Semantics in translation, Part 1: formalities

Some things don’t translate well between languages. This seems so widely known that I’m reluctant to write it. Everyone knows it, right?

Well, for one thing, I’m not sure that everybody does; at least, not in a way that they have experienced it and know it from the inside out. And some kids don’t know it, because it’s something most people learn at some point, whether by experience or from hearing/reading it somewhere. So I was going to do this post about this, but it started getting pretty long so it has become the first part of a series.

Between any two languages there are things you can’t translate. I learned about this for the first time when I was learning French: it sort of seeped in slowly from when I started learning it at school, and then hit more front-on once I went to France. I was quite dismayed to be told that French people don’t use vraiment the same way we use really in English and I’d been throwing it out all over the place and making myself look like an idiot for about 3 weeks (well, adding to my appearance of idiocy). I’ve written about this before, I recall.

Consider that English and French are closely related. But there are still plenty of differences in the way they express ideas: the mechanics of the language are different; the usage is different; actually that’s probably the bulk of it. There are expressions like there is/are and il y a used similarly, where you could translate il y a to ‘he there has’ – which probably makes about as much sense as ‘there is’ if you actually think about existential there. Where is? Another might be the way French (and Romance languages in general?) uses have where English uses be: j’ai froid ‘I have cold’ vs. ‘I’m cold,’ or elle a 12 ans ‘she has 12 years’ vs ‘she’s 12.’ Another would be one like je veux que tu m’aides, ‘I want that you help me’ as opposed to ‘I want you to help me.’ These are quite small things, but they show how languages perceive/talk about things differently – or at least how my English-speaking brain sees them as different.

So here are a few between the unrelated (except for loan words) languages of English and Japanese.

‘Bless you!’

This doesn’t exist in Japanese. They don’t say anything when people sneeze. So it’s a good way to confuse Japanese school kids 🙂

‘Hello.’ ‘Hi.’

Japanese is very decisive about what expression is appropriate on what occasion, and they don’t have one like ‘hello’ that works anytime. I mentioned this in a post about ceremony a while ago.

I found French easy in this regard – for greetings at the start of an encounter, you could use either bonjour or bonsoir, good day or good evening, and then to close an encounter there would be à plus (tard), see you later, or bonne nuit, goodnight, or à jeudi, see you on Thursday, or au revoir, ‘until we see each other again.’ As far as I know French doesn’t use bonjour to say ‘this encounter is over’ in the way we might have once used ‘Good day’ or these days, ‘have a good day.’

Image: quickmeme

In Japanese for expressions that can be used the same way as ‘hello,’ you’ve got おはよう(ございます)ohayou (gozaimasu), こんにちは konnichiwa, こんばんは konbanwa, ‘good morning,’ ‘good day,’ ‘good evening,’ and then a few other heavily socialised expressions like オス osu, which is typically used by boys on baseball teams, so kids think it’s funny to try to get foreigners to say it. The ‘good morning’ option is actually a very formal way of saying ‘It’s early’ and is also used for people clocking in for work, whatever time their shift starts. Apparently this is because it’s got a masu on it and is therefore polite and appropriately formal, where as the other time-based greetings don’t. Greeting people, especially with ohayou gozaimasu, seems more important as a formalised ritual in Japanese than in English, whether you are intending to actually talk to someone or not.

Goodbye options are also different to English: じゃ(ね) ja (ne), ‘well then,’ じゃまたね ja mata ne ‘well, see you again,’ また来週・年 mata raishu/nen ‘see you again next week/year etc.’ バイバイ baibai ‘bye-bye’ or さようなら sayonara, used for ‘goodbye’ but according to this interesting post, actually means something more like ‘if that’s the way it’s going to be’ and is quite final, more like ‘farewell.’ It’s usually not used every day, except by the occasional special needs student who works on their own hours and comes to the staff room to tell the teachers they’re going home. It’s relatively formal.

It can be a bit stressful for foreigners trying to greet people in Japanese, because there is a large chance you will choose the wrong greeting for the time of day and be corrected or laughed at. On the other hand, as the only native English speaker in the room, it often seems awkward and too much trouble to tell your class and teacher not to say ‘good morning’ to you at 11:45am because although it’s technically still morning, it’s weird unless someone has just woken up. In the same way as ohayo is, people. And it would be even weirder to say ‘good afternoon’ in this case, because noon is still in the future.

