Six Dutch words and one gesture which are impossible to translate

The Dutch government thinks all foreigners should learn the language. So here are six words and one gesture to help you on your way.

And you thought learning Dutch was tricky

So many words, so little time

A gezel was an apprentice in medieval times and we still use the word levensgezel for someone who accompanies you on the journey of life, in other words your better half.

Conviviality, the Dickensian kind, comes close with its emphasis on having a jolly time in the company of friends. No one would say how convivial, however, the way the Dutch say Hè gezellig. It also denotes a degree of intimacy so a gathering at home or around a restaurant table would be labelled gezellig in a way a gathering at a discotheque or a football match would not.

Hè hè
Depending on how you say it expresses relief at a job well done or the end to something strenuous, like an afternoon’s shopping. You sit down, take your shoes off and utter a heartfelt hè hè. If someone says (Ja) hè hè in an irritated tone it means you are stating the obvious.

Ja, ja
Denotes disbelief. Pull the other one

Turning a blind eye, tacitly allowing something. The Netherlands has a drugs gedoog policy. The possession of more than five grammes of hashish or marihuana is illegal but the authorities choose not to prosecute even though they know what you’ve got in your pocket.

The concept of gedogen has a long history in the Netherlands. The Calvinists of the Dutch Republic did not allow the Catholics, or any other faiths, to worship publicly but turned a blind eye to the celebration of mass in schuilkerken or hidden churches.  Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder (Our Lord in the Attic) in Amsterdam is an example of a hidden church. It is now a museum.

The most recent but much less profitable example of gedogen is the do-called gedoogkabinet  from 2010 to 2012, a minority cabinet made up of the rightwing liberal party VVD and the Christian Democrats, supported by the anti-immigrant party PVV. The PVV did not form part of the government but could effectively block or condone any decision it made. The fact that everyone who is not Dutch failed to understand the set-up is proof of how difficult a concept gedogen is.

That weird gesture
The Dutch also have a gesture that is uniquely theirs. Place your hand next to your cheek as if you were going to slap it. Make a waving motion and pull a happy face. You are now saying that what you have in your bulging cheeks is very tasty indeed, or lekker.

Tasty but not just used for food. Someone can have een lekker kontje or a nice butt and calling someone a lekker ding means you would enjoy some, let us say, good conversation with him or her. Ga lekker zitten means make yourself nice and comfortable. Lekker puh is said by a child who has pulled one over on a another child: so there. Trendy people use lekker in a slightly different and extremely irritating way: Extreme sporten? Dat vind ik wel lekker (extreme sports? Like it).

Sandwich fillings doesn’t cover it because a boterham, or a single slice of bread, is not strictly speaking a sandwich and can’t be filled unless you fold it in half. ‘The stuff you put on a slice of bread’ is the nearest thing. Beleg is an essential part of Dutch lunch and can mean anything, from chicken curry mush to slices of ham and the dreaded smeerkaas.


30 thoughts on “Six Dutch words and one gesture which are impossible to translate

  1. Aukje

    I have found it really hard to find a word for ‘iemand iets gunnen’. I am really happy for him, still doesn’t cover even half of what ‘ dat gun ik m echt!’ does. Impossible to translate!

  2. Barbara

    The best translation of ‘gezellig’ I can think of is ‘cosy’. But that indeed doesn’t cover it completely.

  3. srsck

    I love the gesture! The first time I saw it, I was a small kid and I thought the lady wanted to slap me in the face. The gesture really scared me. 🙂

  4. Rob J. E. Bayliff

    The more untranslatable a term is, the more valuable and specific it is – one has simply to live it to understand it. Translations give information [1], hopefully the information leads to knowledge [2], but without living or experiencing it, how many reach the nirvana of the third stage which is understanding[3].
    To communicate an idea, one has to use language, whether in audio or visual form. It is the presentation which is subject to the interpretation of the recipient. This is the art in interprtation/translation to enable creation of the original idea in the mind of the recipient.
    It is said of translations that they are true but plain, enhanced but beautiful.
    When at the International High School of the Hague (1964 – 1967), the term “lekker mooi” was constructed and used to express appreciation of tangible objects, whether taste (food), form (art or fashion) or appearance (usually girls by boys).

    1. Rob J. E. Bayliff

      Funny, isn’t it, how means slide and apparent faux amis have meaning. One of the many near-miss transations of gezellig is companionable. Think of the term for company (formal or informal group of persons working towards a common end): gezellschap.

  5. Jan Bollaert

    Geborgenheid, been looking for a translation for that for years now, nothing in English, not even in French. They all refer to “being safe”, or “protected”, but “geborgenheid” is sooo much more than mere protection.

    1. Ruth Rainero

      I think having a “sense of security” is the closest. “Being protected” requires the presence of a second person, whereas sense of security (like geborgenheid) does not.

