Three language lessons you can learn from the word "schlemiel"

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.

  12. Lefty -  April 14, 2011 - 2:58 pm

    To Domino the word for Tocayo is NameSake a person having the same name as another used the translation on this site from Spanish to English and that is what it gave me..

  13. I'm an evil potato. -  April 14, 2011 - 2:35 pm

    I’m certain that you could compile quite a massive list of words that other languages have but English doesn’t. Of course, the same probably goes for all other languages, too. There’s simply no way to have a word for everything.

  14. Arcanis -  April 14, 2011 - 2:15 pm

    now that i think of it, a schlemiel is an unlucky klutz.

  15. me and U -  April 14, 2011 - 1:47 pm

    Domino @:

    too many people share my name.

    I friend them On facebook to confuse my friends for the fun of it.

    Now some of them are really my longdistance friends via fb. I think one is in the same cidade. I’lll have to invite that cat out for a beer, or a non alcoholic related game of pool.

  16. me and U -  April 14, 2011 - 1:43 pm

    @Wrasfish: Its russian; I’m sure that there is one. I just sad I don’t know it. ;)

  17. Narckman -  April 14, 2011 - 1:41 pm


  18. me and U -  April 14, 2011 - 1:39 pm

    go against conventional advice of the time. Step out and take risks.

  19. me and U -  April 14, 2011 - 1:38 pm

    “Schlemiel, schlemazel; hassenpfeffer, incorporated” lavern and shirley were both the schlemeil and the schlemazel all mixed together… that was the point of the show. It was very NYC like that.

    “…doing it our way.”

    …”We’re gonna make our dreams come true…”

    Go again conventional advice. etc.

  20. THE_JEDI_MASTER -  April 14, 2011 - 1:07 pm

    Might I ask why the first person to comment always needs to specify as such? We can all see the order in which the people commented.

  21. Marc -  April 14, 2011 - 12:09 pm

    Dictionary dot com’s getting real
    Searching for a new word for Schlemiel
    Until some schlimazel
    With fire-hose nozzle
    Drowns out the entire luckless spiel

  22. Marc -  April 14, 2011 - 12:05 pm

    Kimster: It was Joe BFTSPLK, and was supposed to be pronounced as a raspberry noise..

  23. Curly -  April 14, 2011 - 11:38 am

    “. . . a French word for the overwhelming feeling that in English we have no equivalent for.” – As a reader, this phrase struck me as awkward. Please rearrange it to “a French word for the overwhelming feeling for which we have no equivalent in English.”

    @Mary Jo:
    We do not have an English equivalent because “already seen” does not have any meaning unless we give it one. But no one ever gave it one. So it simply means what it sounds like, not the deja vu sensation at all.

    Namesakes, perhaps?

    @Paul B :
    Audacity. I think that’s a pretty accurate translation.

  24. Margarita -  April 14, 2011 - 11:09 am

    “Already seen” would not be an accurate translation for deja vu. “Already seen” sounds like a common place occurance, something you would say if someone asked if you wanted to see a movie. I would not associate it with the odd, almost something wrong sensation of deja vu.

  25. Linda -  April 14, 2011 - 10:48 am

    Included in his translation of the book ‘Noli Me Tangere’ by Jose Rizal the translator: Harold Augenbaum provides a valueable reference glossary of words used in the original text.

  26. olive oil -  April 14, 2011 - 10:15 am

    This is my first comment EVER on this site. Whoa,Nelly. (:

  27. ail -  April 14, 2011 - 9:55 am


  28. eaw -  April 14, 2011 - 8:27 am

    respect to DR for the response to AVG!

  29. ABC -  April 14, 2011 - 8:25 am

    Neither “damned” nor “cursed” would be an accurate translation because both “damned” and “cursed” are adjectives. The word schlemiel is actually a noun because it’s a person.

  30. Paul B -  April 14, 2011 - 8:22 am

    Another example is the Yiddish: Hutzpah or Chutzpah. It is very difficult to translate the full flavor into English. Dictionary.com gives us “unmitigated gall”.

    One comedian said Hutzpah is when a son kills his parents and then throws himself on the mercy of the court because he’s an orphan.

  31. Domino -  April 14, 2011 - 8:20 am

    To my knowledge, there is no word in English that means two persons with the same first name. In Spanish, the word is “tocayo.”

  32. Kimster -  April 14, 2011 - 7:54 am

    The comic strip, Li’l Abner used to have a fellow named Joe, who’s last name was a string of consonants that made the name unpronounceable.
    I forget what the letters were. He wore rumpled black clothing and hat and walked around perpetually under a rain cloud. Sort of like our schlemiel.

  33. Wrasfish -  April 14, 2011 - 7:41 am

    Pity the poor translator who was stuck with the job of transmuting Dave Barry’s essays into Russian. What is the Russian equivalent of “whoopie cushion”?

  34. king schmuck -  April 14, 2011 - 7:24 am

    Where’s my hasenpfeffer???????????

  35. misunderstander -  April 14, 2011 - 7:17 am

    so…the beginning of the little ditty from Laverne and Shirley, translated, is…

    “Awkward, klutzy, clumsy person; chronically unlucky fellow;

    Rabbit stew combined into one unified substance”???

    (Schlemiel, schlemazel; hassenpfeffer, incorporated…)


  36. Lala -  April 14, 2011 - 6:43 am


  37. kj -  April 14, 2011 - 6:23 am

    Don’t Laverne & Shirley sing about “schlemiel, schlimozel, etc” in the opening of their old tv show? I always wondered what they were singing about. Being way down in south Louisiana those words are Greek to me. (Ok, in this case Yiddish or Hebrew!)

