8 Professional Translators Choose Their Favorite 'Untranslatable' Words


Readers tend to think of a translated novel as having just one author. While that’s technically true, each work contains two voices: that of the author and the translator. Translators must ensure that their interpretation remains faithful to the style and intent of the author, but this doesn't mean that nothing is added in the process. Gabriel García Márquez, the author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, once famously said that the English version of his novel was, in some ways, better than his original work in Spanish.

“A good translation is itself a work of art,” translator Nicky Harman writes. Put differently, translator Daniel Hahn believes translation is literally impossible. “I don’t just mean it’s really, really difficult, but really, it’s not actually possible,” he says. “There’s not a single word in any of the languages I translate that can map perfectly onto a word in English. So it’s always interpretative, approximate, creative.”

In a show of appreciation for this challenging craft, the Man Booker International Prize was created to annually recognize one outstanding work of literature that has been translated from its original language into English and published in the UK. Ahead of the winner being announced on May 22, the translators of eight Man Booker International Prize nominees have shared their favorite "untranslatable" words from the original language of the novels they translated into English.


Sam Taylor, who translated The 7th Function of Language by Laurent Binet from French to English, said the best definition of bref is “Well, you get the idea.” It’s typically used to punctuate the end of a long, rambling speech, and is sometimes used for comedic effect. “It’s such a concise (and intrinsically sardonic) way of cutting a long story short,” Taylor says.


Unsatisfied with any of the English words at their disposal, translators Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff left this word in Spanish in Die, My Love, a psychological novel by Ariana Harwicz. The word, which describes a female healer who uses prayer to break hexes and cure ailments, was explained in the text itself. The translated version reads: “If only there were santiguadoras living in these parts, those village women who for a fee will pray away your guy’s indigestion and your toddler’s tantrums, simple as that.”


The German word Hellhörig "literally means 'bright-hearing' and is used, for example, to describe walls so thin you can hear every noise in the next room," says Simon Pare, who translated The Flying Mountain, a novel by Christoph Ransmayr. Pare notes that while English equivalents like "paper-thin" and “flimsy” carry the same negative connotation, they don’t have the same poetic quality that hellhörig has. "'The walls have ears,' while expressive, is not the same thing,” Pare laments.


Vorstellung (another German word) can be defined as an idea or notion, but when its etymology is broken down, it suddenly doesn’t seem so simple. It stems from the verb vorstellen, meaning “to place in front of—in this case, in front of the mind’s eye,” according to Susan Bernofsky, who translated Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck. “The Vorstellung is the object of that act of mental conjuring-up," Bernofsky adds. (Fun fact: All nouns are capitalized in German.)

5. 눈치 (NUNCH'I)

Literally translating to “eye measure,” the Korean word nunch’i describes “an awareness of how those around you are currently feeling, plus their general character, and therefore the appropriate response,” says Deborah Smith, the translator of Han Kang’s The White Book. Korean culture stresses the importance of harmony, and thus it’s important to avoid doing or saying anything that could hurt another person’s pride, according to CultureShock! Korea: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette.

6. ON

Anyone who has survived French 101 has seen this word, but it’s a difficult concept to fully grasp. It’s also one that crops up regularly in novels, making it “the greatest headache for a translator,” according to Frank Wynne, who translated Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes. On is often translated as “one” (as in “one shouldn’t ask such questions”), but in general conversation it can come off as “preposterously disdainful,” Wynne notes. Furthermore, the word is used in different ways to express very different things in French, and can be taken to mean “we,” “people,” “they,” and more, according to French Today.


Store this one away for your next cocktail party. The Spanish word tertulia can be defined as “an enjoyable conversation about political or literary topics at a social gathering,” according to Camilo A. Ramirez, who translated Like a Fading Shadow by Antonio Munoz Molina. Although tertulia is tricky to translate, it's one of Ramirez's favorite Spanish words because it invokes a specific atmosphere and paints a scene in the reader’s mind. For instance, the first chapter of The Hobbit, “An Unexpected Party,” becomes “Una Tertulia Inesperada” when translated into Spanish.


Like the French on, the Polish words pan (an honorific address for men) and pani (an address for women) are challenging to explain in English. While many European languages have both a formal and informal “you,” pan and pani are a different animal. “[It's] believed to derive from the days of a Polish noble class called the szlachta—another tradition unique to Poland,” says Jennifer Croft, who translated Flights by Olga Tokarczuk into English. This form of address was originally used for Polish gentry and was often contrasted with the word cham, meaning peasants, according to Culture.pl, a Polish culture site. Now, it’s used to address all people, except for children or friends.

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Why Do We Call Coffee ‘a Cup of Joe’?

Photo by Rodolfo Quirós from Pexels
Photo by Rodolfo Quirós from Pexels

By Samantha Enslen, Quick and Dirty Tips

Raise your mug and take a sip because today we’re looking at some of the weird words we use to talk about coffee.

