Thoughts on Hard-to-translate Japanese

Some Japanese is so Special it just Doesn't Translate

October 26, 2015

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 Japanese, Japanese tidbits

Have you ever wondered how to say "otsukaresama" to your non-Japanese colleagues in English? In addition to "otsukaresama", the Japanese language has a number of unique stock phrases that don't really have an exact translation. Force a translation on these obvious sounding greetings and the original nuance is lost. Let's look at some Japanese expressions that we bandy about in our daily lives without a second thought.

Hard-to-Translate Japanese No.1: "Yoroshiku onegai shimasu"

"Yoroshiku onegai shimasu" is a handy phrase used every day in a variety of situations such as a greeting at a new workplace. See if you can think of a way to say "yoroshiku onegai shimasu" in English. It implies that the speaker wishes to work hard with his/her new colleagues and is ready to be shown the ropes. We might translate this as "I'd appreciate your guidance." But there is no equivalent phrase an English speaker would use in the same situation, so the translation above still seems odd and clunky.

"Yoroshiku onegai shimasu" is also essential in e-mails. We need to choose the most appropriate English phrase like "I hope to hear from you soon" or "I look forward to meeting you" depending on the context.

Hard-to-Translate Japanese No. 2: "Otsukaresama desu"

"Otsukaresama desu" is another unique Japanese expression used in the workplace. These days there are more and more non-Japanese employees working in Japan. A direct translation of "otsukaresama desu" is "you're tired." This totally fails to get the meaning across. How about something that is a bit closer to the meaning--"thank you for your hard work"? While the sentiment might get across, this still sounds unnatural. English speakers aren't in the habit of saying anything like "otsukaresama desu." If we want to translate it into a natural-sounding English expression we get something like "see you tomorrow," but this does not fully convey the original nuance.

Expressing appreciation for each other's efforts at the end of the workday is a custom unique to Japan.

Handy Fool-proof Japanese Word: the Magic of "dōmo"

One useful word we recommend for people interested in the Japanese language is "dōmo." For starters, it is easy to pronounce and remember. It can be used in all manner of situations once you get the hang of it. Let's look at one example of the "dōmo" magic.

1. When someone on the street tries to hand you a packet of tissues.
Take them and say "dōmo," or don't take them and say "dōmo."

2. When you go into a convenience store and the clerk greets you with a hearty "Irasshaimase! (Welcome!)"
Smile and say "dōmo."

3. When you get the change after paying the bill.
Smile again and say "dōmo."

4. When leaving the store.
Raise your hand slightly and say "dōmo."

We can render the above four uses of "dōmo" in English as follows.

1: "Thanks" or "No, thanks"

2: "Hi!"

3: "Thanks"

4: "Bye!"

The single word "dōmo" is chock-full of nuances. If you teach a foreign friend or colleague how to use it you can bet they will thank you, and may even say "dōmo."

Think about Translations and Realize How Unique Japanese is

Japanese is often hard to translate because its uniqueness has sprung from the Japanese lifestyle and customs. It is necessary to properly understand the content and context on a case-by-case basis and translate the text as naturally as possible. So if you have trouble translating something, you can take pride in the realization that Japanese is a highly original language. Along with the Japanese spirit, this will always be something to appreciate about Japan.

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