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Unique Japanese Expressions That Are Difficult to Translate

Language is connected to culture, hence there are expressions that are difficult to translate as they are unique to that culture. At the very least we can understand what context these expressions are used and draw some similarities from our own language and culture.

For example “じゃ” (Jya) is a common expression, it does not have an exact translation but it would be closest to “well/ well then” hence “じゃ、また 明日(あした)” (Jya, mata ashita) will roughly translate to “Well, see you tomorrow.”

Here are a few other expressions that are used often and is unique to Japanese:

Japanese Romaji Approximate English meaning
よろしく お願い いたします Yoroshiku onegai itashimasu “Please treat us favorably” or “I will be in you care”, this is used when meeting others for the first time (somewhat like “nice to meet you.”), or said to someone you will be working/ training/ or learning under or said to someone you are giving a task to.
お世話に なって おります Osewa ni natte orimasu “I appreciate your kind cooperation”
おつかれさま Otsukaresama “You did well” or “Thank you for your work”
がんばって Ganbatte “Do your best”
御苦労さま Gokurousama “I appreciate your efforts.”, more formal but not equivalent to “Otsukaresama
お楽しみに Otanoshimini “Please wait expectantly.”, if -desu is added it would imply something similar to “looking forward to it.”
もったいない Mottainai “What a waste.”
まあまあ Maamaa “Well, well,” or “Well, well, (calm down everybody).” Could also mean “so-so” depending on the context. For example when a debate gets heated or an argument arises a third party may say “Maa,maa” as implying to calm down. While in a response to being asked how something was, such as how a restaurant was one could respond with “Maa,maa” implying it was “so-so” or “not too bad”.
失礼します Shitsurei shimasu “Excuse me” (when entering a room while there is a meeting) or “Excuse me (for leaving)”
お先に 失礼します Osakini Shitsurei shimasu “Excuse me for being first.”, the meaning varies based on the context of the situation. For example, if you are leaving work and some other coworkers are still working it is common to say “Osakini shitsurei shimasu” (“Excuse me for leaving work first”)
行ってらっしゃい Itterasshai “Take, care” Typically in response to “Ittekimasu” (“I’m going [out]”), also implying that the other will return.
ちょっと… Cyotto “That’s a little…”, “cyotto” means “a little” but this also commonly used as a polite way to refuse. For example, someone invites you to hangout this weekend but you already have plans, you may say in response to the invitation “sore wa chotto…(That is a little…)” or “konshu wa chotto…(This week is a little…)”

Because language and culture are intertwined, trying to directly translate words/ phases from one language to another tends to be inaccurate as the meaning and context get lost or muddle when trying to frame one language to another. That is why a very important aspect to learning a language is to understand the culture behind it as well.

We hope this gives some insight to language learning. Cheers!

Ref.: Hiragana Times, Issue No. 400: p.20-21

2020.02.22

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