It’s so easy to get lost in translation in Asia as the languages are full of idioms, double entendre and wordplay. Some are derived from the culture and lifestyle, while others are just a result of a cheeky sense of humour!
Here are some words and phrases for which there is no translation, while others mean something quite different to their literal translation:
Indonesians have some very inventive ways of describing what is happening to them. If anyone says they are gak enak badan, it literally translates as ‘not of delicious body’, but actually means that they aren’t feeling well.
If they ever tell you that they’re going to ‘throw a small water’ (buang air kecil), then they’re going to the toilet!
When you were small (or perhaps even now!) did you ever tap someone on the opposite shoulder to get them to look in the wrong direction? In Indonesia they even have a word to describe that – mencolek.
Thais have a word for the feeling of being reluctant to ask someone to do something for you, or not wanting to accept their help because of the bother it may cause them. In English there are many ways to express the same thing, but the Thais have it down to one expression: greng jai. You’ll hear it a lot from this considerate country.
If a Thai person tells you that they have escaped from the tiger to the crocodile (nee seua pa jo ra kay), don’t be alarmed, it’s just their way of saying ‘out of the frying pan into the fire’.
A great compliment to get from a Thai is yok prik maa tang suan, which literally means ‘to bring all the chillies from a plantation‘. In other words, they think you’re incredibly sexy!
The word jootha in Hindi refers to food or drink that someone else has already taken a bite or sip from. Or it could be an item that has been used by someone else, for example, a fork. The second person to use the fork is using the first person’s jootha.
Have you ever experienced happiness when it rains? In Hindi there is a word for it: rimjhim. It’s used to describe a light shower or drizzle and the joy that people feel with the arrival of long awaited rains.
Let’s hope that at some point in our lives we all experience jijivisha – the intense desire to live and to continue living to the fullest in the highest sense of being.
The Laotians have their own word fadt which describes an astringent or acidic taste sensation not familiar to most Westerners. They also have a word to describe the tingly, dry feeling in the mouth after eating certain tropical fruits and nuts: sep lai.
When it comes to Vietnamese, it’s animals that become lost in translation. The word for kangaroo is chuột túi which literally translates as ‘rat pocket’ or ‘bag mouse’. A dolphin is cá heo or ‘pig fish’, while a baboon is known as a khỉ đầu chó, or a quite terrifying ‘dog-headed monkey’!
The Vietnamese language is also littered with proverbs:
Có công mài sắt có ngày nên kim literally translates as ‘if you put in the work to sharpen the steel, it will eventually turn into needle’. A rather long-winded way of saying that practice makes perfect.
And the one we really like: hín người, mười ý, which means ‘nine people, ten ideas‘. Basically the more people you include, the more opinions and debates you will have. Makes sense to us!