Japanese translation bumbles, fumbles, and stumbles

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New article in Japan Times (1/21/22) by Eric Margolis:  "Translator trip-ups: What do they mean for learning Japanese?"  It is so rich in insights that I will quote from it liberally (well, the whole kit and caboodle, broken up a bit):

In the recent issue of the literary magazine Monkey, which publishes new and old Japanese writing translated into English, a dozen literary translators dished out their thoughts on the hardest words to translate from Japanese into English. These choices ranged from the omnipresent いらっしゃいませ (irasshaimase), which is used as a greeting when entering a store, to sentence endings like the emphatic よ (yo) and the interrogative かしら(kashira, I wonder?).

Examining the words chosen by these translators can shed light on why communication between languages requires so much more than one-to-one translation. It also demonstrates how important it is to have a high level of cultural understanding for speaking fluent Japanese.

I want to take a look at five of these words and dive into why they’re significant and how Japanese learners can embrace and grow by using them. These words are: いらっしゃいませ、おじさん/おばさん (ojisan/obasan, mister/missus), 懐かしい (natsukashii, nostalgic), はあ(, an interjection) and 心 (kokoro, heart). Why did translators choose these words as being hard — even impossible — to translate? As we’ll soon see, the parenthetical definitions are woefully insufficient. We’ll need to dive deeper.

いらっしゃいませ is a remark heard in almost every store in Japan. It’s what store attendants chime when you enter, and you’re likely to hear it every day, maybe multiple times, while here. But what exactly does it mean in English? It’s almost impossible to say from that perspective.

Translator Ginny Tapley Takemori chose this word because it has no English equivalent at all, despite its ubiquity. Shopkeepers might say “hello” when you enter a store, but that’s not what いらっしゃいませ is. In fact, Takemori chose not to translate the term at all when translating Sayaka Murata’s novel “Convenience Store Woman,” where it appears regularly throughout the book.

I respect Takemori's decision not to translate いらっしゃいませ (we devoted an entire post to it recently), but I'd be willing to settle for "welcome!".

Takemori’s choice points to how some words truly do only exist in Japanese. While specific cultural terms like こたつ (kotatsu, a heated table used in the winter) don’t have English translations, these types of words can also extend into the social realm. This is an important realization for a Japanese learner, they will need to know いらっしゃいませ not for signifying a certain universal term in English, but for being its own set phrase used in specific situations.

Looking at おじさん and おばさん expands on this important language-learning concept. Unlike いらっしゃいませ, which is used in one specific social situation, おじさん and おばさん apply to countless situations. They are the terms for someone who is older than an お兄さん or お姉さん (onīsan/onēsan, older brother/older sister) but younger than a お爺さん or お婆さん (ojīsan/obāsan, an old man/old lady), so somewhere between 30 and 60. They’re also the terms for uncle or aunt, literal and figurative. You can use it when talking about someone, or as a form of address.

As pointed out by Polly Barton, who chose the words for Monkey, it’s common practice in many Asian countries to refer to people as the term indicated by their age and gender within the family structure. Not only is this simply not how people refer to some middle-aged man or woman in English, おじさん and おばさん often carry all sorts of cultural baggage, “the associated behaviors of people this age … which can imply a modicum of eyeroll,” Barton says. Translators will have to substitute a variety of words for it when converting into English. A Japanese learner will have to take the reverse approach: They will need to adapt to using おじさん and おばさん as blanket terms for strangers and acquaintances alike.

懐かしい, chosen by Jeffrey Angles, falls into a slightly different category than the words discussed thus far. 懐かしい means “nostalgic” or “longed for.” This is certainly a concept familiar in English. However, it’s used in a very different way in Japanese than English speakers are used to doing. Japanese people frequently say ああ、懐かしい!or 懐かしいね in any situation that feels familiar, nostalgic, dear, or that brings back memories of “the good old days” in any manner. It may feel unusual to go around commenting on how nostalgic things are in English, but it’s entirely natural in Japanese.

