Lost in Translation or Feeling Dépaysé?

Dépaysé = disoriented in French. Though not exactly, there is more to the word: it implies disorientation originating from going to a foreign country with different customs and habits than your home.

As Italians say, ‘paese che vai, usanza che trovi’ (= country you go to, custom you find).

Have you ever felt somewhat lost while knowing precisely where you were geographically?

Most of us have experienced confusion caused by leaving the familiar. At times it does not even require crossing borders, and can be felt in surprising proximity of your own neighborhood.


Words, Connotations and Sayings

One of my favorite topics to explore are the uses and customs that make a language and its culture unique. There are lots of words that don’t exactly translate into another language; and sayings that sound foreign once they cross borders, even if properly translated.

If you are comfortable in a couple of idioms, you might remember situations where you thought of a word in one, but could not find a 100% match in the other.

You might ask yourself when this happens.

Are you ready to catch some fish or some worms?

Below are three scenarios where meaning gets lost in translation, or where sayings don’t convert to the target language literally:

  1. Not Quite Translatable Words

Having to speak different languages in varying settings, I regularly find words that don’t quite have an equivalent in another language. The expression ‘I love you’ for example, which in English is used for a variety of people close to someone (and sometimes even not so close), is reserved for one’s life partner or spouse in German. Italians distinguish between ‘ti voglio bene’ and ‘ti amo’, the first, much more frequently used expression being for situations in which the second one is too strong. Although these two terms are used differently, they both translate into the English ‘I love you’.

Similarly to Spaniards, Italians add diminutives to a variety of items. In the clothing department for example, ‘maglione’ and ‘maglioncino’ both translate into sweater; the diminutive version is of a lighter fabric, usually of superior quality and more elegant. The same is true for ‘mantello’ and ‘mantellina’ used for a coat and a lighter coat.

The eloquent German word ‘Zeitgeist’ does not have an exact one-word translation, the English language even adopted the German expression to convey the spirit of a time.

  1. Translation Missing Connotation

Beside scenarios where there is no word to translate the source, there are certain feelings attached to words that can get lost in translation. For example, ‘Gemütlichkeit’ in German translates to ‘coziness’ as a state of warmth and friendliness. The translation however, does not entirely reflect the meaning and nuances conveyed by the German word: well-being, social belonging and peace of mind.

Mensch would simply translate as ‘human being’ if it were German. In Yiddish however, Mensch carries additional connotations: it implies nobility of character, responsibility, dignity as well as a sense of what is right and decorous.

  1. Sayings: Wisdom and Advice

Paréceme, Sancho, que no hay refrán que no sea verdadero” (“Sancho, it seems to me that there is no untrue proverb”)  ̶  Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quizote, early 1600s

He Who Sleeps, Does Not Catch Fish

You will recognize this as ‘early bird catches the worm’. In Italian, it is ‘chi dorme non piglia pesci’ which comes from a culture with many fishermen in its past.

Every language is made of much more than just words: language is rooted in history, culture, geography and more. Proverbs are a strong reflection of these elements: they are a testimony of time, bringing us back and connecting us to the era they were created in.

Can Attire Make Monks or People?

The Italian ‘L’abito non fa il monaco’ (= the habit (tunic) does not make the monk) is a testimony of Italy’s catholic past; the English equivalent would be ‘clothes don’t make the man’.

A little further north on the European continent, Gottfried Keller, a 19th century German poet, wrote the famous novel ‘Kleider machen Leute’ (= clothes make people) about a tailor who is mistaken for a count because of his attire. The church seems to have been less influential there.


The list of unique words and sayings could go on and on. Check out the blog by the well-traveled British illustrator, Ella Frances Sanders, who compiled a list of words from a variety of languages that are unique to each one, with beautiful drawings of hers.

Now that you have read this in your gemütlichen maglioncino that does not make you a count, are you curious about foreign expressions and would like more information? The Tell team is here for you.