The Japanese culture is known for its appreciation of nature and for finding beauty in simplicity. It is no wonder then that their language reflects the zen-like beauty their culture emanates. There are hundreds of untranslatable Japanese words that have no English counterpart. Attempts to translate these beautiful Japanese words into English result in poetic descriptions that warm the soul.
Beautiful and Untranslatable Japanese Words with No English Equivalent
The pronunciations alone of these untranslatable Japanese words ooze beauty as they roll off the tongue. But their meanings paint beautiful imagery that English speakers can only wish to encompass in a single word.
1. Flower Petal Storm
Hanafubuki is usually used to describe how cherry blossom petals float down en-masse, like snowflakes in a blizzard. I certainly wouldn’t mind being caught in this storm.
2. Beauty in Imperfection
When you adopt a wabisabi perspective, you accept that life is imperfect and, therefore, can appreciate the beauty of imperfect things. Japanese artists embrace wabisabi by purposely leaving imperfections in their artwork. For instance, a knot left in a wood carving or a crack in a piece of pottery.
3. Collecting Books with Reading
Booklovers are all too familiar with the truth behind the Japanese word tsundoku. In English, this untranslatable Japanese word describes the act of piling up books that you never get around to reading.
4. Memories That Warm the Heart
While the Japanese word ‘natsukashii’ does have an English equivalent in the word ‘nostalgia,’ the use and meaning of the word are quite different. Natsukashii is used quite often in everyday language in Japan. When used, Japanese people are not saying “nostalgia”; they are expressing a feeling that warms the heart because it brings back memories.
5. It Is What It Is
We are all familiar with the English expression that we use when we can’t do anything about a situation or when we give up because it’s out of our control. “It is what it is,” we say. But the Japanese wrap this up into one untranslatable Japanese word: Shoganai.
6. Just Be Yourself
Often used at company outings, the Japanese word Bureikou (which, coincidentally, sounds like ‘break’ in English) releases people from the confines of social status to just be themselves. It is a way to tell people to take a break from the pressures of the real world to be who you are without consequence.
7. Selfless Hospitality
Omotenashi is an untranslatable Japanese word that represents careful thoughtfulness. It is the type of hospitality that puts the customer or guest first without the expectation of anything in return.
8. Mouth Lonely
‘Kuchisabishii’ makes the list because the literal translation is cute and oh-so appropriate to express its meaning. When you are ‘mouth lonely’ you eat out of boredom rather than hunger.
9. Leaves Changing Colour
Like Hanafubuki is used in Cherry Blossom season, Kouyou is used as Autumn arrives. Kouyou is a way to say, “The leaves are changing colour, so Autumn is near.”
10. I Humbly Receive with Gratitude
Usually spoken before eating, ‘Itadakimasu’ is often translated as ‘bon appetit’ but much of the meaning is lost by doing so. Itadakimasu is beautifully nuanced to express gratefulness to all those responsible for producing the meal, from the farmers to the grocers to the cooks, and so on.
11. A Cold Wind of Winter
As winter approaches, Japanese people will use the word ‘Kogarashi’ every time a bitingly cold wind sends shivers down their spine.
12. Sunlight Leaking Through the Trees
In a single untranslatable Japanese word, ‘Komorebi’ illustrates a beautiful forest with sunlight peeking through the leaves of the trees. What English word could compare?
13. Bitter Sweetness of Fading Beauty
Though technically this is three words in Japanese, ‘Mono no aware’ shows an appreciation for things that quickly pass or are soon lost. This phrase is often used to describe the short Cherry Blossom season.
14. A Profound Sense of the Universe
Yugen describes the emotional response one feels when they consider things too big to comprehend, like how many stars are in the universe, or the mysteries of creation.
15. Soaking in the Forest
Literally translated to ‘Forest Bathing,’ Shinrin-yoku describes spending time in the forest to reduce stress, which has been clinically proven to be effective.
16. Worth Living For
Ikigai is a person’s reason for being. It’s the passion, purpose, or value that makes life worth living.
17. Love is Inevitable
Often translated as ‘Love at first sight,’ ‘Koi no Yokan’ is not quite the head-over-heels love you’d expect from the mistranslation. More accurately, it means you are bound to fall in love even if you don’t feel it now.
18. Light of a River in Darkness
Just like many untranslatable Japanese words, kawaakari conjures an entire landscape in the mind’s eye. This word refers to light reflected off a river at night or dusk.
19. From Strangers to Family
Ichariba chode embraces the spirit of friendliness to strangers. In ways, it can be compared to the sentiment of ‘Mi casa es su casa’ but more accurately means ‘from strangers to brothers or sisters.’
20. Golden Repair
In the way wabisabi embraces imperfections, kintsukuroi (or kintsugi) repairs pottery with gold or silver. Instead of trying to blend and hide the imperfection, kintsukuroi highlights its beauty.
21. Can’t Be Touched
Kyouka suigetsu is a Japanese phrase that can’t be easily translated into English. It refers to something that is visible but can’t be touched, like the moon’s reflection on the water. Or, an emotion that can’t be described in words.
22. An Unattainable Goal
Literally translated as ‘flower on a high peak,’ ‘takane no hana’ describes something that is beyond your reach.
23. Viewing the Moon
Japanese festivals often revolve around nature. Tsukimi is the act of viewing the moon, which is often enjoyed en-masse during moon-viewing festivals in September or October.
Translating Untranslatable Japanese Words
The Japanese language is filled with words that are very descriptive in their simplicity. A single word can have more depth and impact that is difficult to capture in other languages. When there is no English equivalent, translators must explore the nuances of a word’s meaning and endeavour to convey a word’s true meaning.