SOME JAPANESE TERMS NOT ALWAYS THAT EASY TO TRANSLATE
(Including a few things unspoken)

The Japanese language has been going its own sweet way for a long time now, without much interference. Chinese missionaries brought religion, writing, lots of loan words from China, and numbers beyond "ten". (Yes, the ancient Japanese never thought of taking their shoes and socks off, so there is no old-style word for "eleven", or "twelve" or higher. We do not know when our ancestors discovered big numbers, but for the Japanese it is in recorded history.) The latest batch of loan words are mostly (but not all) English, particularly where technology is involved. Basically, though, the structure is as it has been for thousands of years. Even what can be consistently translated into English the same way does not necessarily mean what you think. (You cannot go wrong translating "kudasai" as "please", but when you look at the word written in kanji [Chinese characters] you will see the symbol for "underneath". This is because "kudasai" actually means "hand down to me".) Translating some words can be a real pain, where there is no matching word in English, or the word is English but has taken on new meaning, or when a word that works in one translation does not work in another. However, watch enough subtitled Japanese programmes, and after a while certain words and phrases start to penetrate. Even in translation, excessive use of "I will not forgive..." or "This is unforgivable" eventually starts to register on the consciousness. (I am not sure about this particular example myself, but the unforgivable is obviously of heavy significance in Japanese.) Certain frequently used words can go over people's heads for a long time, by having an incredible variety of possible translations. Some examples of the more common are in what follows: 

4 Sure mathematics has the same meaning in any language, but in Japan there is an extra significance to the number "four". At the same time the Chinese introduced numbers going higher than ten, "four" became unlucky. The old Japanese number was pronounced "yon", while the new Chinese loan-word "shi" was pronounced the same way as the Japanese word for "death". Where the English-speaking translator can get away with it, "four" is usually translated as "thirteen". See the number on Ataru's shirt in the first episode of Urusei Yatsura, and compare it to the number seen in the first volume of the English translation of the manga.

ANO Ahem / Excuse me / Err... / Hey / Uh / etc. The Japanese actually have a word for use in situations where English speakers usually just make a throat-clearing noise to gain attention.

ATASHI I / me. Although the Japanese language uses the personal pronoun less than English does, it has over fifty words meaning "I". "Atashi" is one such word, and is used by females almost exclusively. Any girl who uses one of the masculine pronouns instead (such as "ore") is not considered ladylike. For some reason a great number of fictional females do just this, one notable example being Ai in Video Girl Ai, whose speech pattern is a constant source of complaint to the central male character, and an irritation to any translator trying to explain what he is on about.

ASOBU Play / Hang out / visit. A literal translation is "play". You know, what children do when they get together. The problem is, when adults get together, the exact same word is used. This can sound really weird in a literal translation. ("Rack off kid, this is adult's play." "What do you mean?" And what does he?)

BAKA Idiot / Fool / Jerk / Twit / Dolt / etc. Its significance can depend on context, and in extremes might even be translated into a four-letter word. When a politician used this word on another, it made front page news. Alternatively, friends can bandy the word about good-naturedly.

BANZAI Hooray / Yahoo / Cheers / Hip hip hooray / etc. Generally an exclamation of joy, yelled out with hands and arms extended in such a way as to make the speaker look as much like the letter "X" as possible. It would be a fairly straightforward translation, were so many Westerners not conditioned to linking the use of "Banzai" to kamikaze attacks on WW2 ships. Hearing this more normal usage can be something of a jolt.

C.M. Usually pronounced "shee em", written with the English letters "C.M.", this is an abbreviation for "commercial message", (as in advertisement).

