Japanese has a lot of set phrases to trot out at appropriate times. When somebody finishes work, their peers say o-tsukaresama deshita. When somebody leaves the house they say itte kimasu and when they return they invariably yell tadaima. Before they eat they say itadakimasu. Now, these set phrases are all well and good. They are part of the social and linguistic culture and I am happy to observe them and join in with the must-says as required. But what that doesn’t include is trying to translate them into English.

I say this because a Japanese woman I know seems convinced that itadakimasu means, ‘Let’s eat!’ Well, I suppose the word serves that function in that it is said as a precursor to putting food in one’s mouth, but it is basically untranslatable as there is no one phrase or word in English that nearly every single person will say before eating. Rare, I would guess, is the family that gathers together and only starts to eat when father announces heartily, ‘Let’s eat!’ Itadakimasu, on the other hand, is indispensable. Some English families say Grace before eating, you know, ‘For what we are about to receive may the Lord make us truly thankfu,l’ but let’s face it, we snigger at those folk. It’s not the norm. I’ve tried to gently tell this woman that we don’t say ‘Let’s eat!’ before every meal but she isn’t having it. Whenever I am invited to dinner she dispenses with itadakimasu and heralds the ‘Let’s eat!’ And it makes me cringe every time.

It’s the same with the other set phrases. They are culturally appropriate and hence to translate them is pointless. We don’t use them. We have our own social niceties for appropriate situations and they are what need to be learned, not English versions of Japanese conventions. Itte kimasu would literally be, ‘I’m going and coming back!’ which if said by somebody every time they left the house in Britain would have you wondering if they should perhaps be restrained and locked away for a while. Telling a person who finishes work every night that he is very tired would earn you the title of, ‘Sarcastic Bastard’. When we enter a house in Japan we might say shitsurei shimasu which could be translated in a contextually poor but linguistically acceptable way as, ‘I’m going to be rude!’ Of course, nobody would suggest doing that to anyone but an habitual public farter. The phrases are fine in Japan, important even, but that’s where they should stay.

Now, don’t get me wrong, the vast majority of English learners get this. They ask me how to say, otsukaresama deshita in English and I tell them we don’t and that’s that. But there are always one or two who try to translate everything. You know the ones, the ones who won’t say tamagoyaki but will call it ‘baked egg’ which is pretty much as incomprehensible as tamagoyaki to an English speaker. And I don’t know about you but I would far rather be offered takoyaki than octopus balls. Culturally unique food doesn’t need to be translated any more than set phrases. Even as it spreads beyond the original home the name can just stay as it is and move with the food.  Pizza has done pretty well. Hamburger is universally known as just that. Okonomiyaki doesn’t need to be Japanese pizza (because it just isn’t) and my parents would have no idea what a ‘rice cake’ is.

So, that’s all I wanted to say. Let’s leave the set phrases where they belong and accept that foreigners in Japan by and large don’t need to have Japanese food items translated.  Described, perhaps, but not literally translated. Now, if you’ll excuse me, my wife has just called me for dinner. I do hope it’s small slivers of raw fish set upon blocks of vinegared rice! That’s my favorite.

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9 Responses to Over-Translating

  1. willoughtree says:


  2. TheOctopus says:

    Natsukashii” is another one that’s hard to translate, especially as it’s more suited to literal translation than some of your examples, but even then just isn’t used in the same way in English.

    Meanwhile Yahoo seems to think okonomiyaki is a kind of pizza.

    • Yes, natsukashii is a hard one, as is gaman because they can be translated in so many ways depending on context. Who first decided that okonomiyaki was Japanese pizza? They are both round and have various ingredients, that’s all!

      • Mr. S. says:

        ‘Japanese-pizza’ is all all wrong: it’s not baked, but pan-fried; the ingredients are not toppings, but mixed within for the most part; and never mind there is no cheese, tomato… ‘Okonomiyaki’ is a ‘Japanese-savoury-pancake’: but that’s a mouthful.

  3. Biggie says:

    octopus balls… hmm, actually sounds pretty tasty!

  4. cocopuff1212 says:

    My favorite are “Yoroshiku Onegaishimasu” and “Osewani Narimashita.” Way back when, my colleagues would be writing letters to the U.S. and ask me how to say those phrases in English. You can’t!

  5. Paul YM says:

    When my son was 2 or 3 and was obsessed with translating Japanese into English and the other way around, he insisted upon a translation for itadakimasu and I indeed gave him ‘Let’s eat!’ For the next year or two he insisted I exclaim this at the beginning of each meal. Gochisousama deshita became ‘What a great meal!’

    You didn’t label this post as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ so I assume it is kind of a neutral mini-rant, but I will tell you that your opening paragraph filled me with a good sense of natsukashii!

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