Sometime I come across lists of untranslatable words like this one. It states that Weltschmerz is a word that cannot be translated to English, but searching for it in Duden it gives me a lot of synonyms, which have translation to English.

What's so special about this word that makes it untranslatable? How is Weltschmerz different, from, let's say Melancholie? Perhaps this should be another question, but is Weltschmerz usually used in informal conversations?

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    ... is Weltschmerz usually used in informal conversations? Heck, no. I suppose it depends on the company you keep, though.
    – Ingmar
    May 26, 2016 at 6:25
  • Wikipedia couldn`t translate, but describe it: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Weltschmerz
    – Iris
    May 26, 2016 at 9:29
  • And no, I don't think it can be translated with all the nuances of its meaning. "Fernweh" is another word that is, in my opinion, untranslatable.
    – Iris
    May 26, 2016 at 9:31
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    @tofro, your comment helped me a lot, as I'm a native Brazilian Portuguese speaker and I understand the meaning of saudade. Even though, from what I read in Wikipedia, Weltschmerz seems to be a not so good feeling experienced from something that is happening now or will, in the future and saudade always relates to something already happened and that was good at the time, that's the reason you miss it.
    – gmauch
    May 26, 2016 at 12:13
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    I am not sure Weltschmerz really refers to something that is happening now or in future - It is rather a deep sadness about something that used to be better or could be better in general (like the faultiness of mankind, the imperfectness of the world, sometimes also the own incapability to improve that situation, whatever). Maybe that is the main difference: Weltschmerz can refer to a situation that could be better or used to be better, whereas saudade refers to the latter only.
    – tofro
    May 26, 2016 at 14:59

3 Answers 3


In short, no, Weltschmerz is not untranslatable, but it’s often rather hard to translate well into English.

The real question is either whether there are any words or phrases in any language that are untranslatable or whether there are words in a particular language (e.g. German Weltschmerz) that have no direct translation or cognate in a certain other language (i.e. English).

The meaning of a word (or a linguistic sign) does not come from a dictionary, but – as famously coined by Ferdinand de Saussure – always from the side. That means it matters a lot who says what where, how and why to whom, because verbal communication is more than linguistic transmission of information. All parts together constitute the actual and individual meaning.

That’s the reason for why so many people claim that one should preferably read a book or watch a movie in its original language to really get the most out of it, also why there is literature study and why students have to research an author’s biography and culture of the target audience to properly and deeply analyze any literary work. Anyhow, a translation can be a creative act all on its own if it goes beyond mere word and phrase mapping. This is even harder if other metrics have to be met, e.g. the rhyme scheme in a poem or synchronous lip movement in a dubbed film, or if there’s a pun to be kept.

As has been mentioned in the comments, Weltschmerz may have a close equivalent in Portuguese, saudade, but none in English (yet or anymore). Its general essence can still be provided in few words, though, and that’s what German-English dictionaries do. Often they will list several meanings, e.g. “1. world-weariness … 2. causeless sadness …” and one should know and consider all of them for optimal understanding. These descriptive meanings in another language may be proper choices in some contexts for translations into said language, but more often than not the best translation requires a more complex approach and may result in completely different words and grammatical constructs.

Take Gurke and Affe for instance. If one needs to, German is able to differentiate between cucumbers and gherkins or monkeys and apes, but it does so with compound or adjective attributes instead of separate lexemic stems as in English. Linguists (and philosophers and psychologists) differ in their opinions (and findings) of what such distinctions in language mean for paths and limits of thought.

Anyhow, if an abstract concept has an established label in one language but not in another, this may be adopted as a loan word, weltschmerz, or inform a neologism, e.g. by literal translation, *world-hurt. These will carry and further develop their own meanings, however, which are not identical to all the possible ones in the source language, cf. angst, which will also change over time (e.g. Welt- could become a generic elative prefix in German like Super- / Riesen-, so there would then be an alternative meaning of ‘major pain’).


Somewhere in one of the Travis MaGee books by the great John D. McDonald, the character Meyer translates weltschmerz as "homesickness for a place you'll never see."


What about 'world weariness'? I think it describes it pretty well.

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    Schmerz is much stronger than weariness.
    – Robert
    May 26, 2016 at 22:29

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