The 9 most untranslatable words in German

There are thousands of words and expressions that, for linguistic or cultural reasons, don’t have an exact equivalent in other languages. When translating, we must use our imagination and our linguistic abilities to incorporate them into the target text in the most natural way possible.

German is such a complex language. We constantly take single words, mush ‘em together, and magically create a new word. And they’re all grammatically correct.

German has so many words that are impossible to translate into English and these are some of my favorites.

Torschlusspanik: literally ‘gate closing fear’, which is a fear that your time to achieve life goals is running out.

Fernweh: I consider this one to be one of the most ‘poetic’ words. When you experience ‘fernweh’ you have a longing for far-off places, to visit a new country that you’ve never set foot in before.

Weltschmerz: this one is a little on the depressing side, it refers to the despair caused by the state of the world. When you see destroyed refugee camps on the news, and you feel that deep, sinking sadness for those affected and how this was caused, that’s ‘Weltschmerz’.

Fuchsteufelswild: literally ‘fox-devil-wild’. My grandma used this a lot when I was growing up. It’s pure animal rage, but my grandma liked to use it in the context of ‘if you don’t take out the trash right now I’m going to be fuchsteufelswild!’. And honestly, no one wants to see my grandma that angry.

Fremdschämen: the feeling of being ashamed on someone else’s behalf. In English we’d call this secondhand embarrassment.

Backpfeifengesicht: a face that deserves to be slapped.

Schattenparker: I have a Catalan friend who speaks excellent German, and he came across this word in his studies. He asked me what it meant and I was baffled, I had never heard this expression before. It literally means someone who parks their car in the shade and it defines, much like milk-drinker, a coward. Since this word came to my attention I have made it a mission to include it into my day-to-day life.

Kummerspeck: this is the weight you gain while overeating after an emotional period. Literally ‘grief-bacon’. I gained a lot of Kummerspeck when I ended things with a Dutch male model I was seeing… Why would you end things with a male model?! Overeating was a perfectly sensible reaction.

Schadenfreude: refers to the joy you might feel at another person’s pain. ‘Schaden’ means ‘damage’ and ‘freude’ means ‘joy’. The way you’d first laugh at your friend when they fall before you help them back up.

As translators, we must deploy all our skills to translate these expressions without making them sound strange, and making sure that the translated text can be read fluently. That’s why it’s important to always work with professional translators and interpreters who have the tools and knowledge to solve these linguistic challenges.

I think we can all benefit from incorporating some of these amazing German words into our everyday vocabulary!

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