Word of the Week Special: Found in Translation


As of 2012, there are more than 1 million words in the English language. And yet, we still haven’t found a phrase for the frustration we feel when we come up with the ultimate comeback only after an argument has ended.

The French, however, do: l’esprit de l’escalier, which literally means ‘stairwell wit’. Its unofficial definition is  ‘the feeling you get after leaving a conversation, when you think of all the things you should have said.’ A simple phrase to denote a frequent occurrence, and one which tragically doesn’t have an English counterpart.

Like l’esprit de l’escalier, there are countless examples of foreign words and phrases which help explain certain concepts or certain feelings that can be felt by everyone, regardless of cultural background. We’ve compiled a few of them here in an attempt to flesh out their meanings.

Saudade (Portuguese)
Definition: A powerful longing, missing.
Hanna Jade-Bee

It seems life is getting faster and faster, or rather, we attempt to pack more and more things into one day. Do we ever have nostalgia for a peaceful past, our uncomplicated childhood, our native land, or perhaps the university holidays…?

We have all missed someone or something, felt the emptiness of their absence. We have all longed to be back on that sunny beach during that holiday, or in that one place where our problems couldn’t trouble us. We have all had desires for the future, sometimes for things that cannot even exist, things for which we have a wistful longing for, as if we already miss not being able to experience them.

Saudade is the perfect and poetic expression for this vague and indescribable feeling, which was made particularly famous by the Portuguese music genre, fado or ‘fate’, whose mournful tunes and melancholic lyrics express its complex definition.


Ilunga (Tshiluba, a Bantu language spoken in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, including the DRC)
Definition: Someone willing to ‘forgive any abuse for the first time; tolerate it the second time, but never a third time.’
Dimple Vijaykumar

To ‘be’ an ilunga, you are essentially someone who is willing to give three chances. The first time someone upsets you, you are ready to forgive them. The second time, it is harder to forgive but you do it anyway. The third time, it’s over.

But the definition itself has more depth. Back in 2004, the BBC published an article stating that ilunga was the world’s most difficult word to translate, and it’s easy to see why. The term does not merely signify a person who operates under a crude ‘three strikes’ policy. Rather, it is also meant to document how emotions tend to change while going through each stage. The surprise you feel when they make the mistake for the first time, the sinking feeling when you realise they’ve done it again and the final realisation that it can’t go on. In essence, it marks the progression from acceptance to intolerance, the journey one goes through when trying to forgive those who hurt us and those who we also hurt.

Deciding to end a relationship is not a snap decision but is made after a series of difficult emotions; this is exactly what being an ilunga tries to encapsulate.

Taarradhin (Arabic)
Definition: Similar to the English word ‘compromise’, but does not involve reaching a reluctant arrangement via struggle or disagreement. The word implies a solution that is a definite win for all involved parties, suggesting a way of complete reconciliation.
Hanna Jade-Bee

Civil wars are raging around the world whilst we sit rather safely in the West and view the reports from the comfort of our living rooms. What we do hear can shock us and, unless we’ve become numb to the pain reported by journalists from our television screens, the daily news is undoubtedly brutal. Over 100,000 people have died in the distressing violence between President Bashar al-Assad’s government and the rebel forces in Syria.

Protests began peacefully but were met with a fierce government crackdown, and now countries around the world are being forced to stand up and take action, especially after suspected use of chemical weapons.

Meanwhile, fleeing refugees are hoping for shelter in the neighbouring countries of Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq until the crisis has settled. Is it our priority to take care of these people? Should we support the rebels? Or indeed attempt to overthrow the government? We make a subconscious decision to listen, to act or to ignore, whilst we filter the information that we daily receive from news reports. Yet as members of the UN, we have a responsibility to protect other member nations and after all we are all still human. We all have a right to democracy. Unfortunately at present, there seems to be no taarradhin in sight.


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