  38. Kathy -  April 14, 2011 - 6:02 am

    Made me think of Laverne and Shirley … Yep, I’m giving away my generation, at least. I had no idea schlemiel and schlemazel were real words … always thought L&S had made them up! Yep, giving away my lack of education on the matter too! Oh well …

  39. SILENT KILLER -  April 14, 2011 - 5:50 am


  40. haley08 -  April 14, 2011 - 4:47 am

    i guess there are still words that are hard to translate. ill try using translation apps and check if they can translate it…

  41. Mark -  April 14, 2011 - 4:05 am

    hey guys, the main thing is that we get our ideas across, don’t you think? so let’s stop ‘splitting hairs’, okay?

  42. Avan -  April 14, 2011 - 3:20 am

    A similar term is pé frio (noun), literally “cold foot” in Portuguese: a person who brings bad luck with him/her wherever (s)he goes.

  43. iogarvnpva -  April 14, 2011 - 3:10 am

    Spanish has a direct equivalent for Schlemiel; “gafe”. I believe that the French use “gaffe” to express the same idea, although it’s a verb, not a noun. Since English seems to like calcs from French so much, calling somebody a gaffe does not look like a bad option.

  44. DR -  April 14, 2011 - 2:55 am

    To avg: And the nudnik asks, what kind of soup?

  45. ukjay201 -  April 14, 2011 - 1:30 am


    I recently used a search-engine’s translation service in an attempt to read a blog that was written in arabic. The result looked like a hurricane had swept past the page, followed by somebody putting all the punctuation back – amusing to read at times, but as meaningful as alphabet soup.

    I think ‘Schadenfreude’ is another example of a word borrowed into English because we didn’t have an equivalent:


  46. qqq -  April 13, 2011 - 10:50 pm

    you buy a product that was produced in another country, or that is from a company that has headquarters overseas, you should stop for a moment and appreciate all behind-the-scenes work that went into making that product available in your own langu

  47. Rachel -  April 13, 2011 - 10:09 pm

    Wow Francis :p. I admit I think it’s cool to be he frist comment too.


    Ha! “stooge” I call my brother that a lot. :p

  48. ♥Narn♥ -  April 13, 2011 - 8:52 pm

    I might think of that word as the grossest word added to the english language,and it got my tongue twisted..=X

  49. Yiddishist -  April 13, 2011 - 8:27 pm

    Guys — a schlemazel is chronically unlucky, a schlemiel is a klutz. You’ve gotta keep you soup-spillers and soup-spilled-on-ers straight.

  50. Cyberquill -  April 13, 2011 - 8:10 pm

    The German word for a chronically unlucky person is Pechvogel, so you could calque it into pitchbird. Therefore, the English word for schlemiehl is pitchbird. Not tough to translate at all.

  51. Zachary Overline -  April 13, 2011 - 7:56 pm

    This isn’t just a problem with “literary” translations, either. Translators come up against problems like this in technical documentation (like user manuals for products, online content, software GUI, etc.) as well.

    This is one of the reasons that translators absolutely can’t STAND it when someone who is remotely bilingual, or who is learning a language, says something to the effect of, “Meh, just give me a bilingual dictionary and I could be a translator too.” It’s simply not possible.

    There is never a one-to-one correspondence between languages, and word-for-word translation generally results in a text that is completely unreadable, unnatural, and sometimes nonsensical. That’s why the translation industry has coined the word “transcreation,” because a lot of times (especially with more creative content), the process of translation really is a creative re-creation of text in another language.

    So next time you buy a product that was produced in another country, or that is from a company that has headquarters overseas, you should stop for a moment and appreciate all behind-the-scenes work that went into making that product available in your own language, because the process can be pretty damn messy.

  52. Arcanis -  April 13, 2011 - 6:18 pm

    i agree with Temur Federmesser, with the minor exception that it means an awkward and unlucky person, if you want it in a single word, look up the definition then look at the synonyms

  53. Lisa M -  April 13, 2011 - 5:50 pm

    ‘Loser’ as a translation isn’t quite right either – it’s usually a person’s own fault that they’re a loser, but it seems a schemiel may not have any choice in the matter.

  54. kuya kim atienza -  April 13, 2011 - 5:18 pm

    peninsula means almost an isle…

  55. avg -  April 13, 2011 - 4:59 pm

    Schlemiel – shlumiel in Hebrew (pronounced sh-loo-mi-el) refers to a clumsy, unlucky fellow. In modern Hebrew the misfortune part is less prominent, and it is usually used to describe a clumsy two-left-hands kind of guy (I’m not sure about the exact semantic hues in Yiddish).
    A related word is shlimazel, which means something like an unfortunate fellow.
    There’s an old folk epigram which describes the difference between these two (freely translated):
    The shlumiel is the waiter who spills the boiling soup bowl, the shlimazel is the one whom the soup is spilled on.

  56. Mary Jo -  April 13, 2011 - 3:13 pm

    Does “deja vu” really count as one word? Literally translated, it means “already seen,” so actually, we do have an English equivalent, not?

  57. Christian -  April 13, 2011 - 2:40 pm

    Can’t it be translated to the word “damned”?

  58. Temur Federmesser -  April 13, 2011 - 1:42 pm

    Schlemiel is perfectly well translates as a loser.

  59. OLH064 -  April 13, 2011 - 1:15 pm

    Nine letters seems like a bit much to be borrowed, maybe it could be translated to “cursed”?
    (while we’re here, “irony” is being used wrong. Everybody, please make/use a new word for what people mean when they misuse “irony”. The current misuse is “cruel coincidence” or “cruel Fate”)

  60. Francis -  April 13, 2011 - 12:20 pm

    First comment! Wow!


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