Untranslatable Words: Sisu

March 19, 2010 / Culture / 48 Comments

I love finding foreign words that can’t be translated into English. These little gems allow me to experience another culture as a local because the only way to understand these words is to put yourself in their shoes.

Untranslatable Finnish Word: Sisu

During one of my Top Gear marathons, I stumbled upon an interview with Finnish racing driver Mika Häkkinen. He talks about an interesting Finnish trait: sisu. It roughly translates to courage to persevere in English. However, unlike courage, it doesn’t have the activeness or the aggressiveness attached to its meaning.

Imagine failing your math exam but you don’t throw a hissy fit, curse your teacher or blame your dog. Instead, you gracefully accept your failure and work harder for your next test. That courage to accept your failure and that silent yet strong determination to overcome your weakness is what the Finnish call sisu.

Ethnographers claim that sisu arose from Finland’s history. Georgraphically, they are sandwiched by bigger, stronger neighbors that served as constant political, military, cultural and even linguistical threats to the Finnish. (Finland is the only Scandinavian country with a language that does not have Germanic roots). I can’t think of a better way than sisu to cope with these adversities.

But enough about sisu from me. I’m not Finnish, I’ve never been to Finland and I have more fingers than I have Finnish friends. So here’s the clip from Top Gear where Häkkinen talks about sisu. (It’s a 10 minute clip. I recommend watching the entire clip since it’s hilarious to watch Captain Slow learn to rally race. But if you don’t love Top Gear like I do, just jump right into the sisu bit at 4:35.)

If you’d like to know more about sisu, read The Finnish Line by the Washington Post.

English has untranslatable words too!

On a side note, we have words in English that are untranslatable to other languages too. One favorite example is the word nice. It has so many meanings. It could be a synonym to good, it could also mean politeness as in “a nice gesture”; it could even be some sort of intensifier as in “a nice and warm cup of tea”!

Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s profound cultural significance in its untranslatability. Perhaps, we anglophones try so hard to avoid offending others that we came up with a word to describe boring people in a good way.

Just kidding. 😛


  • http://futuresocial.wordpress.com/ Steve Law

    I think the word “awesome” which translates very strangely into Mandarin. My Chinese friends thought I was being offensive when I said that they were awesome… :/

    http://www.mdbg.net/chindict/chindict.php?page=worddict&wdrst=0&wdqb=awesome

    • http://nanyate.com Ivy

      Good one! Li hai has negative connotations so I can see why they would be offended. LOL!

      An English word that I had a hard time explaining in Chinese is “lame”. Not the crippled “lame”, but the “lame” South Park’s Cartman uses, as in “uncool”.

      Thanks for sharing!

  • http://silvercpu.com/blog Lissy

    I work with a lot of non-native English speakers and it’s funny because you forget until they say something you don’t understand or you say something they don’t understand. It’s fun :)

  • http://kay.dreamling.ca Kaylee

    I always find it interesting to come across an untranslatable word. And sometimes a word can be translated but it doesn’t have quite the same impact/meaning and it’s frustrating 😛

    • http://nanyate.com Ivy

      Oh yeah, I know that frustration. When I used to translate between English and Chinese, It was quite a pain because there are words that mean almost the same but not quite.

  • http://verbicide.us Alyssa

    Hi! *first time commenter* I like to find new sites by following link trails, and yours is gorgeous! :) (Although I’m not sure I understand that red, patterned object on the right.)

    This is a very interesting entry. I’m not very worldly in that I’m not experienced with many languages; I took Latin in high school, so I definitely haven’t dealt with untranslatable words, what with English being derived from Latin and all :). But this concept is quite intriguing XD.

  • http://www.diegonovaes.com Diego Novaes

    there’s a word in portuguese spoken in Brazil that can’t be translated: “saudade” it’s the feeling you have when you miss something or someone. Kinda like that..

    • http://nanyate.com Ivy

      So that’s what “saudade” means. I like the bossa nova song Chega de Saudade. Have always wondered what it meant. Sounds like a mix of regret, nostalgia and melancholy in English. Very interesting concept. Thanks for sharing.

