accept it! You might recognize similar phrases in other languages like the Italian Que sera, sera!, or the French C’est la vie!


  • Sobremesa (Spain Spanish) – The literal translation of sobremesa is upon the table, however this term is used in Spain for the time spent at a table after eating. In Spain this includes the time people remain at the table exchanging gossip, ideas, or even playing cards. For Spaniards, it’s a time to be self-indulgent and to recognize that there is more to life than working long hours. To them, there are few pleasures greater than sharing a meal and then chatting nonsense for a large portion of what remains of the day.


  • Ya’aburnee (Levantine Arabic) – A literal translation would be “You bury me!”, but this morbid-sounding phrase has a sweet meaning. Used mostly in Lebanon and Syria, this is a romantic expression telling the other that they would not want to live without them. Something close to: Live longer than me; Bury me; I would not be able to live without you.


  • Zhaghzhagh (Persian) – This ultra-specific Persian word describes the chattering of teeth from being cold or from rage- the feeling experienced mostly in winters or after a fight.

Interpreters Do More Than You Might Realize

Interpreters use the full spectrum of a language and a speaker’s cultural context to actively adapt a message. In cases where a word or expression can’t be translated literally without distorting or altering the meaning, a trained interpreter must quickly adapt the message using other words or phrases in the target language that will convey the meaning and connotation of the original speaker.

For example, think of expressions in English like “having a chip on your shoulder,” “a leopard can’t change his spots,” or “this is a piece of cake.”  How would these sound to someone of another culture if translated literally word-for-word? Not quite right. Regional words and expressions can also be misunderstood because they sound similar to a specific word in English, but have a different meaning. We featured an alarming example of this in a past blog that describes how a Spanish-speaking patient was misdiagnosed because of a language mistake. These examples demonstrate the importance of accuracy and cultural knowledge in interpretation.

Expert Interpreters at the Push of a Button

Remote Interpreting can provide an easy solution for a company needing to facilitate communication with a limited-English customer or employee, between members of multilingual teams, or with international clients and partners. Having a skilled linguistic and cultural interpreter can make the difference in accurately understanding a client or employee.

Because remote interpreting services do not require the interpreter to be there in person, companies can cut costs over using in-person interpreters. You can do this while keeping the ability to interpret untranslatable words and phrases and other contextual information such as gestures and eye contact. By using interpreters with cultural fluency specific to the target culture, the likelihood of a positive communication goes up substantially.

SpokenHere provides on-demand remote interpreting services charged by the minute, with no minimum call times or monthly fees. SpokenHere’s ConnectNow remote interpretation platform allows you to connect with culturally informed interpreters instantly from your desktop, tablet, or even mobile device.

When you find yourself in a situation that calls for a knowledgeable cultural liaison, we’re here to help. Contact us to learn more and view a demonstration.