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As a translator you either love or hate the words that are hard to translate – concepts, foods or ideas that are expressed succinctly in one language but that require a explanatory phrase in the other.

There are plenty of examples when translating from Japanese to English – here are a few of my favourites.

Japanese words everyone “knows” the meaning of

We’ve all seen samurai movies and war movies, and the way words are used in these gets imprinted on our minds as having a particular meaning.

Banzai: thought by many to be a blood-curdling cry made by Japanese warriors, in fact it means “ten thousand years”, but translates as “hooray”, “long live the Emperor” “Goooaaalll”, “Ye-e-e-es”. Often to be heard by politicians or sports teams celebrating a vicory. Don’t worry, you’re in no danger!

Rōnin (ろうにん): originally applied to a samurai whose master had died or fallen from grace, leaving the samurai masterless and forced to make a living by wandering in search of work. Some became mercenaries.

Much loved by movie-makers, the term Rōnin these days means a student who has to take a year out after failing the demanding University entrance exams.

Kamikaze (神風 ): Thanks again to the movies, the use of this term to denote suicide pilots in WW2 is well known, however the term goes back to the 13th Century. The word comes from kami divine + kaze wind, and refers to a storm that destroyed a Mongol invasion fleet in 1281. It was the Japanese equivalent of the storms that prevented the Spanish Armada from invading England 300 years later. In most cases translation as “suicide pilot” probably works, but it helps to know the history if that translation makes no sense in the context.

Hard-to-translate Japanese food words

The Japanese love their food! They cook well, are knowledgeable about the ingredients they use and are happy to discourse about a meal in the same way that a French cook would. They will expound on where a fish came from, and why it is the absolute best time of year to eat this sort of fish, though that may be wasted on an English audience: (“Oooh yummy – fish! Now, where are the chips?”)
Itadakimasu: Said before starting to eat a meal, there really is no equivalent single word or phrase in English. The best translation might be to cheat and use “bon appétit”!
Gochisousama deshita: Said on finishing a meal, to compliment the chef – “that was an honourable feast”. “Mmm, yummy!” conveys the meaning, but not the politeness of Gochisousama deshita.
Natto: Disgusting dish made of fermented beans that smell as bad as they look. The Japanese equivalent of marmite – you either love it or hate it. Either way there is no way to translate this Japanese word into English simply. Probably only pictures and smell-o-vision would do the job!
Geiinbashoku ( 鯨飲馬食): Just perfect for the festive season, it means “Drink like a whale, eat like a horse” – hard to translate into English, but we love the mental picture that goes with this phrase!

Japanese words we’re glad there’s no English translation for

Just because there is a word for something in one language and not in another, doesn’t mean the concept doesn’t exist in both, however the fact that a word does exist makes you wonder whether it’s more prevalent in the culture that has named it.
Murishinchuu: Means one person killing another/ others and then killing themselves. I came across this in Japan in the context of parents killing themselves and their children, and shuddered. Unfortunately, this seems to be happening more and more in the UK – perhaps it’s a word we should import, in the same way that the Japanese have imported “sekuhara” – sexual harassment. It makes it sound like it’s a bad thing that came from abroad, rather than admitting that the same exists here by having our own word to describe it!

Japanese words we’ve already imported in English

English is good at pinching words from other languages – sometimes if you can’t find a good translation, it’s the only thing to do!

Taifuu (台風)– typhoon. Sounds like a popular brand of teabags when you say it in Japanese (maybe it’s a storm in a teacup?!)
Tsunami – Tsunami. A word we all know now, that we’d be glad not to know.

Japanese words we’d like an English equivalent of

Sometimes Japanese words are just so flipping useful! Japanese people can’t believe that we don’t have an English word for:

Asatte: translates as the cumbersome “the day after tomorrow” and the equally useful

Ototoi: “the day before yesterday”

Ganbatte:  good luck, try hard, go for it! A suits-all-occasion phrase used for general encouragement.

Yorushiku onegai shimasu: It’s really hard to translate this concept into English! Depending on the context I would use it for “my son is about to start training in your group, please look after him”, “thank you for your valuable time” and “here’s to our future relationship as friends/ colleagues” (this is sometimes translated as “nice to meet you”, which seems very empty in comparison).

More tricky translations to come!

This article is the first of a series on tricky translations in various languages, and we’d like you to continue reading them, so Yorushiku onegai shimasu!