The Japanese have a word for the pile of books gathering dust on his bedside table: tsundoku.

The feeling of making a situation worse by trying to make it better? The Germans call it verschlimmbessern.

All languages ​​have their untranslatable treasures. Words that evoke a complex emotion or that testify to a way of life, without equivalent in French.

Recently, the popular American dictionary Merriam-Webster surveyed its Twitter followers. “What perfect word can’t be translated into English?” he asked.

And the answers – which amount to more than 3000 – are tasty.

“Apapachar is a Spanish word of Mexican origin that comes from the Nahuatl language and literally means ‘to hug with the soul’,” said one.

“My grandfather used the Finnish word sisu,” another user shared. “You hate doing something, but it has to be done, so you do it anyway,” he explains.

Our favorite answer: kabelsalat – or literally “cable salad” in German – when TV or WiFi router cables get tangled in a knot.

French philosopher Barbara Cassin, who edited the Dictionary of Intraduisibles essay, spoke of words “that we never stop translating.”

“These are such rich words that we never finished translating them. There is not one possible translation, but several”, explains professor in the department of linguistics and translation at the University of Montreal Hélène Buzelin.

These wacky expressions can make you smile or charm, but they have a real function for their speakers.

Words respond to “communicative needs”, recalls professor in the linguistics department at the University of Quebec in Montreal Elizabeth Allyn Smith. “We’re going to develop specific words for concepts that are useful to us,” she explains.

As a result, untranslatable words often reflect “the values ​​and concerns” of their society of origin.

The Portuguese expression saudade is a famous example. Deeply rooted in the country’s history and culture, it expresses a complex feeling, between melancholy, nostalgia and hope.

The French language also has words specific to its cultural context, notes Ms. Smith. In Quebec, a person sensitive to the cold is chilly, she gives as an example. In France, strolling is an art of living.

For example, the term care in English can mean to care, to be interested or to feel affection for someone or something, depending on the context. “The concept of caring has no real equivalent in French if we had to translate all the senses in which we can use it,” notes Hélène Buzelin.

Moreover, it is not for nothing that we often have the impression that English has a word for everything.

English is one of the languages ​​with the most entries in the dictionary. And the reason is historic, says Professor Elizabeth Allyn Smith. Originally a Germanic language, English interacted strongly with French, a language derived from Latin, after the Norman conquest of England in 1066.

“It’s a kleptomaniac language that steals a lot of words and interacts with a lot of languages,” Smith adds.

German is also a language conducive to untranslatable words, but for a purely syntactic reason. “It’s a language that has a lot of portmanteau words in which they can put a lot of concepts together,” she explains.

“Languages ​​are not symmetrical. There is almost never a perfect equivalent between two words”, summarizes Hélène Buzelin.

The Italian writer Umberto Eco said that translating is just “saying almost the same thing”. Even that translation is often considered a “test”, adds Ms. Buzelin.

“It consists of transplanting a text that was born in a cultural, historical and linguistic context to make it accessible to another readership,” she explains.

“As a literary translator, you cannot refuse to translate the slightest sentence of a text. We must respect the full text, “said Eric Reyes Roher, Franco-Mexican translator who signed the translation from Spanish to French of the novel Tomber, published by Mémoire d’encrier.

Fortunately, there are strategies when a translator comes up against a term with no apparent equivalent. When the word refers to a cultural reality, for example cégep, he can simply leave the word as it is or translate it literally.

“The problem is that it may not be understood by the readership. Often, what we will do is put an explanation, often in the body of the text, “says Hélène Buzelin. It is also possible to replace the word with a more generic expression, agreeing to lose certain subtleties when transferring to the other language.

What is not a word in French today may become one one day.

The owners of a language are its speakers, not its institutions like the Académie française or the Office québécois de la langue française, says Elizabeth Allyn Smith.

Modeled on the English name serendipity, the word serendipity is now accepted in French. It designates, in a pretty sounding, the fact of making a discovery, scientific in particular, by chance.

“Our communication needs change and we decide what we will borrow or not,” concludes Ms. Smith.