A firm called Today Translation sponsored a poll in which translators and interpreters were asked to rate the most difficult words to translate [BBC]. This is a cute marketing ploy. I know I never would have heard of Today Translation otherwise. I have my suspicions about the methodology, but the results make for amusing reading:
NON-ENGLISH WORD VOTED HARDEST TO TRANSLATE
1. ilunga [Tshiluba word for a person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time; to tolerate it a second time; but never a third time. Note: Tshiluba is a Bantu language spoken in south-eastern Congo, and Zaire]
THE TEN ENGLISH WORDS THAT WERE VOTED HARDEST TO TRANSLATE
The list is interesting because the top words seem to have made the list for different reasons. Some probably got there just because other languages don't have one-word synonyms, eg "plenipotentiary" and "Spam".Yet, the concepts involved are pretty easily paraphrased (diplomat with full negotiating authority, unsolicited bulk email/Spam-brand canned luncheon meat).
Words like "googly" are a little harder because they're learned by ostention. It's hard to formulate a concise paraphrase for "googly" that will make sense to someone who hasn't learned to identify googly things. (Maybe "googly" is a non-natural kind that not all cultures highlight for their children). I would have expected words for highly abstract concepts like "whimsy" and "serendipity" to be rated as more difficult than relatively straightforward concepts like "plenipotentiary."
[Link courtesy of Improbable Research Blog.]