The title of this month’s column is directly stolen from former FuJET CIR Daniel Morales. One of the major themes of his blog (along with how to find good beer) is not to think too deeply about Japanese but rather to just get used to it.
I often get asked “how do you say ………………in English/Japanese?” and often my answer is “you don’t”. One of the great challenges of learning a language is to force yourself not to say what you want to say, but rather what is appropriate in the situation. Listen to what people around you say.
For example, when you give someone a present, you would say つまらない物ですが…. If we were to translate that into English it would mean something along the lines of “this is worthless”. Does this mean Japanese people give worthless presents? Not at all. In fact they don’t think it’s worthless at all. They know very well that when they hand you the keys to a brand new Ferrari that it’s a fantastic present, but they will still say つまらない物ですが… because it’s just what you say. This may seem disingenuous but we do the same thing in English all the time. To quote Terry Pratchet most of our conversation is really just saying “I am here and so are you”. It doesn’t really mean anything. When you hand something to someone and say “here you are” you aren’t really telling the person where they are (or if you believe Pratchet maybe you are), you are just saying what is appropriate in the circumstances. Just like in Japanese, when someone says 申し訳ない they don’t really think that their behavior is inexcusable, and when we say “sorry” we don’t necessarily feel sorry.
Listen to what people say in certain situations and then repeat it if you find yourself in those same situations. If you give someone a present, then say it is つまらない. It just sounds right.
I used to work with a JTE who had lived overseas and had a great translation of がんばれ. It was “take it easy”. If you think about it literally, the meaning is the exact opposite, but when you think about when you say it, it makes perfect sense. Here is an example of a conversation in Japanese and the English equivalent.
Hanako: I’ve got so much stuff to do on the weekend that my head is spinning.
Taro: Take it easy!
Now let’s swap “take it easy” for “do your best” and the tone suddenly changes from sympathetic to patronizing. This is an instance where Japanese people need to ‘get used to it’ in English.
Good luck! And until next time, take it easy. Or as they would say in Japanese, がんばれ！