    2. Roland Bruynesteyn

      I think (or rather feel) that geborgenheid is something like being safe and ‘gezellig’ at the same time. Geborgenheid is usually experienced while being hugged by someone you love, or sitting near a fire place in winter.

  6. Damanique (@damanique)

    I often have trouble translating ‘Sterkte’ and ‘Succes’ to English. You might say ‘I wish you luck’ or ‘I wish you well’, but that doesn’t have the same connotation. The Dutch wish someone strength and success – not luck!

    1. Rob J. E. Bayliff

      Such an idiomatic expression translated into English would be along the lines of “Well, I’ll be damned!”, not having the hard confrontational connotation but being one of suprise. More vernacular versions bordering on mild obscenities in common parlance will be brought to mind by those who note what is being said around and about these days . . . .

  7. maaike

    We Dutch do have a replacement for ‘please’. Most people use this word unknowingly to mitigate requests. The word is ‘even’. This literally means ‘for a moment’ but is used as ‘please, I would not dare to take too much of your time’. Because many Dutch do not know how to deal with the translation in another language, they don’t translate it at all which makes them look rude.

    Kun je me even het zout aangeven?
    could you pass me the salt please?

  8. Dennis

    Dutch is full of little words that are impossible to translate as they give the sentence a different emotion rather than completely changing the meaning. Words like “maar” or “toch” This is something that my wife (mexican) is struggling with every day….as such concept doesn’t exist in spanish.
    For instance, you come in a bar and ask for a coffee, but the bar man says they don’t have any coffee but they do have tea. And you reply:

    “Geef maar een thee”

    Here “maar” is not translated in the usual sense of “but”, and actually it’s hard to translate at all. One cannot say “Geef een thee” as that would be almost like giving a impolite order, so “maar” makes it politer, but on the other hand gives it somethink like “as an alternative…..(give me a tea please)”. And if you’re slightly annoyed that you have no choice than to drink tea, you can say

    “Geef dan maar een thee”.

    Here the “dan” adds something like “since I cannot get what I want….”

    Some other fun expressions that my wife fails to see the subtle meaning of:

    “Dat kan je maar beter niet doen”
    “Toch maar beter dat je dat niet doet”
    “Ik heb het je toch gezegd!”

  9. tamarazietSomegirl

    Another Dutch word that I don’t think has a translation in English is “meedenken” and really tells something about the Dutch culture. We do it all the time, “thinking along with someone”, We do it to improve things and we see it as a postitive thing, but when we go abroad and we do it without thinking about it people probally think we are critisizing them.

  10. paganphotoprod

    Dutch is funny though, even as a Dutchy it’s sometimes hard to get the meaning of a written sentence. However when speaking the intonation of a sentence can clarify a lot.
    It’s funny how many arguments are started just by wrongful interpreting FB posts etc…

  11. Jeyo

    I always suspected it from hearing Durch, but now I see it in written form and with these special words, I am really certain now: there are sooo many parallels to German in many words, those languages must be really, really close. (I guess that’s why Dutch are so good at speaking German.) Is there a similarity in mindset as well? Or have the cultures grown apart?

    gezellig – gesellig
    geborgenheid – Geborgenheit
    ja ja – ja ja (used in the same way)
    lekker – lecker (but used only in connection with taste of food)
    beleg – Belag
    smullen – schlemmen
    toch – doch
    meedenken – mitdenken

  12. Doctor Ed

    “I guess that’s why Dutch are so good at speaking German” – you are misled. The Dutch are good at speaking German because they study it in school. Good old hard work. The Germans are clueless with Dutch because they don’t study Dutch.

    The Dutch language is one of about four West German languages, of which English is also a member. (Frisian is the fourth.) All four languages show similarities, but they are mutually unintelligible. Dutch is more like English than like German, especially in grammar. An example is case structure. In English we have hardly any cases (the possessive case is an example), and Dutch is the same. But in German there are four cases. This matters a lot when speaking. Thus, to translate English “the”, in Dutch that is “de”, whereas in German it would be “der”, “den”, “dem”, “des”, or “die” depending on the case and number. And that is for just one gender. In English, adjectives and nouns don’t take endings (except for -s in the possessive). In Dutch there is only one ending besides no ending (again except for the possessive). In German, there are several endings, and the adjective and noun endings usually differ.

    English plurals are in -s, Dutch plurals are in -n or -s, but German plurals are a bizarre mix with the vowel often changing.

    Dutch auxiliary verbs are similar to the English ones. German auxiliary verbs are much more complicated.

    In vocabulary, Dutch words sometimes resemble English words and sometimes German words, and sometimes neither.

    English – Dutch – German
    One – een – eins
    Two – twee – zwei
    Pound – pond – Pfund
    Butterfly – vlinder – Schmetterling
    Bicycle – fiets – Fahrrad

    Next time you buy an article with multi-language instructions, find the Dutch and German texts and compare. It will be a revelation if you think the two languages are similar.


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