As Angles and Lucy North point out, this usage comes from a place deep within Japanese culture, where traditional aesthetics prize nostalgia and longing for the past. So when speaking Japanese, embrace the feeling of 懐かしい. It’s both a word that brings you deeper into fluent Japanese, and a feeling that brings you deeper into the culture.

はあ is an interjection, along with other tricky-to-translate interjections such as へぇー (), ふーん (fūn) and ああ (ā). Anna Elliott chose this interjection in particular because it has three different meanings: as a polite “yes,” a generic interjection or an expression of surprise. The challenge there for a translator is that there is no single word that responds to all of these meanings. In Elliott’s case, it’s especially noteworthy because it’s a verbal tic of a character in a novel.

Using Japanese-style interjections can feel unnatural for learners, but 相槌 (aizuchi), interjections that indicate one is paying attention, are an essential part of the language. Teasing out the exact nuances of these 相槌 can lead to huge strides forward in fluency. はあ seems to exist on a level of formality similar to はい (hai, yes), a step above a response like ええ (ē, uh huh) or two steps above an うん (un, yep). When speaking Japanese, embrace the occasional ええ or そうだね (sō da ne, right), indicating your active participation in the conversation.

Lastly, there is the beloved 心. Jay Rubin chooses this word because it doesn’t map well directly on to the English nuance of the word “heart.”

“‘Mind’ is too exclusively cerebral and ‘heart’ too tipped towards the emotional for kokoro, which straddles the full territory, including the moral,” Rubin writes. This intricate nuance won’t come up much in navigating everyday conversation and Japanese, but it drills in a consistent theme throughout these five words: Exact English language concepts and conventions don’t transplant themselves well directly into Japanese.

Whenever I hear or see the word kokoro 心, I inevitably think of the famous novel (1914) by Natsume Sōseki (1867-1916), which embodies the essence of the word.  The title, written in hiragana as こころ, could be translated into English as "heart (of things)" or "feeling(s)", but not "mind".  In this case, "kokoro" is solidly enough established in identifying this particular literary work that I'm content to refer to the novel directly with that Japanese word.

These translation trip-ups point to the way culture intertwines with language. In some of these examples, the Japanese meaning is broader than any convenient English equivalent (おじさん), other times more specific (いっらしゃいませ), and sometimes simply different (心). Translators need to take a dynamic approach that considers the broader tone and context of a passage when choosing a translation, avoiding one-to-one equivalency. And Japanese learners need to embrace the fact that moving straight from English into Japanese won’t produce fluent, natural Japanese. Instead, learners need to consume context and experience in the form of movies, books, songs and actual visits to the country when possible. Put simply, it’s necessary to live in Japanese in order to speak it".

Note, though, that the author says "it’s necessary to live in Japanese in order to speak it", not that "it’s necessary to live in Japan in order to speak Japanese".

As a second language speaker of Mandarin and a third language speaker of Japanese, I must say that there are many mysteries of the latter in and of itself, but all the more so in the way they relate Sinographically to the former.  For instance, daijōbu だいじょうぶ /  大丈夫, which means at least 25 different things (!)  "all right; alright; fine; good; OK; okay; in good health; uninjured; not hurt; safe; secure; sound; problem-free; unbroken; still working; correct; certain(ly); certifiable; sure(ly); undoubted(ly); no thanks; I'm good; I've had enough; great man; fine figure of a man [last two meanings are archaic]"; etc. 

In Chinese, dàzhàngfu 大丈夫 is attestable well over two millennia ago with the meaning of "real / true / manly man; man of character".  The 大 part, of course, means "great; big" and, already from ancient times, zhàngfu 丈夫 signifies "husband; man; manly person".  In terms of its etymology, zhàng 丈 indicates a measure of ten feet and fū 夫 is an adult male, so "a tall man" (the length of a "foot" varied from antiquity to the present; more than two thousand years ago, it would have been roughly two thirds what it is now, hence a zhàng 丈 would have been around six and a half feet, still quite tall for a man of that era.  In Mandarin, zhàngfu 丈夫 means "husband".

