5 Distinctly Japanese Expressions that are Difficult to Translate
There are many people from the global community that have come to live in Japan for travel, work or for study. At times, we have opportunities to communicate with such individuals in English, but there are some Japanese expressions that we find difficulty coming up with English equivalents. Here we have picked up on 5 Japanese expressions that us Japanese find difficulty when translating to English. Photo: flickr.com
The Famous 3
1. Yoroshiku/ Yoroshiku-onegai-shimasu
This is originally a phrase used when you want to ask a favor of someone. When we try to translate to English, the word that pops in to the mind of Japanese is “Please…”. However the phrase is also used to introduce oneself in the workplace, or at the end of a business email/letter and so it can also play the role of a greeting word.
There’s a funny story about a president of some Japanese company at a global event who tried to close his speech with the phrase “hitotsu yoroshiku”, a common closing statement, but accidentally translated it literally and said “One please”, (as if he was ordering something).
This is a phrase that is used when you feel empathy for or praise someone for their hard work. For example, someone may say “otsukaresama” to you when you have successfully completed a big project that you were responsible for. On the other hand, it is used in a similar way as “hello” or “good bye” when in the workplace.
It is considered good manners to use this phrase before and after a meal in Japan. People use it without putting much thought to it. It can be loosely translated as “Let’s eat!” or “That was delicious.” However, this English translation unfortunately does not fully express the original meaning of these phrases, which is to show respect and gratitude toward the people that have worked to make and serve the meal as well as the food on the table. Also, if we were to say “That was delicious” even if the dish was not so great, we may end up seeing even those dishes that we didn’t like being served at the dinner table again and again (lol).
2 Advanced Level Expressions
It is a single word in Japanese, but when translated to English, it can have about 5 different meanings depending on the scene it is used in. It’s a tough one for us Japanese to explain. For example, if you speak of your student days, such as “Gakusei-jidai ga natsukashi”, the word natsukashi can be translated to “miss”: “I miss my student-days”. If someone utters these words while feeling nostalgic looking at an old photograph, it can be translated with the photo as the subject: “This picture brings back memories of my student days”. If it uttered by someone listening to an old song she used to listen to with her ex-boyfriend, the word can mean “remind” as in “This song reminds me of my ex-boyfriend.” If an old man is reminiscing the past, the noun can be used as a predicate: “Those were the good old days.”
Because Japanese do not always emphasize the subject (sometimes it is omitted) and it is a language that does not make an inanimate object the subject, when we want to express “natsukashi”, it is difficult to determine what kind of term to use as the subject or verb and it ends up making us confused when we try to explain.
It is a popular expression in Kyoto but even Japanese use it as they feel fit without knowing the proper meaning. So you see how it can be difficult to translate to English. It apparently originated from the phrase “hana nari (it is a flower)” and it later came to be pronounced “hannari”. It refers to something being “magnificent (hanayaka) yet unpretentious, and has sophisticated and elegant qualities”. Hannari is sometimes used to express the colors of a kimono “Hannari to shita iro no kimono”, but do you have any idea what color kimono this may be referring to?!
So how was it? Japanese phrases that are used daily or without much thought; it is actually quite challenging for us Japanese to translate to English. It’s because a single expression can convey different nuances depending on the situation. If you think about it though, for those of you from the international community who are reading this article, they can be convenient phrases because if you remember one, you can use them in different settings. Do learn these expressions and enjoy conversations in different situations!