  • http://sigg3.net Sigg3

    I’ve done a lot of translations of everything from poetry to bureaucratic applications as well as technical documentation.

    What I find is that I have to re-write everything, that is write the $text from scratch in the language I’m translating to in order to keep the semantic content intact. You can of course translate in verbatim but you will then leave the semantic process to the reader with more or less successful results. In technical documentation as well as poetry that is horrible, but in bureaucratic documents it doesn’t really make any difference because there’s a lot of cloud and little content. Personally I suspect that no words are really untranslatable, it’s just that one-to-one translations are really inaccurate. That Haikkinen doesn’t have big enough vocabulary to find the accurate ones is simply his own problem and not the Finnish language’s.

    Human languages are systematically the same everywhere (due to the human brain and evolved communication practices), they just appear very different. And yes, I’ve been to China.

    English is poor in many respects. It only has one word for ‘action’ making Moral Philosophy really difficult in the English language (and could help explain why German philosophers make a lot more sense).

    The most precise language I’ve seen so far is Latin. I don’t write or read Latin, a friend of mine does, but I see a lot of it in the university. You can pinpoint exact situations and descriptions, including who’s speaking, who’s listening, what tenses are involved and so on in very few words. I’m gonna have to learn it someday:)

    • http://sigg3.net Sigg3

      With regards to Latin, I also think Sanskrit is really precise. I’ve only read English translations of Sanskrit texts and judge by the way I think it has been translated though.

    • http://nanyate.com Ivy

      Thanks for sharing from a translator’s point of view. I rarely translate written text so it’s very interesting to see how you translate languages.

      It’s not really impossible to translate sisu to English but there really isn’t one word in English that is the exact equivalent to sisu. (And unlike Häkkinen, I’m pretty confident about my English vocabulary.) Case in point, I had to use a hypothetical situation to try to explain sisu. Sisu is “untranslatable” not only because there’s no one word equivalent, but more importantly also because its meaning is a very foreign concept / feeling to English speakers. It’s not an emotion most native English speakers have felt before (hence there’s no one word for it).

      (By the way, when I say English speakers in a cultural way, I mean mostly Americans and Canadians. I’m not familiar enough with the British and the Australians to confidently proclaim that they’ve never experienced sisu before.)

      Talking about precision, I think German is very precise as well. Nietzsche’s work is often misunderstood by anglophones because his concepts can’t easily be translated from German to English. A lot of it has to do with subtle cultural differences behind specific words. It’s been a while since I read philosophy so I can’t really think of an example but it’s a common complaint the teaching assistants in my university used to make.

    • Al

      Oh, I think Sisu is very translatable… If only we had a word for it. I feel quiet courage all the time. I think people have the capacity to feel it but no one word, you have to expound on it with a couple more words to get the feeling across. Everyone’s been bullied or crossed unfairly by people. Being that America is mostly based in the christian religion, the Bible teaches to overcome odds without wishing ill will on people or becoming aggressive. To persevere. In this case being the underdog can be slightly virtuous. Not all people share this belief, just saying it is there. and I know, a year late : )

    • Jane Adler

      Wow … I am so low (no)-tech … I’ve never responded to anything. My cousin suggested googling SISU, post-sandy. I felt compelled to tell you that I love your brain! Will you be my guru? I’ m a wordy! Is that a word? My daughter is studying Portuguese in college and my friends are visiting from Italy. I so enjoy marinating myself in conversation, cross-translating our life experiences. Fascinating, and so enriching; like a most delicious meal. Thank you for your generosity and enlightening point of view.

  • http://sahilb.blogspot.com sahil

    Hindi does have a word (“achha“) which is kind of the equivalent of “nice”. Although it basically translates to “good”, it can be used in all those ways described above for “nice”.

    • http://nanyate.com Ivy

      That’s achha to know! Thanks for sharing. 😛

  • http://wp.jiinjoo.com jiinjoo

    for awesome, my PRC friends use zheng dian 正点 on me, since there’s already another word for punctual (zhun shi 准时) zheng dian becomes the best substitution, even though it translates to “right on” / “spot on”.

    i thought the difference in cultural understanding on superlatives also stick out just as much, when Americans say “awesome”, they mean what maybe south east asians would say as “great”, europeans would say as “good” or russian would say as “normal”. so don’t be surprised if your russian teacher saw your fantastic work and compliment: “normal normal! well done ivy”.

