What Words Get Lost?

Nicola Davis and the Guardian community team (whatever that may be) ask: If you speak multiple languages, which words get lost in translation?

A new study has demonstrated that while words for emotions such as “fear”, “love” or “anger” are often directly translated between languages, there can be differences in their true meaning, depending on the family the language belongs to. For example, while the concept of “love” is closely linked to “like” and “want” in Indo-European languages, it is more closely associated with “pity” in Austronesian languages.

The team behind the research say the way particular experiences are interpreted as emotions appears to be shaped by culture. Are there words you know which can be directly translated, yet have subtle differences in meaning? And have you found challenges in translation have ever led you into interesting situations? You can share your stories and experiences with us by filling in the form below. Only the Guardian will see your responses, and leave contact details if you can as one of our journalists may be in touch to discuss further.

As always, I’m dubious about this kind of thing (linking language family to semantic concepts), but hey, it’s for science journalism; if you feel like taking part, it won’t even cost you a postage stamp. Thanks, Kobi!


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    the concept of “love” is closely linked to “like” and “want” in Indo-European languages

    Not just Indo-European, of course, by any means.

    Hausa has “like, want, desire, love.”

    Kusaal has nɔŋ for “love” as in family and friends, but bɔɔd for sexual/romantic “love.”
    Bɔɔd is straightforwardly the ordinary word for “want, need”; nɔŋ is segmentally the same as the word for “poverty”, but the tones are different, which in these languages is as great a difference as if the words had different vowels, and certainly means that the words are completely distinct at least synchronically.

    Lingala has linga, “love, want, want to, be about to” (the last meaning is shared by Kusaal bɔɔd.)

  2. A related example (which I might have mentioned) happened to me many years ago. I hired a tour guide in Vietnam ( Da Nang or Hue) but wasn’t very satisfied with his service, mainly due to his poor English, which prevented him from understanding what I might be interested in. I eventually told him I “wasn’t happy”, to which he replied “Do you want a girl?”

    “Not happy” in English means “dissatisfied”, but he interpreted it as buồn, which Google translate interprets as “sad, moody, sullen”. Apparently the ideal thing for curing a man’s buồn is to find him a girl.

    Japanese has the word 愛憐れむ ai-awaremu, which is one word for “to love”. To be sure, 愛 ai means ‘love’, but 憐れむ awaremu means ‘feel pity’.

    My experience tells me that mistaking pity for love is not a good idea.

  3. Most dictionaries spell ai-awaremu as 相哀れむ — etymologically, the ai is a native Japanese verbal prefix unrelated to the Sino-Japanese ai 愛 “love”.

  4. David Eddyshaw says

    Bathrobe’s comment reminds me of a discussion I read somewhere of the various ways to convey “I love you” in Japanese, which concluded with a comment along the lines of: “Of course, the most culturally appropriate expression for ‘I love you’ is silence.”

  5. Also, as far as I know, the word is generally limited to the set phrase 同病相哀れむ dōbyō ai-awaremu, meaning “(those with the) same affliction pity one another.” The ai being not love, as DMT said, but the reciprocal prefix “ai”, as in 相席 aiseki or “seat sharing” (when someone makes use of the empty chair at your table in a crowded restaurant, say).


    The differences in expressive habits are interesting. In English the ambiguous gap between “like” and “love” is often employed to distinguish mere positive feelings from romantic love, but in Japanese that very obliqueness makes “like” the word regularly preferred for expressing love (suki). The heavier (Sinophone borrowing) ai is not usually employed so casually. Western influence means that there are exceptions to this, but in general you see it in abstract collocations (love of country, love of God, etc.) and ads for schmaltzy movies and the like. “Love you, talk to you laterr” would usually just be “Talk to you later”, which is perhaps what David’s source meant by “silence”, though I think “left unsaid” might be closer to the mark.

  6. There is also ‘want’ itself, which is semantically related to ‘lacking’, ‘needing’, or ‘missing’.

    ‘He was found wanting’.

    ‘You want a good spanking’.

    ‘I love you, I want you, I need you, I miss you’ are all related, I guess.


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