If you are a budding student of Japanese, you may find the idea of the existence of untranslatable Japanese words reassuring, but when learning Japanese already seems like climbing a mountain higher than Mount Fuji, any extra challenges could make things seem even more insurmountable. However, rest assured—where there’s a will, there’s a way!
In order to cope with the challenges of ‘untranslatable’ words, it is important to acknowledge cultural difference, which strongly influences our understanding of foreign languages. All languages are influenced by culture and to some extent culture is influenced by language. This special relationship between language and culture is central to any good translation and is particularly important when translating Japanese into English and vice versa. It is for this reason that businesses only use professional translation services.
The secondary Japanese phonetic ‘alphabet’ Katakana is usually reserved for loan words or names, but is also used to write words of particular social or cultural significance. A perfect example of this is the Japanese word for cat (neko). It can be written in three ways: by using a Chinese character or kanji: 猫; using the principal Japanese phonetic ‘alphabet’ hiragana: ねこ: or by using the secondary Japanese phonetic ‘alphabet’ katakana: ネコ.
In all cases, the reading is the same. The word is sometimes written in katakana because of the cultural significance of the cat as an omen of good luck. Words written in katakana tend to have a strong or sharp character to them. These words usually have a direct English equivalent, so do not present a translation issue. The importance of the different ways of writing words is however very significant.
The Japanese language has its very own type of sound symbolism, which features words which mimic sounds (onomatopoeic words), but also words which represent non-auditory senses (phenomimes), and words which represent psychological states or bodily feelings (psychomimes).
Sounds which we would class as ‘onomatopoeia’ are usually easy to translate, as there is an English equivalent for many of these words. However, it can be difficult to translate Japanese phenomimes and psychomimes, usually because they have several meanings. The word garagara ガラガラis a great example. It has several meanings and the correct translation can only be chosen by examining the context in which the word is used:
Densha wa garagara desu.
The train is empty.
Watashi wa koe ga garagara desu.
My voice is raspy.
Kodomo wa garagara wo motteimasu.
The child is holding a rattle.
These kinds of words can be translated, but only by taking great care—imagine how odd a raspy train or an empty voice would be!
These elements of Japanese can be challenging, but good translations are fairly easy to achieve. One of the more genuinely ‘untranslatable’ elements of Japanese is honorific language. This is called keigo (敬語) and has several forms, which makes the already challenging concept of honorific language even more difficult.
While we have respectful forms in English, such as ‘please may I’ compared to the more informal ‘can I,’ Japanese has many different levels of respect. The form used varies depending on context. Japanese concepts of senpai 先輩(senior, superior, elder) and kohai 後輩 (junior) set the rules for proper use of honorific language.
Depending on how senior the person you are addressing is, the form of language you should use varies. It is important to mark the difference in social status through the use of language and in this case, you should lower, or humble yourself and elevate the addressee. If you are superior to the person you are addressing, you may choose the form you use.
This is hugely complicated for non-native speakers of Japanese and underlines the importance of cultural understanding.
In terms of translation, the varying levels of formality in keigo are virtually impossible to express in English:
The first, basic formal form in Japanese is the desu/masu です/ますform, which makes use of a standard verb:
Watashi wa tabemasu.
I eat/will eat.
In the form of keigo where you talk about your own actions and humble yourself. it becomes more difficult to translate:
Watashi wa itadakimasu.
This can only really be translated as ‘I eat/will eat.’ The use of a special verb (which can actually mean to ‘eat’ or ‘drink’), marks a lowering of the self, talking about one’s own actions. A direct translation of this verb is actually ‘to receive,’ but this would of course sound very odd in English.
When you use keigo to elevate somebody above you, particularly when talking about their actions, a different verb is used:
Tanaka sama wa sushi o meshiagarimasu.
This means Mr Tanaka eats sushi/will eat sushi. Any attempt to capture the respectful/honorific nuance of the Japanese sentence is very difficult and is likely to result in a poor or odd translation. A more literal translation could be ‘the honourable Mr Tanaka eats sushi,’ but as the use of keigo is part of the everyday in Japan and there is no everyday equivalent in English, the nuances expressed through the use of different language forms in Japanese simply cannot be rendered appropriately in English.
Of course it’s not just Japanese sound symbolism or keigo which cause problems – there are many phrases which are very hard to translate into English:
For example, when you finish introducing yourself to somebody in Japanese, you say yoroshiku onegai shimasu. よろしくお願いします。In English, you might finish your self-introduction by saying something like ‘pleased to meet you,’ but this is not the meaning of the Japanese phrase. Some have translated this roughly as ‘please look kindly upon me,’ but of course this is inappropriate for most translations.
These quintessential ‘Japanisms’ are very difficult or impossible to translate, but should not be of concern to students of Japanese. They just demonstrate the importance of learning to understand Japanese culture, as well as language!