  • Henry

    Thanks for sharing! You’re actually one of the first foreigners that I feel that have really understood the meaning of “sisu” (nice example as well, you describe the word better than mr. Häkkinen). btw one English word that I would like to add to the Finnish language would be “cool”, because that’s a word that can be used as an all-around answer for nearly everything :)

    • http://nanyate.com Ivy

      Hi Henry! Thanks for stopping by. Glad to know that I understood sisu. It did take quite a bit of research to get the feel for it. I have to admit, sisu makes me quite curious about Finnish culture. Perhaps I should add Finland to my to-visit destinations. :)

      Yes, you’re right. Cool is a a pretty nifty word since it can be used as an all-around answer. Is there no Finnish equivalent to cool?

    • Henry

      Hey, I found my self stopping by a second time, so thank *you* for this beautiful website :)
      I really tried to come up with equivalents for “cool”, but I really cant find a perfect match. I think “kiva” is the closest alternative, and it’s something that one could say for nearly everything, but it translates as “nice”, and sounds way more gayish than “cool”. In other words: “kiva” is not as cool as “cool” :)
      Btw, if you ever plan on visiting Finland, I suggest that you go to Lapland around midsummer. It really is amazing with the “nightless night” and all…

  • http://sahilb.blogspot.com sahil

    On another note, does English have an antonym for ‘miracle’?

    • http://nanyate.com Ivy

      Hmm, depends on the context. If it’s used in the context of “good fortune”, then it’s “disaster” or “misfortune”. If it’s used in the context of “out of the ordinary”, then it’s “normalcy”.

  • http://www.carnelianvalley.com Charlie

    “Ji” in Hindi can mean “yes” as well as being a formal suffix for names. With that one it’s all about the context because although often for “yes” you’ll say “ji han” and as a formal word (as in Sir) it’ll be name+ji, sometimes in both cases it’s used on it’s own. It’s always fun when you learn how to use such words, it feels like more of an achievement than other progress.

    • http://sahilb.blogspot.com sahil

      Oh yes, that’s another one! Though, as you said, for a formal ‘yes’, one normally says haan ji/ji haan.

  • http://sjaejones.com/ JJ

    I love fellow linguistic nerds. LOVE.

    • Henry

      <3

  • http://hwsoh.blogspot.com/ Hong Wei

    Thank you, Ivy. Nice sharing! =)

  • http://kathleen.bubble.nu Kathleen

    I love words that you can’t translate in another language. For example, Flemish has the word “goesting”. It means something like “feeling like”. You could use it to say you feel like an ice cream. Now Flemish and Dutch are almost the same language (like US English and British English), but when I use the word goesting in The Netherlands, people stare at me. They don’t have that word in Dutch and it’s hard for them to get the meaning of it. 😀

  • http://blog.chervalier.org chervalier

    bloody hell! (sorry for swearing first thing lol) i will admit this is the first time i’m visiting nanyate and i’m pretty blown away by the simplicity of your design and how easy it is to read! It really makes me feel like reading on!

    And yes untranslatable words in foreign languages are fun! I’ve always found it hard to translate some words/phrases in Chinese to English like wei3 qu1 or connectors like ran2 er2 and guo3 ran2 etc.. Or maybe my Chinese vocab just sucks.. heh

  • http://girlandcity.com SassyGirl

    Aren’t a lot of slang words untranslateable in another language? What I find more interesting is when the same/equivalent slang words exist in multiple languages. Haha.

    • Karoliina

      Sisu is not a slang word. It is a word that describes something that is a very big part of Finnish culture. Definately not a slang word.