All of which makes one's head whirl and swirl, and allows for a lot of jokes and innuendoes between a compatible bilingual (in Japanese and Chinese) couple.


Selected readings

[h.t. Don Keyser]


  1. Frank L Chance said,

    January 31, 2022 @ 9:25 am

    Just as a quick response, I think we should distinguish "irrasshai" from "irrasshaimase." The shorter form is also often heard when one enters a shop, and has more of a connotation of "come in" or "welcome." The longer and thus more polite form has more of a connotation of "How may I help you?" I am reminded of a semilegendary professor of Japanese who, whenever a student knocked on their door responded with another possible translation, the somewhat ominous "How may I serve you…today?"

  2. Christian Horn said,

    January 31, 2022 @ 6:12 pm

    Very nice!

    I summed up last week thoughts on what makes learning foreign and especially Japanese interesting for me, clicking my name here should bring it up. Having to learn much about culture to get concepts is part of the fun.

    One other concept I like to quote for learning: in English or German we have verbs meaning "to be/to exist". In Japanese, there are two for that, いる/ある, used depending on whether the object is living or not. Easy to understand and accept, and start using it, right? "this chair" uses then a different verb than "this dog".

    The real fun starts when you notice Japanese talking about gods in the Shrine, and notice them using the verb for "living things"! Discovering these things is what makes it interesting.

  3. Terpomo said,

    January 31, 2022 @ 9:38 pm

    ああ、懐かしい! doesn't seem all that difficult to me at all- "Ah, that really takes me back!" would be the most idiomatic English equivalent.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    January 31, 2022 @ 11:58 pm

    "…doesn't seem all that difficult to me at all…"

  5. Andreas Johansson said,

    February 1, 2022 @ 6:58 am

    @Christian Horn:

    I'm probably missing something, but believers referring to their gods as alive seems entirely expected?

  6. cliff arroyo said,

    February 1, 2022 @ 8:26 am

    "believers referring to their gods as alive seems entirely expected?

    I'm guessing that he meant that statues representing the gods are referred to as animate…

  7. Krogerfoot said,

    February 1, 2022 @ 8:44 am

    Daijōbu isn't at all ineffable for foreigners in Japan, most of whom can use it correctly even if they barely speak a word of Japanese. The first 17 of the 25 meanings indicated for daijōbu in the OP seem to map just fine to one equivalent English expression, "all right," unless there is more semantic difference than I suspected between "OK" and "okay" or "all right" and "alright."

  8. EMH said,

    February 1, 2022 @ 8:49 am

    As a learner of both Japanese and Biblical Hebrew, the range of meanings (direct and metaphorical) for 心 remind me of the range and nuance of the meanings and uses of רוח (ruach, “wind/breath/spirit/soul”). Not in that they are the same, but in that they both have single-word translations in English that, if taken at face value, elide much of the nuance and context of their use. One must encounter both words over and over in context to gain the full range of their meaning.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    February 1, 2022 @ 9:39 am



    Where did that come from?

    "at all"

    That's an exaggeration.

    You missed nearly all of the subtleties about daijōbu that were alluded to in the o.p.

    "25 meanings"

    That's a red herring; an obvious joke in the first place.

    Go over just the first 17 of the listed equivalents and ask yourself again if they really are approaching a single "all right". And then what about the final 8?

    What is your real point?

    As you have in the past, you are treading on trollery here.

  10. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 1, 2022 @ 7:44 pm

    Perhaps irasshaimase could be translated into English (assuming readers with some familiarity with the relevant part of Europe) as https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/gr%C3%BC%C3%9F_Gott? I suppose if I were translating from German and that expression came up a lot I would leave it untranslated (maybe with some sort of footnote or parenthetical explanation the first time it came up) rather than glossing it as "hello" or whatever, because what really matters is that "it's that thing everyone automatically says when a customer walks into a shop."

