Article written by Matt Alt
I firmly believe that there is no such thing as a concept that cannot be translated from one language to another. But that said, there are definitely cases of concepts encapsulated into a single word or phrase that cannot be translated into a single word or phrase in another language. Japan’s aisatsu greetings are a prime case in point. Tellingly, the way the word “greeting” is far more generic in English than aisatsu is in Japanese foreshadows how difficult it can be to capture these everyday platitudes in translation. In fact, the more manga you translate, the more you’ll realize that the wild flights of fantasy and fiction are often the easiest parts. On the other hand, some of the most down-to-earth sorts of stuff can throw even the most talented wordsmiths for a loop. The key to handling everyday aisatsu is flexibility.
Take, for example, itadakimasu. It’s a phrase you’ll hear multiple times a day in the course of daily life in Japan, spoken by participants before a meal starts (and so ingrained it’s often said by solo diners as well). It’s also widely used when receiving or taking something from someone else. This is easy enough to explain to non-Japanese speakers: as a very polite way of saying “receive,” you could transliterate it as “I humbly accept this.” The problem starts when you try to map this particular expression of gratitude onto a corresponding English-language phrase. There isn’t one! But that doesn’t mean that you’re out of luck. Depending on the context and situation, any number of approaches might help.
Is the speaker excited? Tired? Gracious? Simply saying the words because they’re habit? Depending on the visuals and the target audience, you could go with an “Oh boy!” or “Time to dig in!” More neutrally, “time to eat” might work as well. Alternatively, if you’re trying to preserve the Japanese atmosphere, keeping itadakimasu and adding a footnote might work. (My advice is to use this last approach as an absolutely last resort, as it’s the easy way out: less translating or localizing than it is explaining.)
Another phrase that can cause problems for translators is the multi-faceted otsukare-sama desu. Literally “I appreciate your hard work,” it is deployed in a huge number of situations in Japan: at the beginning or the end of the day among office workers, or with friends who’ve finished doing some kind of task or errand, at the start of business correspondence, and spoken aloud by everyone from students to office workers when they see friends or colleagues in the halls. In fact, as an English speaker, I often wish we had some equivalent of the term in our language. (Think of how many times you’ve run into the same person over the course of a day and run out of basic “hi!” or “hey there” or “hello again” type greetings.) On the other hand, otsukare-sama desu can be said over and over again without seeming forced or out of place. The only problem is, there’s virtually no way to translate it literally, at least not as it is used in everyday life in Japan.
Just as with itadakimasu, the key here is context. Who is talking to whom? What is their relationship with each other? If they’re close, of equal status, and simply passing by one another, a simple “hey,” “hi,” or even “’sup” could work. On the other hand, if the situation is one of more professional courtesy, “how are you?” is a good choice. If it’s being spoken by someone at the end of a meeting, “thanks for coming” would be a better translation. And if it’s the end of the day and people are parting, it can even mean “goodbye.” What it almost always isn’t is “good job,” because that implies a hierarchy of the speaker praising the listener, a superior addressing an underling. (That “downward-looking” praise is most often used by a boss to an employee using the related-but-different gokuro-sama, often without the desu.)
Sumimasen is another good example. It’s an all-purpose apology, but it’s also an expression of thanks when someone does something for you, an “I’m sorry to put you to the trouble” kind of thing. In those cases, you can easily get away with translating this seeming apology as a “thanks” or “thank you.”
Speaking of thanks, there’s the ubiquitous arigato. Now, you might find yourself shaking your head at this one: what else could it be besides “thank you?” I can hear you asking. Yet even this seemingly simple expression can be deployed in ways subtly different than English speakers use for gratitude. For example, in the climactic scene of the video game Final Fantasy X, the female protagonist tells her longtime companion arigato. The translator Alexander Smith famously read between the lines to render this exchange as “I love you.” You’ll find that thinking outside of the box in this way is key to translating aisatsu.