Voices
in
Japan

have your say

What are some Japanese words or expressions that you find very difficult to translate into English?

25 Comments

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.

25 Comments
Login to comment

Amakudari ;-)

0 ( +5 / -5 )

Though I know what it means, I have never been able to translate "yoroshiku onegaishimasu." I can't count the number of times I heard it said on the "Kohaku Uta Gassen"program. "Itadakimasu" is another hard one to translate. How about "Let's dig in?"

0 ( +5 / -5 )

微妙 and 是非

-4 ( +2 / -6 )

Yappari Sasuga OOrashii

0 ( +3 / -3 )

ano ne, ano sa!

umm umm?

-4 ( +1 / -5 )

There are some unique problems and challenges encountered when translating useful Japanese phrases. A simple example would be the greeting yoroshiku onegai shimasu. Some words pose more difficulty than others due to interesting cultural differences and all languages are influenced by culture and to some extent culture is influenced by language. So to cope with the challenges of untranslatable words it's important to acknowledge cultural difference which influences our understanding of foreign languages. Therefore the relationship between language and culture is central to any good translation and is very important when translating Japanese into English and vice versa. In Japanese the translators cannot of course be literal in the strict sense. On the other hand English, as it's written these days, is too clean-cut, too light-hearted, and is simply incapable of reproducing Japanese phrases. In the end when the languages and cultural contexts are very different and literary standard much further apart the translator must have the kind of freedom of expression which purporting to translation amounts in fact to explanation.

-3 ( +3 / -6 )

The hardest words to translate are the ones that aren't there. Japanese has no singular/plural and no genders. Personal pronouns are almost always left out, and often verbs have no tense. These things are not a problem for the Japanese. Their trains run on time and their building stay up without them. But they become a real headache when you are translating into a language that requires this information.

The second hardest words to translate are foreign words and names in katakana. Many Japanese writers like to show off by slipping foreign words into their writing. Nobody really understands what they mean, and they certainly aren't in any dictionary.

0 ( +4 / -4 )

The hardest words to translate are the ones that aren't there. Japanese has no singular/plural and no genders. Personal pronouns are almost always left out, and often verbs have no tense... But they become a real headache when you are translating into a language that requires this information.

@Alan

Great comment. These aspects of Japanese communication explain much of the reason why machine translation fails so miserably J to E, why direct word-for-word translations are undecipherable to the point of being laughable, and poses major barriers to Japanese learners of English.

Japanese is a high-context language/culture and more centered on nouns, whereas English is relatively low-context (more precise and less dependent on common understanding and unspoken cues) and more centered on verbs.

These things are not a problem for the Japanese. Their trains run on time and their building stay up without them.

I would argue somewhat otherwise. I have seen many instances of miscommunication between Japanese people precisely because of a lack of pronouns and other features of the language.

2 ( +5 / -3 )

MEIWAKU!!! Can easily say this in Japan, but wouldn't translate well or be appropriate to same behavior in my country...

1 ( +4 / -3 )

I had trouble memorizing informal command and "let's go" verbs, though that was like nearly 30 years ago. God I'm old.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

Words to address other people, such as senpai, sensei, oniichan, etc.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

None of the comments on this thread seem particularly bad. What is with all of the thumbs-down votes?

3 ( +6 / -3 )

"Mai caa, Mai homu, Mai paisu, now Mai numbaaaa."

-1 ( +3 / -4 )

@Sensato

I was wondering the same thing !

0 ( +3 / -3 )

位置につける

I encounter this a lot in my work (companies love to use it) and still not sure the best rendering in English that sounds natural. Strangely, I suspect "regard" best captures the meaning.

-2 ( +2 / -4 )

All languages, have nuances, idiosyncracies, idioms, colloquialisms, etc that often defy accurate translation - esp for feeling.

An example came up at a recent bonenkai - that slippery little number "umami". I said it's what many native English speakers would describe as "savoury" or "savouriness". My partner in discussion laughed and said oh no it doesn't mean spicy. And I said savoury doesn't mean spicy. And he checked his little old smartphone dictionary and it said savoury was spicy so it couldn't be umami. And I said - well the dic's wrong because savoury and spicy are not the same and savoury and umami certainly occupy the same realm.

But I couldn't convince him to budge a single % over the unique untranslatable umami.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

@jefflee

位置につける

i think "ichi ni tsukeru" means "to be put in (a) position"

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

@zootmoney

Yeah, that's the dictionary definition, and note that you've rendered it in the passive. But when rendered as it should be: in the active voice as a transitive, it just comes out weird. I've used "regard" and clients seem happy.

"We regard our sales division as a cornerstone...."

As opposed to: "We position our sales division as a cornerstone."

As for the 2 people who gave my comment "bad" ratings: Get a life. Seriously.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

None of the comments on this thread seem particularly bad. What is with all of the thumbs-down votes?

Yeah, I got 4 negative votes for my first post. I don't care about minus votes, but I do have to wonder what people found objectionable about it!

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Things I would normally have in active voice because I focus on agent (ie. in Japanese I use を far too much, like ~は~を~), where as in Japanese people tend to focus on agency, or what happens to something or through what has something happened to something (ie. ~が~に~ , or just ~に~ ).

People generally get the drift though.

But that is just me and I do not make any apologies for it. Like, when I walk into a Japanese-speaking room of people, well, suddenly the sum of Japanese becomes a little less standard, doesn't it - the way it has been and the way it always is going to be.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

@jeff,

I think tsukeru is passive and tsuku is the active form of the verb. "ichi ni tsuku" is translated as "take (up) one's position; move into position; station oneself" . (BTW, "ichi ni tuite" is "on your marks, get set...") I can understand your rendition in this instance as coming across as more natural in English.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Thumbs down? Seems to be normal for all my posts. Who cares.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

位置につける

I agree this is a tricky one. Sometimes 'regard' works, sometimes 'rank' or something similar. Rarely if ever 'position'. I always have trouble rendering it naturally.

Another one is 挑戦する. The dictionary gives 'challenge', but it's not often that actually works as a translation.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Cleo, I just upped your score to zero by awarding you a "good" for your comment that seems to have offended someone.

As for 挑戦する, "take on the challenge of" or "tackle" can work in some situations, I reckon.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

As for 挑戦する, "take on the challenge of" or "tackle" can work in some situations, I reckon.

In some cases, yes. It always bothers me, though.

The thumbs up and down don't bother me at all, though sometimes it does make you wonder what people are reading into totally innocuous posts..... :-)

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Login to leave a comment

Facebook users

Use your Facebook account to login or register with JapanToday. By doing so, you will also receive an email inviting you to receive our news alerts.

Facebook Connect

Login with your JapanToday account

User registration

Articles, Offers & Useful Resources

A mix of what's trending on our other sites