I've run into this situation several times, being a native Spanish speaker.

There are some words you just can't translate into another language. Is there a particular word to describe this?

I'm not refering to idioms.

Also, if its a noun, people tend to use them by surrounding them in quotes. Is this appropiate?


I arrived at around 5 pm and had some quesadillas.


I also meant to cover words that exist in English, but cannot be translated into another language.


There isn't a word for "drive-thru" in your language.

  • 1
    If it can be of any help at all to put someone on the track I know the word in French xénisme and in [German](e.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xenismus) but can't find it anywhere in English. The word comes from ancient Greek ξένος that means stranger. Spanish has the word Extranjerismo to describe the phenomenon. The OED has an entry for xenium, same greek root but the definition does not match. If English has a word for it, it is very difficult to find!
    – None
    Nov 19, 2013 at 13:22
  • I've never come across this definition of realia before. I'm not utterly convinced that this answers the OP's question. We need someone more expert than I, who could confirm if realia is the appropriate word. Whenever I have tried to translate the Italian "magari" into English I have said it is untranslatable, that an English equivalent doesn't exist. I'm sure if I said it was realia I would then have to explain what realia meant!
    – Mari-Lou A
    Nov 20, 2013 at 8:29
  • @Mari-Lou A – Paying attention to the Wikipedia definition, it clearly expresses "Realia (plural noun) are words and expressions for culture-specific material things.", so you might have a point. Anyway, the word being obscure, doesn't mean it shouldn't be used.
    – juanzack
    Nov 20, 2013 at 12:03
  • True, obscurity doesn't mean it should be ignored but I'm not convinced that realia is the word you are looking for. My understanding of the word, realia, is physically real everyday objects that come from a specific region or a country.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Nov 20, 2013 at 12:08
  • Isn't the use of such words "transliteration"? Nov 20, 2013 at 13:22

3 Answers 3


The word you are looking for is: Realia.


Entering in the field of translation studies, a radical terminological change must be enforced: «realia», in fact, does not mean objects, but signs, words and, more precisely, those words signifying objects of the material culture, especially pertaining to a local culture. It is, therefore, necessary to distinguish realia-objects (mostly outside translation studies) and realiawords (mostly inside translation studies). Realia as the units of translation are divided into abbreviations and phrases. Also they may be divided into the geographic and ethnographic realia. The geographic realias are names of the geographic and atmospheric objects and endemic species. Etnographic realia describe everyday life and culture of nations, their spiritual and material culture, traditions, religion, art, folklore etc. Etnographic realias are those connected with everyday life, art and culture, names of residents and ethnic objects, currency units.


  • As I study translation right at the moment, and realia is a big part of our training, both in definition and how to translate such cases, I am confident that realia is the correct answer for your question. I hope this sets your mind at ease :)
    – Sweet Trix
    Nov 20, 2013 at 12:49
  • 1
    The way we consider realia, its root is not being a material thing, but such a culture-specific word that cannot be translated directly as the phenomenon it expresses/represents is not present in the other language. True, in most cases these are material things, name of certain food, for example is a typical examle for this, but it is most certainly not exclusive to only be used for material things.
    – Sweet Trix
    Nov 20, 2013 at 12:55
  • This answer seems stronger now. Do you have any source other than Wikipedia?
    – juanzack
    Nov 20, 2013 at 13:00
  • 1
    Are you saying that 'realia' are things in one language that do not have translations into another language? I think you ate saying that 'realia' are the atoms of translation. The OP is looking for a term for specific kinds of realia, those that do not have a corresponding term in a language.
    – Mitch
    Nov 20, 2013 at 13:26
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    @nplungjan: it may be over the top but having looked at the wiki link it is exactly right. Translators use the term 'realia' exactly for terms like 'quesadilla' that don't have a corresponding word in the target language (with the explicit qualifier that it is because of different culture).
    – Mitch
    Nov 21, 2013 at 13:07

Call me stubborn, but I don't think there exists a formal term that specifically means a foreign word, which does not have the English equivalent, or vice versa. Realia is too broad, and covers words that are also translatable. At the risk of sounding boorish, (and I have waited several days for a more definite answer,) I will stick my neck out and say, the most appropriate, and likely most understood term is untranslatability.

The Economist 1 has an interesting article where the linguist Roman Jakobson affirms "The common trope that language X has no word for Y is usually useless (it usually means language X uses several words instead of one for Y)".

The following is taken from Wikipedia, and emphasis is mine.


Untranslatability is a property of a text, or of any utterance, in one language, for which no equivalent text or utterance can be found in another language when translated. [...] Quite often, a text or utterance that is considered to be "untranslatable" is actually a lacuna, or lexical gap. That is, there is no one-to-one equivalence between the word, expression or turn of phrase in the source language and another word, expression or turn of phrase in the target language


German and Dutch have a wealth of modal particles that are particularly difficult to translate as they convey sense or tone rather than strictly grammatical information. The most infamous example perhaps is doch (Dutch: toch), which roughly means "Don't you realize that . . . ?" or "In fact it is so, though someone is denying it." What makes translating such words difficult is their different meanings depending on intonation or the context.

A common use of the word doch can be found in the German sentence "Der Krieg war doch noch nicht verloren", which translates to "The war wasn't lost yet, after all" or "The war was still not lost."

Another instance is the Russian word пошлость /posh-lost'/. This noun roughly means a mixture of banality, commonality, and vulgarity. Vladimir Nabokov mentions it as one of the hardest Russian words to translate precisely into English.

Aunts and uncles

In Danish, Hindi, Gujarati, German, Tamil, Kannada, Punjabi, Bengali, Persian, Turkish, Chinese and South Slavic languages there are different words for the person indicated by "mother's brother", "father's brother" and "parent's sister's husband", all of which would be uncle in English. An exactly analogous situation exists for aunt. In Thai this concept is taken a step further in that there are different words for the person indicated by "mother's elder brother" and "mother's younger brother", as well as "father's elder brother" and "father's younger brother".

The Free Dictionary says: not capable of being put into another form or style or language; "an untranslatable idiom"; "untranslatable art" It also provides this example of usage which illustrates that language experts use the same term.

He covers public speaking, preparation/anticipating the speaker, complex syntax/compression, word order/clusters, general adverbial clauses, untranslatability, figures of speech, argumentation, formal style, diction/register, formal policy addresses, economic and political discourse, quotations/allusions/transposition, humor, Latinisms, numbers, and note-taking.

Interpretation; techniques and exercises, 2d ed by Reference & Research Book News

  • Wikipedia is slightly inaccurate there, as Chinese also has separate words for father's elder brother/sister vs. father's younger brother/sister vs. either of these people's spouses. Nov 21, 2013 at 9:19
  • Danish "hygge", Dutch "gezelligheid" but quesadilla is the name of a dish like sushi or paella
    – mplungjan
    Nov 21, 2013 at 9:25
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    Well spotted @mplungjan there's no need to translate the name of a dish.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Nov 21, 2013 at 9:28

Interestingly enough, there is no such word in English for 'words which have no translation in English'.

There are multi-word terms for it, namely what I just said and also 'untranslatable word'.

  • All we have to do now is find a language for which there is such a word.
    – Mitch
    Dec 1, 2014 at 3:56

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