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Untranslatable Words in Indonesian: Think Like an Indonesian

The Indonesian language was literally designed to be easy.

Seriously. Easy alphabet, easy grammar, easy pronunciation. It’s a constructed standard that’s been promoted in order to build a national identity and unite the very different groups of people all over the country.

And in that, it works really well. Where it doesn’t always work well, however, is in translation (where untranslatable words in Indonesian come in).

No matter their reason for pursuing it, many Indonesian learners are delighted to find that quite a few words and expressions translate quite readily into English. That only makes it more confusing when there are new concepts that take more mental gymnastics to understand.

In this article, we’ve prepared a couple of representative examples for words in Indonesian that are pretty tricky to translate into English.

Fortunately, you can’t have an article on Indonesian phrases with no English equivalent without doing your best to explain them, so get ready for a nice mental workout! Let’s learn beautiful untranslatable Indonesian words in Indonesian language to help color your conversation like a native!

Table of Contents

  1. Words for Religion
  2. Words for Respect
  3. Words for Daily Life
  4. Words that Add Flavor
  5. Conclusion

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1. Words for Religion

Silhouette of Man Praying for Repentance

Okay, this is kind of cheating. English just simply hasn’t had the kind of influence from Indonesian and Islam that Indonesia has, and so even English-speaking Muslims usually just use the Indonesian terms for a lot of these concepts. That said, here are some Indonesian words with no English translation that have to do with religion.

1- Najis

It’s no surprise that a language intertwined with religion would have quite a lot to say about what is and isn’t permissible. If something is najis, it’s “dirty,” it’s “impure,” and it’s “wrong” all at once. It’s not a mortal sin by any means—it’s instead something that causes you to have to ask for forgiveness from God. Although most Indonesians are practicing Muslims, this sort of word is mainly used in discussions of philosophy or religion, and so it’s not the type of thing you’ll hear in day-to-day life. Here’s an untranslatable words in Indonesian sentence to give you an idea of what you may hear:

  • Apa artinya najis di waktu ini?
    “What does it mean to be impure in these times?”

The other words here are much more common in daily religious talk.

2- Salat

Where other cultures have different words for the time of day based on the sun’s approximate position (morning, noon, and night), Indonesia sees that through a different lens. Each day, according to meticulous calculations of the sun’s position relative to the horizon, five prayer calls are sounded from each mosque. This divides the day into different sections—and this whole explanation is needed to express the meaning of the word salat, or “prayer time.”

  • Ayo, kita salat!
    “C’mon, let’s go pray!”

3- Ibadah

This is a word that you’re likely to see all over in various advertisements around town. It means something in the neighborhood of “duties that one does in relation to Islam,” or even “religious deeds.” Again, tough to translate because even in the Christian vocabulary commonly used in the West, there’s not really a single word one can point to to capture the idea of the actions that someone does in their worship.

You’ll often see this word in the combination ibadah hajj, which is a little bit easier—it’s the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, something folks in the West are more familiar with.

  • Itu adalah ibadah sehari-harinya.
    “That is his daily worship.”


2. Words for Respect

Standard Indonesian has been heavily influenced by Javanese. Javanese, for those who haven’t yet tried to tackle it, is a fiendishly complex language with whole different vocabulary sets used to show respect for others.

This goes hand-in-hand with the very rigid social structure of traditional Javanese society, where paying respect to your superiors in word and deed is simply required in order for things to go smoothly. Here are some Indonesian words that are untranslatable, but may help you out in a pinch.

1- Si; sang

Indonesian has an interesting relationship with pronouns and titles. There’s no word for “Mr.” or “Mrs.,” but plenty of words that kind of take their place.

Si and sang are used as respectful titles, with sang being the more respectful of the two. You’d use it for presidents, princes, kings, and so on. Si is an interesting case, seen quite often in fairy tales or stories to refer to “the hunter” or “the adventurer.” This may be one of the most beautiful Indonesian untranslatable words!

  • Sang presiden akan bertanggung jawab atas masalah-masalah tersebut.
    “The president will take responsibility for the problems mentioned.”

2- Kak; bro; sis; mas; mbak

These are some of the most fascinating untranslatable words in Indonesian grammar, considering how many are grouped together here. I’ve put all these into one category because they’re all different forms of the same general idea, even if you won’t find each one in an Indonesian dictionary. Any service person is going to pepper their speech to you with these words, particularly if you’re both relatively young.

They’re kind of substitutes for saying “you,” because it sounds too familiar to use the actual pronoun with someone you don’t really know. Mbak, kak, and sis are all used with women, and mas or bro get used with men. Here’s one of these untranslatable words in Indonesian phrase:

  • Pakai cabe, bro?
    “Do you want peppers, sir?”

Yeah, bro comes from English, and yeah, it’s a little weird to translate it as “sir.” That’s what makes it so hard to translate! It’s a polite particle, and yet way more informal than “sir” is in English. At the same time, it doesn’t come with any of the trappings of “bro culture” that you might associate the word with in English.