Coffee Comes From the Turkish Word Kahveh

Let’s start with the word coffee itself. It comes from the Turkish word kahveh, and it seems to have come into European languages around 1600. (6) That’s because coffee beans were first brought from North Africa and the Middle East into Italy in 1615, and then into France in 1644. There, the Turkish ambassador to France, Suleiman Aga, helped to make coffee the “it” beverage in the court of Louis XIV. (4)

The European aristocracy became enchanted by the thick, hot beverage. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Back then, the word coffee appeared in a lot of different forms: chaona, cahve, kauhi, cahu, coffa, and caffa. Eventually, these all settled down into the coffee we know today. (6)

Battery Acid, Crumb Coffee, and Unicorn Frappuccinos

Over time, we’ve come to know coffee by a bunch of different terms. We’ve called bad or poorly made coffee “battery acid,” “belly wash,” and “sludge.” (4) And a certain brand’s coffee is sometimes called “charbucks” by those who don’t appreciate really dark-roasted coffee.

We’ve called fake coffee “Boston coffee,” “Canadian coffee,” and “crumb coffee.” These so-called coffees were made in the U.S. after the Revolutionary War, when Americans were abstaining from tea because of high British taxes, yet also suffering from high coffee prices. These three coffee substitutes were made, respectively, from rye, peas, and burnt bread. (4)

I can’t really imagine how they would have tasted.

Today, we often refer to coffee by the way it’s made: drip coffee, press coffee, moka pot coffee, instant coffee, and siphon coffee, for example. (3)

Americans have borrowed the British expression “a cuppa,” referring to a cup of tea, and now use it willy-nilly to refer to a cup of coffee. (5)

And of course, we have all the made-up names for coffee we could ever want, courtesy of today’s gourmet coffee shops: unicorn frappucinos and caramel flan macchiatos are just two of many.

Why Do We Call Coffee a ‘Cup of Joe’?

One of the most common ways we’ve referred to coffee in the past century is to call it a “cup of joe.” Why do we do that? The real answer is that we’re not quite sure, but there are some theories.

One theory is that it’s named after Josephus Daniels, a U.S. Secretary of the Navy. In 1914, he banned alcohol from being served on Navy ships. After that, coffee would have been the strongest drink allowed onboard. So, the theory goes, sailors started calling coffee “Joe” to spite Secretary Josephus.

The problem is most alcohol had already been banned on Navy ships 50 years earlier. A daily ration of grog was once normal on Navy ships, but an 1862 edict put that practice to rest. So by 1914, the only hard stuff that would have been left was wine served in the officer’s mess. So Josephus’s ban wouldn’t have had much effect on the average … well … the average Joe. (7)

Another theory is that this name for coffee is based on an African-American spiritual written by Stephen Foster, called “Old Black Joe.” There is a comic strip from 1911 that describes this phrase as meaning coffee without milk. The problem is the comic is making a joke, suggesting that when that song is played in a restaurant, it means a customer wants coffee. The song itself never mentions coffee. And the song was popular way back in the 1860s. So it doesn’t make sense that it generated a slang term that wasn’t popular until the 1930s. (2,7)

Java + Mocha = Jamoke

The most likely reason a “cup of joe” means a cup of coffee is that joe is a shortened form of jamoke, which is a combination of the words java and mocha. (2)

Remember how I said that coffee was exported from North Africa and the Middle East starting in the 1600s?

Well, Dutch traders at that time wanted to get in on the action. They began moving into Southeast Asia and Indonesia and setting up coffee plantations on islands like Sumatra, Bali, and Java. They probably used the term java to refer to coffee beans grown on that island. They were essentially the original advertisers of single-origin coffee.

For some reason, the term java took hold with the public. Over time, it came to mean coffee generically, not just coffee from that island.

At the same time coffee was being produced in Indonesia, it was also being produced and traded in Yemen. That’s where arabica coffee beans originated; they’re native to both Yemen and Ethiopia. Traders buying coffee from Yemen had to stop in the port city of Mocha, and from there, they often sailed on to Java. When they combined the beans from those two countries, they created “Mocha Java," also known as “jamoke.”* And the shortened version of that, of course, is “joe.” (1)

That’s our best guess as to why a cup of coffee is also called a “cup of joe.” I hope you enjoyed a cuppa today, and I hope that it was more unicorn than sludge.

*Just like the original coffee, jamoke has seen several alternative spellings across the years: jamoca, jamoch, jamok, and jamoka have all turned up.


1. Driftaway Coffee. Why is Coffee Called Java? Accessed September 23, 2019.

2. Green, Jonathon. Joe, jamoke. Green’s Dictionary of Slang, digital edition. Accessed September 23, 2019.

3. Home Grounds. The Complete Guide to Coffee Brewing Methods. Accessed September 23, 2019.

4. Mariani, John. Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink. Bloomsbury, USA, 2013.

5. Not One-Off Britishisms. Cuppa. Accessed September 23, 2019.

6. Oxford English Dictionary, digital edition. Joe. Accessed September 23, 2019.

7. Snopes.com. Why is coffee called a “cup of Joe”? January 19, 2009. Accessed September 23, 2019.

A version of this article was originally published on Quick and Dirty Tips as "Why Do We Call Coffee ‘a Cup of Joe’?" Read more from Quick and Dirty Tips.

About the Author

Samantha Enslen is an award-winning writer who has worked in publishing for more than 20 years. She runs Dragonfly Editorial, an agency that provides copywriting, editing, and design for scientific, medical, technical, and corporate materials. Sam is the vice president of ACES, The Society for Editing, and is the managing editor of Tracking Changes, ACES' quarterly journal.