DESU It is... / They are.... Due to Japanese word-order, it comes at the end of sentences, where it is pronounced "dess" by everyone except for a few girls who do pronounce the "u" ending. My personal theory is that they do this to sound feminine. I have asked veteran Japanese speakers for verification, to have them tell me girls do not say it this way in the first place and what is wrong with my hearing? The worst offender proving my case is Steel Angel Kurumi, who's "de-su"s are so clear, frequent, and unmissable, at least one subtitled version of the series has the word tacked on to the end of her English sentences. Feminine "desu"s aside, males have been known to drop the "de-" part and just say "-su" as part of sounding cool. Elderly people can use "ja" instead of "da" simply because it is just part of a whole "old-codger-speech" accent. And what is this "da" I just mentioned? "Da" is the plain form of "desu". Japanese speech has about four levels of politeness -- very polite, ordinary polite (which uses "desu"), plain (which uses "da"), and rude. The main problem with "da" and "desu" for a translator is not so much those words themselves, as their variations. Science fiction stories supply the worst cases. The extraterrestrial Lum of Urusei Yatsura often adds "-ccha" to her verbs, (EG "da-chha" for "da") as part of her alien accent. In Granzort you get "-gurri"ing on the ends of sentences too heavily to be missed by anyone with hearing. While not actually an alien, the bargain-seeking Moped Lady in You're Under Arrest comes close with her "-zimass"es. Given all this, for the most part, variations of "desu" have to simply be ignored in the on-screen translation, with details (such as Lum's entire accent) being simply lost in translation.

DOMO Please / Thank you / Hullo / Extremely / Emphatically / etc. In Japanese this word is often added to expressions to make them more emphatic. Other times it is used by itself, instead of the full expression, standing in for meanings from "Very pleased to meet you" through "Thank you very much" to...well...just about anything. As its true meaning can be vague even to the person speaking, it is a good word for someone at a loss for words, and a true pain for many a subtitler.

FIGHT Hut-two, hut two. Groups of joggers can frequently be heard using this English word like a kind of mantra during physical activity. Sometimes pronounced like "fight-oh".

GAMBATTE Go for it / Knock 'em dead / Stand firm / Hang in there / You can do it / Win, win, win / etc. Literally meaning "Be of stout heart", this is a barracking call, often heard at sports matches, but can also be used as a word of encouragement in casual conversation. "Gambatte" is frequently spelled "ganbatte" when written in English. This is because where the "n" sound appears in the middle of a Japanese word, unattached to a vowel, it is pronounced "m", but always written "n" in phonetic Japanese. Some people render the word as it is actually spoken, others the way it is spelled in phonetic Japanese.

GENKAN Entrance hall / alcove / porch. You will see this far more than it gets talked about. It is the area just inside the door, usually set lower than the rest of the floor, where shoes are taken off. Outdoor footwear may be worn here, but no further into the house. The floors of Japanese homes are usually covered with tatami (straw mats) which are hard to keep clean and easy to damage. On the few occasions where a character keeps shoes on further than the genkan usually during a frightful emergency damaged tatami are usually seen as a background detail.

GOCHISOSAMA Thanks for the food / I'm stuffed / I'm off / That was a nice dinner / etc. A word used when finished eating, it literally means "An honourable feast it has been." See also "Itadakimasu".

GOLDEN WEEK Golden Week / The Holidays / Holiday Season. A time at the beginning of May when four national holidays occur in one week. Lots of travel happens at this time of year, especially with strategically-placed weekends. The holidays are (1) Greenery Day (formerly Hirohito's birthday) (2) Constitution Day (3) Between Day (a holiday because it happens between two other holidays), and (4) Children's Day (Boy's Festival Day, actually, with Girl's Festival Day being held in March). After Hirohito died, removing his birthday would have destroyed the flow of Golden Week, so they changed the day to a celebration of greenery and nature. More recently (2006) I hear they are doing another holiday shuffle, bringing back Hirohito's birthday and making Between Day the new Greenery Day.

H Pervert / Deviant / Creep / etc. The English letter "H" is used to stand for the Japanese word "hentai" which means "strange". In this context, the strangeness is of the sexual kind. "H" is sometimes pronounced like "etchi". Often "translated" as "H" by a subtitler who expects you to be already familiar with the Japanese meaning.