3. Words for Daily Life

1- Gak enak

Man Paying with Lots of Money

If someone wants to do you a favor and you feel like you’d feel bad about it, what can you say? Refusing it outright is no good, as that’s pretty rude in Indonesian culture. Instead, you simply say that you “wouldn’t feel delicious.” A strange way to put things in English, but in Indonesian, it very clearly gets the message across that the other party needn’t trouble themselves.

  • A: Aku membayar hari ini!
    B: Ehh, gak enak.

    A: “I’m buying today!”
    B: “Eh, I’d rather take care of it.”

2- Oh begitu

If there’s one word (actually, a phrase) that you want to adopt to really sound Indonesian, it’s this one. Literally, it means “like so,” but it’s essentially the equivalent of “Oh, I see!”

It’s used all the time, and with all kinds of subtle meanings. Bored and want to change the topic? Oh begitu. Finally understand something that’s been bothering you? Oh, begituuuu!

The newspaper Kompas even has a special “far out” section called, appropriately, Oh begitu.

3- Cuci mata

Stressed Woman Who Needs a Break

Ever heard of “eye bleach?” That’s a pretty graphic way of describing something refreshing to look at when you’ve just seen something shocking or gruesome. In Indonesian, “washing one’s eyes” can indicate that they simply need to take a break—when they’re fed up with staring at their homework, for instance, or with seeing the same lizards go in circles on their wall. And what form does this relief take? Generally, window-shopping!

  • Saya pergi ke Mal Mangga Dua untuk cuci mata.
    “I’m going to Mangga Dua Mall to give my eyes a break.”


4. Words that Add Flavor

Indonesian has a number of little “particle” words that, well, have no meaning on their own. They don’t really count as vocabulary that you might find in a list of words. These untranslatable words from Indonesia may seem tricky at first glance.

What do they do with no meaning? They change the tone of the sentence, adding a word that conveys what English speakers would normally do with a different kind of sentence or a different tone of voice.

1- Kok

kok has to do with surprise, showing that you expected something different. It means something similar to “why” and could be replaced by kenapa (also meaning “why”). It’s really flexible in where it can be used—practically anywhere in the sentence is fair game. Here’s what two sentences look like with and without it.

  • Kucing di atas meja.
    “The cat is on the table.”
  • Kok, kucing di atas meja??
    “Whoa, the cat is on the table?”

Kitten Yawning

It’s easy to use it with even single words, provided you’ve got the appropriate shocked tone of voice.

  • Aku lupa. Kok lupa?!
    “I forgot. Why I forgot?!”

2- Sih

Where kok pointed out something unusual, sih shows that you’re a bit surprised that the other person doesn’t know something. On the one hand, it softens the meaning of certain phrases, while on the other hand, it can insert just the slightest bit of joking annoyance into the conversation.

  • A: Di mana kamu beli pisang gorengnya?
    B: Di sana, sih.

    A: “Where did you get that fried banana?”
    B: “Over there, of course.”

Sih can also accentuate a complaint:

  • Kamu kok belum siap-siap sih?
    “Why haven’t you dressed yet?”

Sih can introduce a contradiction or something that’s not expected:

  • Tadinya sih begitu…
    “Well, it was like that initially…”

Sih urges for more information:

  • Di mana sih (sih in bold) rumahnya?
    “Where is the house exactly?”

Sih is also used when the speaker is thinking about what to say:

  • Sepertinya sih… begitu.
    “It looks…that way.”

3- Kan

The word kan is actually a contraction (Indonesians love contractions) of betul bukan meaning “Correct, no?” which is used to ask for confirmation about the correctness of a statement. As a particle, it’s used as a sort of filler, when you want to slightly emphasize some new information.

  • Ini kan yang paling baru. (Shortened version of: Ini yang paling baru, betul bukan?)
    “This is the newest one, isn’t it?!”


5. Conclusion

Woman Taking Notes

The thing about words you can’t translate is that non-native speakers end up using them all the time.

How do they get to the level where they can do that? How do you grow your untranslatable words in Indonesian vocabulary that much? It’s no magic trick.

It’s simply enough contact with the language over time to slowly understand how to organize their thoughts in the Indonesian way. It comes from really letting the words and phrases sink in through watching tons of TV and reading tons of books—in other words, using the correct resources in the correct way.

That kind of ability is accessible to anyone who can put in the time. Who knows? Maybe you’ll be speaking Indonesian one day and realize: “I don’t know how to say that in English.”

At IndonesianPod101.com, it’s our goal to help you get there. Check out our free vocabulary lists, insightful blog posts, and MyTeacher program to further accelerate your Indonesian skills!

We hope this list of untranslatable Indonesian words in Indonesian language was both helpful and informative. After going over these examples of untranslatable Indonesian words to English words, what’s your favorite Indonesian untranslatable word? Let us know in the comments! Start with a bonus, and download the Must-Know Beginner Vocabulary PDF for FREE! (Logged-In Member Only)

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