  11. Josh R. said,

    February 1, 2022 @ 10:35 pm

    As a professional Japanese translator, except for "kokoro," none of those strike me as particularly difficult. I'm actually surprised to see "yoroshiku onegai-(ita)shimasu" not listed, as that one's actually difficult to naturally translate, even based on context. Often when part of a letter or email, I'm in favor of leaving it out altogether.

    One of the hardest translation jobs I've had was doing subtitles for one of Japan's ubiquitous "walk-around" travelogue shows. The hosts walk around some area, trying different restaurants and other sites, during which they repeatedly use the same words (sugoi, umai [and umasou], oishii [and oishisou]), which wouldn't be quite so bad in itself, but these words are then echoed by the other people, as well.

    On the flip side were the myriad of ritual expressions that, not unlike "irrasshaimase," were devoid of actual semantic content, but were pragmatically said as expressions of appreciation/gratitude. I'm only half-joking when I say my manual for conveying the subtle nuances of these phrases was as follows:

    Arigatou gozaimasu – Thank you.
    Doumo – Thank you.
    Sumimasen – Thank you.
    Onegai-shimasu – Thank you.
    Yoroshiku onegai-shimasu – Thank you.
    Osewa ni narimasu – Thank you.
    Osewa ni narimashita – Thank you.
    Itadakimasu – Thank you.
    Gochisosama deshita – Thank you.

  12. Christian Horn said,

    February 2, 2022 @ 1:01 am

    @Andreas Johansson

    At least for me, getting introduced into Christianity as a child, the question whether god lives or not did not come up in the first place – in German (and English) just the one verb exists. Noticing that the Japanese reference is with the living-verb opened that perspective, the whole topic whether gods live or not, to me.

  13. Andreas Johansson said,

    February 2, 2022 @ 1:51 am

    @Christian Horn:

    Thanks. My own Christian upbringing involved quite a few assertions that God and/or Jesus is a "living god".

  14. Philip Taylor said,

    February 2, 2022 @ 8:11 am

    I am fascinated by the idea that there might be something other than a living god (assuming the existence of a god in the first place). With what exactly is a "living god" being contrasted ? A dead god ? An inanimate god ? A god that exists only in the minds of his believers ? Serious question, and not seeking to be blasphemous.

  15. Martha said,

    February 2, 2022 @ 10:51 am

    As someone raised with minimal religious beliefs and a non-speaker of Japanese, I share Philip Taylor's fascination. If you have a choice between a verb used with living things, and a verb used with inanimate objects, it seems natural to use the one used with living things for a god, because I imagine it has something to do with animacy rather than simply being *alive*. I wonder which one is used with robots and whether it their being powered on or off matters.

    If I recall from my Japanese classes 15+ years ago, we learned "daijobu" for stuff like "all right" and "chotto" for some of the other things on that list of possible daijobu meanings "I'm good"/"no thanks."

  16. SusanC said,

    February 2, 2022 @ 12:44 pm

    As you say, in English the terms for family members are almost always used literally, and don't get used by extension to people who are clearly non-family.

    The only English exception I can think of is "grandpa", used in a slightly derogatory way of an old guy who is not, in fact, the speaker's grandfather.

    As an English speaker, I find it slightly surprising how Japanese can sometimes use oka-san or aneki-san. (Possibly related: on the sometimes occasions when I need to address one of *my* grad students while I'm speaking Japanese, I sometimes wonder which politeness form to reach for to capture the high familiarity/high informality I would use in English to that person. -kun seems way overboard…)

  17. Chris Button said,

    February 2, 2022 @ 1:24 pm

    Regarding god, the likely association of Japanese "kami" with Ainu "kamuy" is interesting.

    (of course I'm really just trying to stear this back to a discussion about bears again: https://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=53219).

  18. Chris Button said,

    February 2, 2022 @ 1:28 pm


    Incidentally, regarding the beaver ~ bear connection there, it turns out Altaicists have been proposing that for a while.

  19. SusanC said,

    February 2, 2022 @ 1:42 pm

    "I'm probably missing something, but believers referring to their gods as alive seems entirely expected?"

