In my current research I’m revisiting the topic of pluralia tantum: words that are normally used in their plural form, even when no plural meaning is intended. Two good examples in Spanish are vacaciones ‘vacation’ and tardes in Buenas tardes ‘Good afternoon’. In particular, I’ve been plowing through the list of pluralia tantum in the Real Academia’s Nueva Gramática de la lengua española (a lot of scholarly bang for your buck at $14.75). There I came across andurriales, which means parajes extraviados o fuera de camino ‘isolated or out-of-the-way places’.
I love the fact that there is, I think, no exact equivalent for this word in English. (Let me know if you think of one!) Andurriales doesn’t have boondocks’s negative connotation. In fact, this thoughtful exploration of the word on a Spanish vocabulary blog, La llave del mundo “The key to the world”, expands the definition poetiically as follows: esos paseos fuera de las rutas señaladas, que sugieren un paraje remoto, poco transitado, apartado, ignoto y cautivador… ‘those unmarked routes that suggest a remote, unknown, rarely visited, and captivating place.’
To my delight, the Llave bloggers illustrated the word with a passage from El séptimo velo, Juan Manuel de Prada’s prize-winning novel, which I wrote about a few times more than a year ago (most recently here). El séptimo velo is, as I described then, packed to the gills with recondite vocabulary, so it’s appropriate that andurriales should show up in it. The specific passage cited is from the dramatic description of the heroine’s family’s escape, over the Pyrenees, from Civil War-torn Spain: Sacando fuerzas de flaqueza, Estrada se internó por andurriales sólo frecuentados por las cabras, porteando a una Catalina exánime “Tapping his last reserves of strength, Estrada sought out andurriales barely used even by goats, carrying the exhausted Catalina.”
Every pair of languages undoubtedly has bountiful examples of such untranslatable vocabulary. Here’s a pretty good list for Spanish versus English. I take issue, though, with pena ajena ‘shame on someone else’s behalf’ (since it’s a phrase, not a word) and estrenar, since English has debut, and I wish they’d included anoche ‘last night’ along with anteayer ‘the day before yesterday’ (it was interesting, though, to learn the variant antier). The word tuerto ‘one-eyed’ is part of a larger set of words for disabilities that I discussed here.
My favorite example of an English word that doesn’t translate directly into Spanish is borrow, whose awkward Spanish equivalent is the phrasal pedir prestado ‘to ask for as a loan’. It’s remarkable that Spanish lacks a word for this everyday action.
Here is a longer list of words from a variety of languages that don’t translate well into English — but perhaps should.