Translation trips: what do they mean for learning Japanese?

In the latest issue of the literary journal Monkey, which publishes new and old Japanese writings translated into English, a dozen literary translators shared their thoughts on the most difficult words to translate from Japanese to English. These choices ranged from the ubiquitous いらっしゃいませ (irasshaimase), which is used as a greeting when entering a store, for the purposes of phrases like the emphasis よ (you) and the interrogative かしら(kashira, I wonder?).

Examining the words chosen by these translators can shed light on why communication between languages ​​requires so much more than individual translation. It also shows how important it is to have a high level of cultural understanding to be fluent in Japanese.

I want to take a look at five of these words and explain why they are important and how Japanese learners can embrace and grow using them. These words are: いらっしゃいませ、おじさん/おばさん (ojisan/obsan, sir/madam), 懐かしい (natsukashii, nostalgic), はあ(Ha, an interjection) and 心 (kokoro, heart). Why did the translators choose these words as being difficult, if not impossible, to translate? As we will soon see, the definitions in parentheses are woefully inadequate. We will have to dive deeper.

いらっしゃいませ is a remark heard in almost every store in Japan. This is what the store clerks ring when you walk in, and you’ll probably hear it every day, maybe several times, while you’re there. But what exactly does it mean in English? It’s almost impossible to tell from this vantage point.

Translator Ginny Tapley Takemori chose this word because it has no equivalent in English, despite its ubiquity. Merchants may say “hello” when you walk into a store, but that’s not what いらっしゃいませ is. In fact, Takemori chose not to translate the term at all when translating Sayaka Murata’s novel “Convenience Store Woman”, where it appears regularly throughout the book.

Takemori’s choice shows that some words really only exist in Japanese. While specific cultural terms like こたつ (kotatsu, a warming table used in winter) do not have translations in English, these types of words can also extend to the social domain. This is a significant achievement for a Japanese learner, they will need to know いらっしゃいませ not to mean some universal term in English, but to be its own defined expression used in specific situations.

Looking at おじさん and おばさん expands on this important language learning concept. Unlike いらっしゃいませ, which is used in a specific social situation, おじさん and おばさん apply to countless situations. These are the terms for someone who is older than a お兄さん or お姉さん (onīsan/onesan, older brother/older sister) but younger than a お爺さん or お婆さん (ojisan/obāsan, an old man/old lady), so somewhere between 30 and 60 years old. These are also the terms for uncle or aunt, literally and figuratively. You can use it when talking about someone or as a form of address.

As Polly Barton, who chose the words for Monkey, pointed out, it is common in many Asian countries to refer to people by the term indicated by their age and gender within the family structure. Not only is that just not how people refer to a middle-aged man or woman in English, おじさん and おばさん often carry all sorts of cultural baggage, “behaviours associates of people of that age… which may involve a minimum of looking,” Barton says. Translators will need to substitute a variety of words for this when converting to English. A Japanese learner will have to take the opposite approach: they will have to adapt to using おじさん and おばさん as general terms for foreigners and acquaintances.

懐かしい, chosen by Jeffrey Angles, falls into a slightly different category from the words discussed so far. 懐かしい means “longing” or “desired”. It is certainly a familiar concept in English. However, it is used in a very different way in Japanese than English speakers are used to. Japanese people frequently say ああ、懐かしい! or 懐かしいね in any situation that feels familiar, nostalgic, dear, or in any way brings back memories of “the good old days”. It might seem unusual to comment on how nostalgic things are in English, but it’s completely natural in Japanese.

As Angles and Lucy North point out, this usage comes from a place deeply rooted in Japanese culture, where traditional aesthetics privilege nostalgia and longing for the past. So when you speak Japanese, adopt the sentiment of 懐かしい. It’s both a word that takes you deeper into mainstream Japanese and a feeling that takes you deeper into the culture.

はあ is an interjection, along with other difficult-to-translate interjections such as へぇー (he), ふーん (fun) and ああ (a). Anna Elliott chose this particular interjection because it has three different meanings: as a polite “yes”, a generic interjection or an expression of surprise. The challenge for a translator is that there is no single word that meets all of these meanings. In Elliott’s case, it’s particularly notable because it’s a verbal tic of a character in a novel.

Using Japanese-style interjections may seem unnatural to learners, but 相槌 (aizuchi), interjections that indicate attention are an essential part of language. Unraveling the exact nuances of these 相槌 can lead to huge advances in fluency. はあ seems to exist at a level of formality similar to はい (hey, yes), a step above an answer like ええ (ē, uh huh) or two steps above a うん (UN, Yeah). When speaking Japanese, occasionally adopt ええ or そうだね (so da ne, right), indicating your active participation in the conversation.

Finally, there is the beloved 心. Jay Rubin chooses this word because it does not correspond directly to the English nuance of the word “heart”.

“The ‘mind’ is too exclusively cerebral and the ‘heart’ too emotionally inclined to kokoro, which straddles all the territory, including morality,” writes Rubin. This complex nuance won’t show up much in everyday navigation and Japanese, but it does pierce a consistent theme throughout these five words: the exact concepts and conventions of the English language don’t transplant well directly into Japanese.

These translation journeys show how culture intertwines with language. In some of these examples, the Japanese meaning is broader than any practical English equivalent (おじさん), other times more specific (いっらしゃいませ), and sometimes just different (心). Translators should adopt a dynamic approach that considers the broader tone and context of a passage when choosing a translation, avoiding individual equivalences. And Japanese learners have to accept the fact that switching directly from English to Japanese will not produce fluent, natural Japanese. Instead, learners should consume context and experience in the form of films, books, songs, and actual visits to the country when possible. Simply put, you need to live in Japanese to speak it.

For more information about Monkey, visit

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