HAI Right / Yes sir / At once / Yes / No. Yep, there are times when "Hai" can be translated as "No". Usually translated as "yes", this word is actually used more in the sense of a confirmation, even to negative statements. In English a question like "It didn't happen did it?" can be answered with an agreeable "No" (as in "No, it didn't.") The reply in Japanese would be "Yes" (as in "Yes, you're right, it didn't.") Major confusion can be caused by a character simply nodding in reply to a negative question.

HATSUMODE A term for the first visit to a shrine in the New Year. (And from what one Japanese person told me, probably the only visit to a shrine that year. I get the impression the driving force behind Hatsumode can be likened to that behind attending church at Christmas.) The word can be difficult to translate with brevity, especially when all that may actually be said is "It's Hatsumode", before everyone strikes off outdoors without further comment often wearing traditional Japanese clothing. [Note also that great significance is often attached to the first dream of the New Year, although I know of no one-word that covers this concept. Some really bizarre things can happen in "dream stories" at this time of year, such as when the Urusei Yatsura characters suddenly argue over who is the real star of their series.]

HONNE One's true self (as opposed to tatemae, or the face one puts on for others). Showing tatemae encourages politeness and harmony. Showing honne is usually not a good thing, as speaking one's own mind can cause bother and disagreement. The series His and Her Circumstances (in which Miss Perfect Student is a total slob at home) gives a thorough workout of the tatemae and honne concepts. As a lot of Japanese would really like to express how they truly feel, such stories in which people let loose their honne are likely to be more profound than translation would suggest.

IDOL Pop singer / Superstar / Idol-singer. An English word, sometimes pronounced "idoru", it refers to a singer usually female whose main function seems to be to be popular, with singing ability apparently secondary, at least in some cases. In anime, some characters achieve idol-status by becoming popular. (Min May in Macross becomes a singer and actress after winning a beauty contest.) Nothing I have seen in real-life has yet contradicted this. Idols also seem to be expected to keep a more squeaky-clean image than western pop-stars.

ITADAKIMASU Let's eat / Dig in / Thanks for the food / etc. A word used before eating (or sometimes even before some other pleasurable activity) it translates literally as "I will [humbly] receive". (This word is so awkward to find a match for, I have even come across it "translated" as a greeting, where the situation made it look like it could be one.) A meal usually ends with "Gochisosama".

KAMI Hair / paper / God. These three words are pronounced exactly the same way in Japanese, and can and are used in puns which are completely untranslatable. Fortunately there is no movie or t.v. series where the whole plot hangs on such a multiple-meaning ... yet.

KANA Alphabet. Yes, the Japanese really do have one, which seems odd to people who know they use kanji (Chinese symbols that represent entire words). In China, all written words are understandable to all Chinese, whatever dialect they actually speak. Japanese grammar, however, relies heavily on fiddling with word endings. This was one driving force for the development of the phonetic alphabet in use today. Apart from grammar, kana can be used to show how kanji are pronounced. (Keep an eye open for when they do the same thing for English words. In Kimagure Orange Road for example, they show the name of the coffee shop "ABCB" is pronounced "Abacabu".) The Japanese alphabet begins with the vowels "a i u e o" (in that order) and then moves on to the "ka" series "ka ki ku ke ko", then the "sa" series, and so on. The order of the alphabet is "a ka sa ta na ha ma ya ra wa n". The final letter "n", totally separate from the "na" series, is the only consonant that does not have a vowel built onto it. (There is the Japanese word game shiritori, where each player must say a word beginning with the last letter of the previous player's word. The person who uses a word ending with "n" loses, as nothing starts with this letter. See if you can figure out an easy way to explain this on the fly, subtitling a show which lands you inside such a game.) More obscurely and thankfully less likely to have attention drawn on screen are things like problems with "r" and "l" sounds (which can lead to puns on words like "rock" and "lock"), "f" and "h" sounds, "tzu" whose resemblance to the figure "2" can also lead to puns the workings of the "g" "d" "z" "b" and "p" sounds versus the plosive and voiced symbols, times when "n" can be pronounced "m" and a pile of other things I have no intention of getting into here. Kanji (Chinese symbols) are square-ish. The two forms of kana (hiragana and katakana) are more cursive. Hiragana is the form in normal use, while katakana is always used for foreign words, and sometimes in situations where we would use italics. Children learn the kana as soon as they start school, before they go on to master the kanji. There are occasions you will catch snatches of Japanese alphabet (usually when schools are being depicted, although there are times such as when Ai in Video Girl Ai covers up a slip of the tongue by launching into the alphabet for no reason discernible to the person she is talking to.) When something like this happens, see if the subtitler handles the problem by translating this as "a b c d e f..." or "a i u e o ka ki ku ke ko..." or "(Japanese alphabet)" or just plain ignores the matter and leaves the screen blank.

KAPPA Water demon / Monster. Usually fairly easy to explain when the name crops up, it is not quite so simple when the reference is purely visual (such as the kappa doll Yû gets Miki in Marmalade Boy, as a back-handed present). Sometimes depicted with a turtle-like face, sometimes cat-like, the kappa is always distinguished by a sort of cap on top of its head, which holds water to keep it alive when on land. In the live-action series Monkey, the character Sandy was a kappa.

KIMI O DAISUKE "I love you". The "daisuke" part translates literally as "big like". The "kimi" part means "you", and although other words for "you" can be used, (including the actual name of the person being spoken to,) this seems the most common for a declaration of love. Note that in Japanese the key word comes last. Great suspense can be generated when a character pauses before the last critical word. Great anguish can be generated when the same character is interrupted or loses consciousness before completing the sentence. (And exactly what choice of words would you use in the subtitle when this happens?) Great impact can be delivered when the last word turns out to be something like a mere "respect", or - on one memorable occasion - an unexpected but sincere "hate!"

KISAMA Why you... / You bastard / You bitch / You %&@! / etc. The literal translation of this word is "you". Despite the "-sama" ending, it is an extremely impolite version, and so is always used as an insult. While the Japanese language has no swear-words as such, "kisama" is the most likely of epithets to be translated as a four-letter word. Intensity of the insult can be gauged by the tone of voice used to deliver it.

KUSO Literally, this word means "excrement". While Japanese has no swear words as such (use of politeness levels fills in for them) "kuso" is still regarded as rough speech. Translations range from "Oh drat" through to totally different-meaning but stronger swear-words, depending on context.

LIVE HOUSE English word "live" (as opposed to "dead") and English word "house". Used to indicate an establishment where the music, rock or classic or whatever, is played "live" by people, and does not come from any form of recording. "Live house". Get it?

LUCKY Lucky / How lucky / Splendid / Great! / I am so happy / etc. The English word "lucky" has come into common Japanese usage as a term of glee. Sometimes pronounced the way you would think, and other times like "rukki".

MASAKA Unbelievable / Impossible / Incredible / This can't be / No / etc. Phonetically similar to the English word "massacre", this is frequently uttered in the face of some unexpected and usually unpleasant turn of events.

MASTER An English word pronounced exactly how you think it is, this is the title given to the owner of an inn or pub. It is hardly ever "translated" into the character's real name, because the character's real name may be seldom (if ever) used.

MO Ooh! / Hmf / Really / Sheesh / etc. Othertimes just ignored in translation. Freestanding, spoken with varying degrees of frustration, it is sort of a female noise, made by a girl who is less than pleased with her male companion(s).

NYAN NYAN Meow meow. The noise a cat makes. This is a sound-effects word that gets a little more complicated in meaning when dropped into conversation, where it often has something to do with boy/girl relationships. It can seemingly imply anything from "That's a cute girl" to "Let's make out", and I have more than once heard the word used as a girl's name/nickname. Watch enough Japanese fantasy and science fiction, and you will get to see more than a fair-share of cat-girls. One Japanese tried to explain it all to me in this way: A cat is a comfort-seeking creature, and saying "Nyan nyan" can imply a girl is comfort-loving or is a comfortable person to be with. My source was unhappy with her own explanation, having concepts hard to find words for in English, but from what I have seen it comes close.

ONISAN Big brother / Elder brother / Brother / My brother / etc. (Sometimes with a different honorific, coming out "Onichan" or "Onisama".) Pronounced oh-knee-san. Be careful with this word, as it does not necessarily mean the person it is being used on is really the speaker's brother. (The Japanese word meaning "my own elder brother" is "ani", however younger siblings will still use an "oni-" word as a title.) "Onisan" is a title any young person may give to someone older, but not necessarily related. (In Kimagure Orange Road, the young Kazuya often refers to his cousin Kyosuke as "Onichan".)

ONESAN Elder sister / big sis / sister / my sister / etc. Pronounced oh-nay-san. In the same kettle of fish as ONISAN.

SEI BARENTAIN DEI St Valentines Day. ("Sei" meaning "holy", "Barentain" being the Japanese pronunciation of "Valentine", and "Dei" being the English word "day". Sometimes "Sei Barentain no shukujitsu", or "St Valentine's Festival Day".) The name of the day is easy to translate, but what happens on it may be less easy to get across. On Valentine's Day, to the delight of the chocolate companies, women give chocolates to men they like...and obligation chocolate to certain others (such as bosses and brothers) so they will not feel left out. Thereon hangs the plot of many a Valentine's Day story.

SEMPAI Upper classman / senior. The concept behind this word is so hard to get across in casual conversation, "sempai" is usually translated into the name of person being addressed. The sempai is the senior addressed with respect and the kohai is the junior addressed casually. ("Sempai" can be used as a title, but not "kohai".) A sempai can be younger than a kohai, but this is not usually the case, especially in schools, where you will most likely first notice the use of this word. "Sempai" will frequently be spelled "senpai" when it does appear in subtitles. This is because where the "n" sound appears in the middle of a Japanese word, unattached to a vowel, it is pronounced "m", but always written "n" in phonetic Japanese. Some translators render the word as it is actually pronounced, others the way it is actually spelled.

SHIIN The sound of silence. The Japanese language has a lot of sound-effects words, which can be inserted into conversation far more easily than sound effects slide into English sentences. Most are easy to translate, while a few others - such as "toki doki" (the sound of a heartbeat) and "nyan nyan" (the noise a cat makes) can have additional implications not easily conveyed. In my opinion "shiin" has to be the grand master of such words. Often with the "i" sound incredibly drawn out, it does not represent a sound being made, but rather the absence of any sound whatsoever. On rare occasions characters may say the word to indicate they are keeping silent, it might appear as a word floating in the air, or it may even be heard on the sound track as a humorous indication of silence.

SONNA... Such a thing... / Oh my! / That's so... / How noble of you / Why you @&*! / What the...? / You...you... / etc. "Sonna" can be a real pain to find a match for in English. It is the beginning of a phrase that is not completed (as is the English "What the...?") and is mostly used when the speaker is at a loss for something to say in response to what has just been said or done.

TANABATA Festival of the Weaver / Star Festival. A time of the year (the seventh day of the seventh lunar month) when, as Chinese legend goes, two celestial lovers (Vega and Altair), separated the rest of the year (by the Milky Way) get together. [Original Chinese legend: Tentai, the Master of Heaven, had a daughter named Shokujo - which means "weaver", which is lucky as this is what she was - who married Kengu, a herdsman who lived on the other side of the Milky Way. The honeymoon went so well Shokujo neglected her weaving, causing Tentai to order the two separated, but for this one night of the year when a raven extends its wings across the Milky Way, enabling them to reunite.] Every Japanese knows the story, so unless you are reading or watching a tale written with foreigners in mind, chances are things will not be too clear. Outsiders will most likely just notice some kind of parade or festival going on, with perhaps a sub-plot involving separated lovers. A dead give-away is when wishes get written on slips of decorated paper and tied to a tree.

TATEMAE One's public face, the facade shown to others (as opposed to honne, or one's true self). Showing tatemae encourages politeness and harmony. Showing honne is usually not a good thing, as speaking one's own mind can cause bother and disagreement. The series His and Her Circumstances (where Miss Perfect Student is a total slob at home) gives a thorough workout of the tatemae and honne concepts. As a lot of Japanese would really like to express how they really feel, stories about people who lash out and do are likely to be more profound than translation would suggest.

THE The English word "the". It has no equivalent in Japanese speech, and on the rare occasions when used as a foreign word, it can easily be used wrongly ... not to mention memorably. Japanese nouns do not distinguish between singular and plural, and the Japanese system of emphasis is way different from English. Consequently "the" is found in very few Japanese titles, even in translation. (Take Banner of Stars for example. Do you add one "the" or two, and where? Or do you just leave the title like it is? The last solution happens a lot. The series Dirty Pair, for one example, is only sometimes called The Dirty Pair in English translation.) In the hands of the Japanese, "the" can either pass completely unnoticed or stand out like a foghorn. (One foghorn-style example happens at the beginning of the Bubble Gum Crisis OAV series, when a poster is seen advertising "The Priss". The first time I saw BGC it took a while to figure out that Priss was a singer and not the band, which was actually called "the Replicants". This poster blooper was fixed when the [mostly] same footage was used in a music video.)

TOILET Washroom / Bathroom. The English word "toilet" adopted by the Japanese, sometimes pronounced like "toy-ray". Always used in the correct context, but is almost always subtitled as anything but "toilet", especially by American translators.

URUSAI Shut up / Quiet down / Silence! / So noisy / etc. Most often translated as "Shut up!" it actually means "Objectionable noise", and sometimes it is used literally. Other times it is not even used about noise. (The pun-ridden title of the series Urusei Yatsura can be translated as "Objectionable people". Among other possible meanings are "Noisy people" and "Obnoxious aliens from the planet Uru.")

YADA Ooh yuck! / No! / Oh no / Oh please / Ech! / Don't! /Stop it! / Please don't / etc. Literally meaning "It is disagreeable", this word gets used in a variety of situations where the speaker -- often female -- finds things unpleasant.

YATTA We did it / He did it / Success! / Victory / Way to go / Wahoo! / etc. An exclamation of success.

YOBOSITE Hardly ever mentioned in dialogue, thank heavens, this is the practice of not using honorifics (-sama, -san, -chan, -kun, etc) with a person's name. Reasons can range from sheer contempt ("I despise you so much I do not give you the honour of putting a tag on the end of your name") to incredible friendliness ("We are so chummy we can't offend one another by leaving out honourifics") to things only another Japanese can understand ("The only thing worse than not using an honourific with your name would be using the wrong one, and under the circumstances there are no right ones, so I will go for the least trouble.") It can be incredibly difficult to explain in translation things you do not hear.

YOSHI! Let's get down to it / Time to get started / Time to start work / etc. Pronounced "yosh", and said before setting down to a particular job or chore.

X'MAS Christmas, pronounced close-enough to "Christmas". When written in English it has an inverted comma after the "X", for no reason I can figure. Despite the fact that only 1% of the Japanese population is Christian, Christmas is widely celebrated, with decorations, Santa Clauses, and all. (This often surprises foreigners.) Getting a date on Christmas Day seems to be considered vitally important, and figures in many storylines. Emperor Akahito thoughtfully had himself born on 23 December, so the Japanese do get a holiday on that day, although not Christmas Day itself.


 

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