  • http://www.the-artful.net/blog Shiri

    As a finnish person, thanks for the blog entry. It was interesting to read someone else’s point of view about the word. And just as a side note – us finns have often made fun of Häkkinen’s english skills. They’re ok, but he pronounces things in a very “finnish” way, not as things should be said in english. Which we people make fun of 😉

  • http://www.eeejay.net/ Skye

    One of the hardest things I found when taking tagalog lessons last year was not having a direct translation for the word “please”. It was so hard for me to frame a question (e.g. “can you pass the rice [please]?”) without having a word for “please”. It has been drummed into me all these years that you it’s impolite not to say please that even with a distinction between polite and impolite phrases and suffixes, it stumped me every time…

  • http://adventuresofholly.com Holly

    Wow! That’s actually really interesting! I’d never heard of that Finnish word before, but having read your explanation it actually does make sense! :)

  • BrasilMenina

    I love to say “saudade” !!!!! I can not even begin express in English what “saudade” mean in Portuguese! Miss is closest word, but is just not the same!!!!
    (sorry for my horrible english!)

    • http://en.dutras.org/ Leandro G Faria Corcete DUTRA

      I find untraslatability quite often to be a myth, perhaps serving each culture’s need to feel unique. Saudade, for instance, I find to correspond quite nicely to nostalgy.

    • http://nanyate.com/ Ivy

      Can’t say much about saudade since I don’t speak Portuguese but untranslatability is not really a myth. The Japanese word よろしくお願いします is untranslatable to English. To fully comprehend the meaning between yoroshiku onegaishimasu, the person would need to understand how obligation works in Japanese society. You could of course explain the whole story but there isn’t one word in English that could encapsulate the full meaning.

    • http://en.dutras.org/ Leandro G Faria Corcete DUTRA

      I said ‘often’, not ‘really’.

  • John G

    I really like your blog. After reading this post I came across another website while searching for untranslatable words.

    http://www.betterthanenglish.com

    Sisu isn’t on there but there are some other good ones.

  • Jonathan

    I found this site while searching the web for a well articulated English translation of the word “Sisu.” You have done a great job making this translation attempt, thank you!
    I am an American of Finnish descent and was raised simply understanding the concept Sisu. It definately is a word that must be felt to be understood. Sisu! It’s all you need to say and a Finn knows what you’re talking about.
    With that said, I really enjoyed learning about some other words, including those found in English, which cannot be clearly translated.
    I loved this site and found myself mesmerized by all the great comments. I learned so much, again thank you.

  • Pingback: First Look at the Nokia N9: A Testament Nokia’s Sisu — nanyate()

  • Tib

    Sisu for me is the will and spirit to quietly persevere with courage, heart and determination in the face of adversity. The very concept of sisu has given me…sisu.

  • AlexUnited

    Razbliuto
    Is a Russian word which also does not really have any English equivalent. It tries to express the sentimental feeling you have about someone you once loved but no longer do.

    For more untranslatable words check out this list. http://www.language-united.com/non-existent-words.html

  • http://en.dutras.org/ Leandro G Faria Corcete DUTRA

    Actually ‘nice’ very often translates quite nicely into Brazilian Portuguese as the slang /legal/.

    • http://nanyate.com/ Ivy

      That’s nice to know it translates well into Portuguese. Thanks!

  • Juz

    Sisu = Grit

    • http://nanyate.com/ Ivy

      Hmm, close but I think it lacks the nuance of sisu. Grit, like perseverance, emphasizes the action of being tenacious, but not the emotion that drives the tenacity. I’ve also had a Finn email me recently to tell me that the emotion behind sisu is “spite”.

  • Emilia Elisabeth Lahti

    Hi there! I stumbled upon your article and love that you brought up sisu. It is a construct that fascinates me entirely. So much that I began researching it.

    Keep up the great work!

    Emilia

  • Karoliina

    I love this description. This is the best definition I have found for sisu. It also made me realize that sisu is how I react to a lot of stuff that goes wrong in my life. When my coach tells me I’m doing something wrong, I accept it, and try to correct my mistake the next time. I find the reactions of some of my American friends when they are told they’re doing something wrong baffling. But my sisu must be a result of being raised in Finland. A country like the United States doesn’t have a lot of need for sisu, as one of the most powerful countries in the world.