In honor of  National Poetry Month, let’s tackle some of the trickiest aspects of meaning — after all, poetry is one of the great ways to express subtle and slippery thoughts. Our focus today is translation. How can someone convey the meaning of a word that has no equivalent in another language?

Among the toughest words to translate, and there are some doozies, schlemiel is a top contender. It is a Yiddish word for a chronically unlucky person.

The trouble behind “schlemiel” presents us with a common translation problem – the translator will inherently run into words in one language that may not have an equivalent word in the other language. Just like in the case of “schlemiel,” a full description of the word, one sentence or clause, can help convey the meaning behind it, but if the translation is a poem or an essay, such an explanation would not fit into the style of the work being translated.

(Curious to learn some of the toughest words to convey in English, like prozvonit and hyggelig? Check out our list, here.)

Here are three tools that the skilled translator keeps at hand when faced with an untranslatable word.

When confronted with a lacuna (a gap in a piece of writing), a translator may resort to free translation or adaptation. Adaptation requires replacing the literal meaning of the original text with something that holds equivalent cultural weight in the target language. Adaptation is fairly typical between languages that are extremely different, such as Chinese and English. For our example above, schlemiel’s unlucky characteristic could be translated as easily duped, therefore “stooge” might be a choice.

A calque is used in translation when, barring the existence of a usable word, the original language’s word is deconstructed and translated by basic element. An example would be the German halbinsel for English “peninsula.” This is also called “word for word” translation.

As a last resort, a translator can borrow the untranslatable word into the target language text. When this is done in English, the word is usually presented in italics. An untranslatable word that appears often might become a loan word in the target language. Examples of borrowing are the now widely recognized qi, Chinese for air and energy, and déjà vu, a French word for the overwhelming feeling that in English we have no equivalent for.

Schlemiel has been borrowed into English often enough to qualify as a loan word. Since our tongues do not have a native word to encompass the chronically unlucky nature of such a character, we have adopted the Yiddish.


Jackson Advocate March 26, 2009 | Anonymous Dr. Glenda B. Glover VICE CHAIRMAN Dr. Glenda Baskin Glover is the Dean of the School of Business at Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi. SHe is a certified public accountant, an attorney, and a higher education administrator,. She holds a Ph.D. in economics and finance, and is one of two African American females to hold the economics Ph.D-CPA-JD combination in the nation. Her corporate and other national board memberships include: Borad of Directors of Citibank Student Loan Corporation, The Chapman Company, Amervest Corporation, Harvard Business School Management Alliance, and the American Assembly of Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB). SHe is a board member of the MetroJackson Chamber of Commerce and NAACP. Other affiliations include the Minority Capital Loan Fund, AICPA, National Bar Association, and Alpha Kappa Sorority, Inc. website citibank student loan

Dr. Sylvia Stewart COMMISSIONER Dr. Sylvia Stewart is a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine and is the Chief Financial Officer For Peoples Insurance Companies. Active and involved in many career-related associations, Dr. Stewart serves on the Board of Directors of First AMerican Bank, Jackson/Hinds Minority Capital Fund and the CIty of Jackson Planning and Zoning Board. As Chairman of the Foundation for Downtown Developement and Vice Chairman of the Farish Street Historic District Neighborhood Foundation, Dr. Stewart is extensively involved with the betterment of community life in Jackson. Through her efforts on both the Metropolitan and Farish Street YMCA Boards, Dr. Stewart has helped launch many successful programs for inner-city yout. website citibank student loan

Mrs. Jonnie L. Patton COMMISSIONER A native Jacksonian, Johninie is Vice President of Hap Enterprise, a real estate consultant company in purchasing and selling properties. Jonnie is a graduate of Xavier University School of Pharmacy, New Orleans, Louisiana, and is a praciticing pharmacist with Walmart/Sams Club organization. She serves as the National Commitee Woman for Mississippi for MDP, and Secretary of the Black Caucus of DNC, Washigton, DC.; Secretary, Board Member of Safe City Initiative, Jackson. MS, Commissioner Patton is a Member of the Jackson Chapter of LeFleur Bluff Links, Incorporated. Advisor to family fast food restaurant business, the Big Apple Inn, established in 1937.



  1. Rita -  April 22, 2011 - 10:56 pm

    I find all your comments interesting and some amusing. I am a first timer to this site and it is obvious that I can write my next essay completely on the bases of this sites commentary. I think it will read as a comedy.

  2. DDTalk -  April 20, 2011 - 2:37 pm

    GOD BLESS all the schlemiels of the world

  3. Richa Jain -  April 16, 2011 - 8:11 pm

    I am almost 100% sure I am a schlemiel because I usually get many worst case scenarios

  4. Flintstone -  April 16, 2011 - 7:41 am

    To OLH 064 used WRONGLY!!!!

    I am English the adverb is WRONGLY

  5. forget-him -  April 15, 2011 - 6:30 am

    forget this guy above me he is totally and fully wrong and is opinion COMPLETELY DOESN’T MATTER

  6. Trololo -  April 14, 2011 - 9:09 pm


    Lulz, the English-based internet slang, is close enough to Schadenfreude in function to act as an equivalent.

    It may seem far-fetched now, but internet abbreviations, acronyms, and neologisms, have a fair chance of becoming a part of the vernacular, and eventually the English dictionary.

  7. Cassie -  April 14, 2011 - 6:35 pm

    parallel synchronized randomness… like when two people or lines are parallel, next to each other, and are randomly going all over the place but do it synchronized? The people move their elbows the same way at the same time in a direction no one could have predicted, or a line takes a sudden turn at the same time as another takes a sudden random turn in the same direction?

    hm. If this is what you mean…interesting.
    And if you just threw a bunch of random adjectives together and I made sense of them…I see what my friends mean….

  8. Joseph -  April 14, 2011 - 6:12 pm

    I did not read the other responses, but maybe I did not understand the use of the German word halbinsel in regard to Peninsula. Halbinsel means basically “half island,” which is what a Peninsula in a sense is. Only one part is touching land.

  9. Joe Snarky -  April 14, 2011 - 4:01 pm

    Somebody should create a single word to define what is parallel synchronized randomness

  10. JfromI -  April 14, 2011 - 4:00 pm

    Yeah, I’d have to agree. “Damned” or “cursed” don’t work at all since they’re adjectives and we’re definitely searching for a noun.

    Also, “loser” is an overly simplified translation, and is unfair to the person it is describing. If you are naturally clumsy or have perpetually bad luck, why add to your woes by also classifying yourself as a loser?

    -Jessy from Indy

  11. Lorax -  April 14, 2011 - 3:34 pm

    That’s awesome!! I am so gonna start calling people schlemiel when they do something stupid/unlucky.

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