Lost in Translation: The Beauty of Untranslatable Greek Words

Lost in Translation: The Beauty of Untranslatable Greek Words

A Clockwork Orange writer and notable translator, Anthony Burgess, once said: “Translation is not a matter of words only; it is a matter of making intelligible a whole culture.” Chances are that, if you are a professional translator yourself and have had your fair share of experience in the field, Burgess’s words will speak to your heart. There is a common misunderstanding when it comes to the process of translation; it is thought by many that the translator’s task merely consists of transferring words from a source text to a target texthis/her only tool during this process being the dictionary.

I may be biased, as a freelance translator and a TEDxUniversityofMacedonia Volunteer Translator, but let me put my two cents in this issue; the process of translation is far more complex and demanding than one may think. The translator cannot simply rely on finding the translation of a word in the dictionary, but he/she should be familiar with the cultural background of the source text and always take into account its context. This is what we may call the struggle for equivalence, i.e. trying to find the best possible lexical solutions in order to transfer and decode what is encoded in the source text.

Untranslatable words

Leaving all technical terms and fancy jargon aside, I want to put a spotlight on the fact that there are certain words that (will possibly always) remain untranslatable. This may seem curious, but certain words do not have a single equivalent word in English, in whichever context you may encounter them. This is the case for many Greek wordsthese words are so rich in meaning and in history that they simply cannot be condensed in a single word, when trying to translate them into English. Through these words, one may get a very good idea about Greek culture and the local mindset.

I chose the following untranslatable Greek words, with great meraki not because I see it as an act of philotimoin the sense that it is a way of contributing to the TEDx communitybut rather because I am truly passionate about the Greek language and the beauty of linguistics. I suggest that you read these words and discuss them with your parea, as they are great for all possible occasions; whether there is kefi, when you are feeling down or even in states of charmolypi, you may read the definitions of these words and find yourself getting inspired or feeling all warm and fuzzy inside. And if this paragraph was full of unknown terminology, please, keep reading…



(n.) χαρμολύπη

This word is, both etymologically and semantically, a mixture of the words meaning “happiness” and “sadness”. Thus, charmolypi is a mixed feeling of happiness, while being sad. One such case would be the regret and the repentance we sometimes feel because of past mistakes. However, they simultaneously fill us with the light of forgiveness and make us feel hopeful for the future. So, if you ever felt the need to describe that mixture of sorrow and joy, here’s the word for you.


(n.) κέφι

This is one of the words that might actually be translatable for some. One could simply define it as “fun” or “enjoyment”. But, you see, its true meaning is far more subtle and specific than that; kefi is the spirit of joy, which overwhelms the soul and requires a release. When there is kefi, good times and passion for life are expressed through an abundance of enthusiasm, excitement, happiness and fun. Have you ever experienced that infamous scene of Greek people entertaining themselves, drinking and smashing plates while dancing? This is basically the quintessence of kefi.


(n.) μεράκι

This is probably my favourite untranslatable Greek word. Meraki is the effort and the essence of yourself that you put into your work; it is when you do something with love, passion, care, and creativity. You are essentially putting your time and your soul into the work you are doing. This is why meraki is usually used when referring to cooking a meal, decorating, painting etc. Meraki is the labour of love.


(n.) παρέα

This is a very special word and it actually makes me wonder why there is no equivalent in the English language. Parea describes a close group of friends who gather together purely to enjoy each other’s company. In their gatherings, the parea might share their experiences, their ideas or even memories they have collected together, but they also like to celebrate the joys of everyday life by eating, drinking, dancing and having fun. In other words, what is characteristic for the parea is the fact that they derive pleasure simply by being in each other’s company.


(n.) φιλότιμο

Philotimo is considered to be a virtue, or rather a set of virtues, and it is definitely one of the best-known and most characteristic untranslatable Greek words. Philotimo encompasses personal pride, dignity, courage, duty, sacrifice and above all demands respect and deep personal freedom. It is doing what is honourable out of a sense of loyalty, regardless of the possible outcome. It is to prioritize the well-being of others, to live for something greater than yourself. And as the Greek philosopher Thales has said: “Philotimo to the Greeks is like breathing. A Greek is not a Greek without it. He might as well not be alive.”

Ellie Karatza

Full-time daydreamer, part-time traveller and a big life enthusiast. I am an English Language and Literature graduate, who currently works as a freelance translator and subtitler. I speak fluent English, German and Greek, but can order coffee in many more languages.
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