Ever heard of the term “lost in translation?” Of course, you have smarty-pants, so you’ll know that it means there are some words and phrases that are so unique, they simply cannot be adequately captured through direct translation to another language. We’ve listed 10 of them below, and they might come in handy if your career should ever take you abroad.
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Some of the words and phrases on this list have direct counterparts in English, and others don’t. But they all have one thing in common — literal translation alone simply doesn’t do them justice:
1. Ordnung (ord-nung)
German people have something of a reputation for being organised and meticulous, and the word “ordnung” reflects that. It literally means “order,” and you’ll often hear the phrase “alles in ordnung” (“all is in order?”) used around German-speaking workplaces when the boss wants to know whether things are tickety-boo.
The word ordnung also has other possible meanings that are relevant in a business context. For example, it can refer to a system or procedure — i.e. the way something should be done. It can also mean to take care of a problem, as in “Ich bringe das in Ordnung” (“I’ll see to it”).
2. Guanxi (gwan-chee)
“Guanxi” is a Chinese word with no literal English translation, but it loosely refers to your business network and the relationship dynamic between you and your clients, colleagues and associates. It’s one of those terms that covers a very broad and vague concept, but it’s critically important within Chinese culture.
Guanxi doesn’t simply refer to networking; it incorporates elements of respect and reciprocity — both of which are highly regarded by the Chinese in both business and personal contexts. For example, if my company makes a purchase from yours, I’ve demonstrated guanxi, and you would be expected to return the favour.
3. Lagom (lah-gum)
There are quite a few Swedish words and phrases that have no literal English translation but are often used in the workplace. “Lagom” is one of them, and it loosely means “just right.” Remember the story of Goldilocks? In that context, lagom would refer to the porridge that was neither too hot nor too cold or the chair that was neither too big nor too small.
In a business context, lagom has several uses. For example, it might surface in a conversation with suppliers when you’re discussing quantities of stock. Or if a team member is being too passive or too aggressive in their sales technique, you might tell them to be lagom about it. Get the idea?
4. Entre Nous (on-treh-nu)
Moving onto French, our next word “entre nous” literally translates to “between ourselves.” To define it further, it means to speak confidentially or keep information private. As you can probably imagine, the phrase has important implications in the context of business and professionalism.
Entre nous can crop up in a multitude of circumstances — when you want to keep information about a deal secret, protect a client’s confidentiality, or take a colleague aside for a private discussion, for example. It can also be used to state outright that you want to keep a conversation off-the-record or unofficial.
5. Nemawashi (neh-ma-wa-shee)
Like so many other Oriental words, “nemawashi” beautifully distills a broad and complex notion into one simple, concise term. It’s a Japanese word that describes the process of laying the foundations for some proposed project — a process that involves meeting with all the parties concerned, gathering feedback, ironing out details, and so on.
It literally translates to “going around the roots,” which refers to digging gently around the roots of a tree to prepare it for transplantation. In Japanese companies, nemawashi is the first thing you do before any formal steps are taken to implement a big change or develop a new product.
6. Hygge (huh-gah)
“Hygge” is a Danish word that’s said to be hard to define, and even harder to pronounce correctly. In English, it roughly means “cosy,” but as with many foreign words there can be subtleties and nuances that are lost in translation. Hygge could refer to the warm glow of candlelight, spending time with family and friends, or anything else that feels comfortable and positive.
In business, the word hygge can refer to the culture you want to foster within a company — i.e. a warm, positive workplace and a friendly, content workforce. Alternatively, it could be used to sum up the feeling your business is trying to create in the hearts and minds of customers when they purchase your product or avail of your services.
7. Philotimo (fill-oh-tee-mo)
The Greek word “philotimo” roughly means “love of honour,” but once again, the literal translation hardly does it justice. In broader terms, it refers to a set of values that dictate how individuals should behave in social groups. Or put simply, it’s about respect and doing the right thing.
Philotimo is a virtue that one can have or acquire. If you are polite and courteous with your customers, you have philotimo. If you show gratitude to a colleague for a favour they’ve done for you, that’s philotimo too. It can also mean having an appreciation for your job and your company’s heritage and traditions.
8. Greng Jai (greng-jye)
Thai people have a well-earned reputation for being tolerant and hospitable, and their language is rife with phrases that represent this. “Greng jai” is a term whose literal translation is hard to pin down, but it loosely means to be kind without expecting anything in return, or a reluctance to impose on other people.
It can convey a feeling of extreme gratitude — you might use it when a colleague digs you out of a massive hole or when someone does you a favour you can’t possibly hope to repay, for example. Or if you’re the one doing the favour, greng jai can be a way to show your deference, as in “no worries,” or “it’s nothing.”
9. Zachem (za-kem)
Russian is one of those languages with its own alphabet (based on Cyrillic), so it has plenty of words that are impossible to translate into English in a straightforward way. “Zachem” is one such word, and you might hear it crop up regularly in workplace or business discussions.
Literally, zachem means “what for,” but it’s used in a very particular context. Specifically, you would use it to determine the purpose of an action (as in “why do you need this now?” or “what are you doing all that work for?”). In that respect, it can be used to better understand “why” something should be done.
10. Menefreghista (meh-neh-freh-ghee-sta)
The final term on our multilingual list is the Italian word “menefreghista.” It comes from the more common phrase “me ne frego,” which means “I don’t care,” and it’s used to describe an individual who’s taken to living their entire life by that philosophy.
In a personal context, it’s a pretty good attitude to have — roll with the hits and don’t let anything get you down. But it can have completely different implications in business. For example, if you’ve ever worked with a menefreghista, you’ll know that trying to get them to perform and be productive is like trying to get blood out of a stone. And the more you push them, the more they dig their heels in.
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Can you think of any other non-English words or phrases whose translation is difficult to pin down? Tell us about them in the comments below: