Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Favorite Untranslatable Words

Untranslatable words are the best. They are there to remind me that I'm not in Kansas anymore (I've actually never been to Kansas but you know what I mean) and that the Japanese experience of life and society, values and meanings--reality--is different from an American English speaker's. In that sense, I'm willing to bet there are many, many more "untranslatable" words between two given languages than there are words that translate well.

My husband and I speak both Japanese and English together. This month, we'd decided to speak English, but sometimes we put in a Japanese word or phrase here and there. I paid attention to those words and thoughts we don't bother to translate into English, most often because it take too many words in English to describe what we mean when there's one very convenient Japanese word for the subject. Here are some of them:

社会人 shakaijin (noun) literally "society person" it means a full-fledged contributing member of adult society. You become one not by getting to a certain birthday, but by finishing your education and getting full-time work. Part-time workers, freelancers, students, stay-at-home moms are not usually considered shakaijin. There really isn't an English word that fits: "adult" has to do with age and maturity and not job status like this word does.

サラリーマン sararii-man (noun) just the English words "salary man", it means a male shakaijin who is working for a monthly salary in a company. It seems to imply your average white-collar businessman, of which there are for some reason a great many in Japan. It's given rise to some other funny words like 脱サラ dassara, to quit being a salaryman and set up your own business/freelance or something. Yuya's dream!

先輩 後輩 senpai, kouhai (noun) as I talked about in the relationships part of this post, there are few Japanese relationships where partners are on equal planes. It's a very hierarchical society. Senpai you might know from anime or a martial art, it's usually translated like "senior member"--someone who has been doing something for longer than you. Kouhai then is the opposite, your newer members you as senpai have to care for. In America ain't nobody got time for that so we don't have a good English translation for those kind of relationships.

やっぱり yappari (adverb...I think?) this can mean so many things! "I thought so!" "after all..." "I knew it!" "nope I changed my mind..." I like to use it in the latter sense a lot. You know the feeling, when choosing between a red blouse and a blue blouse at the store, you initially choose the red one and get to the register when やっぱり、you want the blue one and go back to get it. It just encapsulates that feeling and experience so neatly in one word!

雰囲気 funiki (noun, sometimes pronounced fuinki) atmosphere. As in, "wow this cafe has great atmosphere!" but this is Japan, a high-context culture where 雰囲気 is also a regulator of behavior. Example: my husband had to stay late at work "Sorry, there was definitely a 'no one goes home on time today' 雰囲気" or at church "So-and-so really wanted to talk about______but there was no breaking that 'be quiet' 雰囲気!” This brings me to the next word...

空気読めない kuuki yomenai (adjective) literally "unable to read the air" it means a person who is unable to sense the previous word 雰囲気 and regulate their behavior accordingly. The Japanese put fewer things into words than Americans do, or words are assigned less value/truth; "actions speak louder" is the rule of the day. Japanese who can't or won't deduce from other peoples' actions what they are supposed to do are 空気読めない。It goes without saying that unless you've spent some time in Japan and have a good ability to read people, foreigners are pretty much 空気読めない。There's a fun slang version: KY. Like "Oh he's so KY".

適当   tekitou (noun...ish?) it means kind of haphazard, sloppy, done without thinking too carefully. It can be negative like that, or neutral/positive like in the cooking shows where they say dab cream on tekitou ni.

真面目 majime (adjective) it's usually only applied to people. It means a serious person, although in English "serious" sounds like you have no humor or are a bit gloomy, while 真面目just means like a "Type A" kind of person who is organized, motivated, gets things done, not at all silly or given to playing around, who concentrates well and is thorough, and takes things seriously. It has a good meaning and is not at all used for "anal retentive" or "OCD" for which there are Japanese equivalents.

心の余裕 kokoro no yoyuu (noun) this is a difficult one. 心 is "heart" (as in the seat of emotions, not the physical organ) and 余裕 is slack, leeway, something to spare, to have room for something. So 心の余裕 is room in your heart for something. It means you have the emotional reserves to deal with something, it's being emotionally flexible and accepting. I like my current job because it allows me to work and come home still with 心の余裕 intact to spend on my husband/private life. It's the opposite of being stressed?

まさか masaka (adverb, adjective, exclamation) this one is not so much untranslatable as much as it's fun to say, because it can mean so many things: "Really?" "No way!" "Seriously?" "Whoa!" or as the seriously in "You don't seriously expect me to..." or the sense of an unexpected result, like "don't tell me you actually..." "I had no clue this would turn out like this" Sometimes it just really fits a certain feeling, all in one little convenient word, better than English!

懐かしい natsukashii (adjective) often translated horribly as "nostalgic". But what English speaker goes around exclaiming "This is SO nostalgic!"? Nobody! It's often used as an exclamation and I think it's better to translate, "Wow that takes me back!" "Blast from the past!" etc. although it's not very slang-y and has more of a warm, home-y nuance. Like smelling a smell that suddenly takes you back to your childhood. Or seeing on TV something like Pogs. Anyone remember those? Natsukashii!

アホ aho (noun) ok, this is Kansai (western Japan) dialect. Most anyone who's spent time on the internet probably knows "baka" (idiot/dummy); アホ is our regional equivalent. Except it's not equivalent. アホ cannot be as confrontational, mean, aggressive or dismissive as "baka" can be. In Kanto (Eastern Japan, Tokyo area), "baka" can be used both affectionately and angrily, but Kansai people only use "baka" to express anger and animosity. アホ is always affectionate; the only English that comes close that I can think of is, "you silly goose!" but who says that anymore? In any case,  my husband and I don't really use either baka or アホ、but I find it a funny word. And I'm partial to our Kansai dialect! 

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