お疲れ様 Otsukare sama 

As mentioned in a previous post, this literally means ‘you must be tired.’ However, while I wrote that it’s used as a response to ‘sorry for leaving before you,’ I don’t think I wrote how it can be used as a way to say hello. If it’s not the first time you’ve seen someone that day, and you’ve already said good morning once or twice to them, and you have to go into their office, or you are re-encountering them for whatever reason that day, お疲れ様です otsukare sama desu is used in the same way you might use ‘hello’ to acknowledge someone’s presence or to announce your own. If the school vice principal or someone important is leaving the office on some work business, you can use お疲れ様です otsukare sama desu sort of like ‘see you later.’ It’s different to お疲れ様でした otsukare sama deshita because the latter implies that the person leaving has finished work for the day, whereas the vice principal is going to a meeting or something and still has work to do.

I’m pretty sure we don’t have things like this in English.

‘How are you?’

It’s surprisingly hard to explain how ‘how are you’ is used in English to a Japanese person. When it’s taught in schools, it’s seen as an opportunity to teach and practice words that talk about feelings, like ‘hungry,’ ‘angry,’ ‘sleepy,’ ‘cold,’ ‘sad’ or ‘happy.’ How often do you use these to answer when someone asks how you are?

Yet it should be easy if you think about the fact that it’s mostly used as a social courtesy, to convey that you care about your interlocutor and how they’re feeling this particular day, or how they’re travelling in life. It’s a total pretence when we talk to most people we don’t know, e.g. when shop assistants use it, but it’s just a habit for most people. Of course, people use it genuinely too, especially when it’s a family member or close friend they haven’t seen in a while and they are concerned about the physical or emotional health of the person.

Social courtesies are the bread and butter of Japanese phrases, but ‘how are you’ just isn’t a concept that’s used very much. If you haven’t seen someone in a while, it’s normal to ask about it, but the ‘how’ part isn’t part of the question. The phrase that gets used is (お)元気(ですか)? (o) genki (desu ka)? and could be translated literally as ‘original mood?’ but works out pragmatically to something more like ‘Are you well?’ I think this isn’t typical in most varieties of English, but I’m aware of British people saying ‘you right?’ for a short version of ‘are you all right?’ in a way that’s a nicety, rather than a show of concern. And it means you can answer ‘yes’ for the question ‘how are you?’. French has both, with ça va? (Goes it?) or comment ça va? (How goes it?) And you can answer oui, ça va (yes, it goes) or ça va bien (it goes well). French uses them all the time, much like English.

Sometimes Japanese teachers explain ‘how are you?’ as ‘how is your condition?’ 調子はどう?which is well understood, but it’s not something that Japanese people usually say to each other.

Students whose English teachers don’t speak that much English in class are regularly stumped and panic-freeze if they encounter a foreigner who asks how they are, and have no idea what to say, much as in the situation where they have sneezed and said foreigner says ‘Bless you.’

くれる・あげる・くださる kureru/ageru/kudasaru

One of the ways you can see the famed considerateness coming through in the Japanese language is the way that when someone does something that could be considered a kindness towards someone else, you have to point this out in the way you describe the action. I’m not joking when I say have to, it’s mandatory. If I forget to include it when I’m talking, the nearest Japanese person always corrects me. The closest to this in English that I can think of is ‘do someone the favour of verb-ing’ or ‘be kind enough to’ or in some uses ‘give.’ The first two of these are only used on special occasions in English.

Examples would be:

  • She gave me a book. 彼女が(私に)本をくれた。 kanojo ga (watashi ni) hon wo kureta.
  • Our parents are doing us the favour of bringing us up. 私たちの親は育ててくださっている。 Watashitachi no oya ha sodatete kudasatteiru.
  • At least listen to what he’s saying. せめても彼の言っていることを聞いてあげて。Semetemo kare no itteiru koto wo kiite agete.

The other day one of my students tried to translate the second of the above sentences into English and came up with ‘Our parents give bring us up.’ In the Japanese, it’s inherent that they are doing you a favour, but in English if you want to say that you have to state it more overtly.

I don’t have a conclusion for today’s post as such, but maybe you could make the inference that Japanese cares when people do things for each other, but not about how they are, haha. This post is also a bit of a shout-out to Rina, who requested something about my linguistic journey. These thoughts are part of it.

As always, thanks for being kind enough to read. Until next we meet, have a nice week.


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