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A Peek into Romania’s Soul: 8 Quasi-untranslatable Romanian Words

Of course they can be translated. Had they not been translated, many great pieces of national literature would’ve never reached foreign readers and the world stage, as they did. But any (good) translation is inherently an approximation and an adaptation. Hence the adage “traduttore, traditore”. There are words whose exact meaning just can’t be captured and pinned down 100% accurately in another language. Something is “betrayed” about them, it’s rather left out, and that’s often their cultural flavour or even their spiritual gist.

So to tackle quasi-untranslatable Romanian words is to muster all the linguistic flair and intuition one can in order to get an insight into the country’s deep soul. While there have been meritorius previous attempts at it, this post focuses mostly on different words than the ones already discussed elsewhere, to give you information about their origin or etymology (where available), the best approximation of their meaning, and examples of their most common contexts.

1. Dor

This is a Latin-origin word, but its present-day meaning is not the same as its etymon’s, dolus, which meant “pain” in Julius Caesar’s language. Dor names the feeling you experience when you miss home, a person, a place, a time or even a thing. Rendered in English, it would be best approximated by a noun like “longing” or “nostalgia”, although “dor de casă” would have to be translated (so interestingly!) as “homesickness” (as if nostalgia were an illness for English native speakers). The most widespread phrase with it is “mi-e dor de...” – “I miss...” As in “Mi-e dor de voi/de Timişoara/de copilărie/de covrigi” (“I miss you/Timişoara/childhood/bagels”).

2. Har

It apparently comes from old Slavic кѣарь, although another good candidate which would make a lot of sense might well be old Greek kharis ("grace, beauty, kindness"). It refers to a special quality in people which inspires admiration: a talent, a gift or even “divine grace”. It’s usual to say someone “are har” (“is gifted”), and we usually say it about priests, but also about musicians, painters, writers: “e un pianist cu har” (“he’s a gifted pianist”). Which implies their art is so fine and sublime, it seems infused with divine grace.

3. Tâlc

This is definitely an old Slavic word’s offspring: it comes from тлъкъ and it’s just a little bit old-fashioned and folksy (i.e. folk-derived), but still charming. It can be rendered as “meaning”, “significance” or even “teaching” and “moral”. “O poveste cu tâlc” or “o întâmplare cu tâlc” is a story or an event/occurrence which has a meaning to be reflected upon and discovered. Similarly, someone who “vorbeşte cu tâlc” is a person who talks meaningfully in a way that requires insightful interpretation and understanding.

4. Hâtru

Another Slavic-origin word, “hâtru” comes from кытръ, it works as an adjective and as a noun, and it can stir mixed feelings: someone who is “hâtru” has got a (peculiar) sense of humour, the kind that sets your mind wheels rolling as you listen attentively to what the hâtru is telling you and try to figure out where the hidden catch is. A person who is a hâtru might also be a bit (jokingly) sly and cunning, trying to tempt you into making a fool of yourself, perhaps, or putting yourself in a vulnerable position. Approach them with care!...

5. Seamă

This is a Hungarian-origin noun, its etymon is szám, and we have discussed it previously on this blog. It is almost impossible to pin down by itself: on its own it doesn’t mean anything in contemporary Romanian, but it does have a very meaningful role in lots of useful common phrases today. “A-şi da seama de ceva” is “to realise/become aware of something”. So it has to do with consciousness, awareness or even mindfulness, while in other phrases is can refer to responsibility, status or even age.

6. A chivernisi

As pretty much all the other Romanian verbs ending in –isi, this one comes from the Greek word ϰυβερνω. Its closest English equivalent would be “to economise”, but then its reflexive version, “a se chivernisi” can mean anything between “to manage one’s resources thriftily” and “to get all the supplies needed for wellbeing”. Here’s a short dialogue where “a se chivernisi” serves its purpose well:

Cum s-au descurcat Ioneştii în timpul carantinei?” / “How did the Ionescus manage during the quarantine?

Ei, s-au chivernisit ei, acolo.” / “Well, they got by all right.

7. Hârşit

Origin unknown. It might well be an interjection (“hârş”, the sound made by rubbing or scratching a hard surface). “Un om hârşit” is not quite bitter proper, but bitterly experienced because she/he has gone through tough times and hardship. They are gritty, they are used to “the school of hard knocks”, they can take adversity and vicissitude and survive it, even if not necessarily with a smile on their face... Also, “un om hârşit” is accustomed to need and shortages, therefore they are resilient and dependable: you can approach them for difficult tasks, they can put up with unpleasant jobs or situations.

8. Hatâr

This colloquial noun comes from Turkish hatır and it tends to conjure Ottoman-derived practices like favouritism and a spoilt lifestyle. Its meaning is in the area of “pleasure”, “whim”, “desire”, “favour”. The most common phrase with it is “a face cuiva un hatâr”, “to do someone a favour”. Many times it’s used in a context where people explain that, although they don’t particularly enjoy doing something, they do that for someone’s sake, “să le facă un hatâr”, that is to say “to humour them”.

All of the words discussed here are still pretty much in use in contemporary Romanian, but they cannot be said to be popular with, say, millennials: they’re not really “cool”. Rather, a bit “old school”. Even so, they do carry cultural meanings which, beyond words, lead into the Romanian people’s mindset and (if the notion isn’t too pretentious) soul.

International House Bucharest, through its Romanian Language Department, runs online and face-to-face Romanian courses and cultural integration workshops for foreigners living in Romania or interested in the country’s culture, language or history. For more information, click here. To enrol, contact romanian@ih.ro. And to follow our video series “Your Romanian Class”, subscribe to our YouTube channel.

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