    For Shinto kami, My naive expectations would be that they are treated as alive. But if it were talking about the persons of the Trinity in Christianity … we'll Jesus clearly was alive …

    And then we have the divine [i]logos[/i], which doesn't sound like it's a living being at all.

  20. cliff arroyo said,

    February 2, 2022 @ 4:47 pm

    "I find it slightly surprising how Japanese can sometimes use oka-san or aneki-san"

    Try Vietnamese, the use of kinship terms to non-kin is off the charts…

  21. Julian said,

    February 2, 2022 @ 6:01 pm

    64yo Australian here
    For me as a child the couple next door, 20 years older than my parents, were Uncle Bob and Auntie Joan.
    This seemed natural at the time but now seems a bit old-fashioned, and I've never heard it used in the same way in my circle since (but note that among Indigenous Australians 'auntie' is often used as a mark of respect, almost with the status of a title like 'Mr' or 'Mrs'.

  22. Andreas Johansson said,

    February 3, 2022 @ 8:16 am

    @Philip Taylor:

    When it comes to Jesus, he's surely (believed to be) a living god as opposed to one who wasn't resurrected but stayed dead.

    Less sure what the contrast is supposed to be when applied to God the Father or the Trinity as a whole.

  23. Kate Bunting said,

    February 3, 2022 @ 8:54 am

    In my British childhood in the 50s/60s it was considered bad manners for a child to address or refer to an adult by their given name alone, so family friends were routinely called Auntie and Uncle.

  24. SusanC said,

    February 4, 2022 @ 2:04 pm

    My late grandmother had a nickname (and I know what it was), but there is no-one currently alive who can refer to her by that name; her sisters were entitled to use it, but not me, or indeed, my mother. Which is a roundabout way of saying: Br. English politeness forms are complicated, too,

    Yes, in English, "aunt"/"uncle" is used by children for kin who aren't actually their aunt/uncle, or non-kin family friends. I think "oka-san" has an even wider scope, though,

  25. Christian Horn said,

    February 4, 2022 @ 7:38 pm

    @Philip Taylor, excellent question, I brought up on lang-8 what 'gods/spirits are (not living verb)' feels like.
    First reply: 違和感, so 'feels like something is not placed/said correctly' or even 'this makes me feel uncomfortable'.
    Second reply suggests to use 'does it move or not' as criteria to decide which of the 2 verbs to use. For buses or taxi also the 'living/moving' verb can be used. That Japanese person have never wondered if gods/spirits live, probably simply heard the living-verb being used in that context since childhood. Humans are self aware and can decide where they go to, using the same verb for gods/spirits seems the right thing.

    I tried to take "ロボット 居る" and "ロボット 有る" (and variations of both) to google trends, but there are not enough references to show anything. But in the last years we see more and more references to robots wit 居る, so as living things. If someone has a further idea how to do worth analysis over big amounts of Japanese articles, sorted by years, that would be interesting to look at.

  26. Josh R. said,

    February 6, 2022 @ 7:35 pm

    I think it's really better to think of the iru/aru distinction as "animate/inanimate," rather than "living/non-living". Plants, for example, are certainly "living". A Japanese dictionary will note it as one of two categories of "ikimono" (living things). Yet plants are invariably described using "aru." There's not the slightest ambiguity (anthromorphizing notwithstanding).

    What I find interesting, but have unable to find any commentary on, is the ability to use "iru" with typhoons. When I first heard it, I thought it might actually be a rare example of iru/aru confusion in a native speaker, but upon investigation it appears to be idiomatic. From the looks of it, one can use "aru," as you would expect. "Aru" is also used when making a general statement, e.g., "Nihon ni wa taifuu ga aru." (Japan has typhoons/There are typhoons in Japan.) But when discussing a particular active typhoon, one can say "Taifuu wa doko ni iru," (Where is the typhoon?)

  27. cliff arroyo said,

    February 7, 2022 @ 2:54 am

    "the iru/aru distinction as "animate/inanimate"
    "use "iru" with typhoons"

    Maybe part of the distinction is about the ability to move?

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