Fortunately for some languages, most of their words translate well and have good English equivalents. On the other hand, there are definitely languages that lose some of their meaning when translated into English. Japanese is one of these languages. Some words and phrases, when translated from Japanese to English, lose their original meanings, and sometimes there simply is no good English equivalent.
Many times you can find signs and advertisements in Japan that show both the Japanese words and the English translations. More often than not, the English translations are much shorter, direct, and condensed, whereas the Japanese phrases were longer and more beautifully written. This is only noticeable to people who are bilingual, but it is just one of the examples of how much of the language does not translate from Japanese to English well.
One of the biggest reasons Japanese does not translate well into English is because Japanese is considered vague. Many European languages are very specific and speakers use a variety of words. European speakers also include a subject in most of their sentences. Japanese, on the other hand, often eliminates the subject of the sentence, and has some words that can be used for a variety of different situations. This makes it difficult to translate those words into English without knowing the original speaker’s intent.
Japanese emotion words are a great example of vague words. When these words are taken from Japanese to English, we get many possible translations for each word. For example, the Japanese word たのしい (tanoshii) is normally translated as “fun.” This can also be used to mean “the act of having fun.” This word is actually vaguer than it appears. Other translations of this word include: amusing, enjoyable, relaxing, entertaining, and pleasant.
The word うれしい (ureshii) is definitely a vague word for English speakers. This word can be translated in any of the following ways: joyful, pleased, cheerful, glad, happy, grateful, delighted, contented, exultant, euphoric, and ecstatic. Likewise, おもしろい(omoshiroi) has numerous translations including: humorous, interesting, laughable, witty, ridiculous, comical, funny, and entertaining.
Japanese words dealing with sad emotions also translate very vaguely when taken from Japanese to English. The word かなしい (kanashii) has plenty of English translation options. These include: sad, unhappy, despondent, mournful, downcast, gloomy, depressed, melancholy, woeful, forlorn, and blue. The word つまらない (tsumaranai) is often translated as “boring,” but it can also be used to mean worthless, small, shallow, insignificant, petty, empty, trivial, and foolish. Likewise, the term させる(saseru) has plenty of English counterparts including: to irritate, annoy, bother, or disturb.
As evidenced by the above examples, some words have many counterparts when taken from Japanese to English. This can prove to be a problem for English speakers learning Japanese because it is hard to translate these words unless you are absolutely positive you know what the speaker intended. Even for English speakers who are fluent in Japanese and work as translators, words like the ones listed above can sometimes prove difficult to translate correctly. In some cases, it could really make a big difference depending on which English word you choose to use in a translation. One could make the argument that as long as you choose one of the correct English translations, then your translation is correct; however, this is not a strong argument. If a translator fails to capture what the original speaker meant in his or her statement, then the translation is flawed. For example, there is a big difference between translating おもしろい (omoshiroi) as “ridiculous” and translating it as “witty.” Sometimes it is really hard to keep the original meaning of Japanese sentences when they are translated to English.
There are plenty of other words in the Japanese language that do not have good English equivalents, but are easier to translate. Take the verbs ある (aru) and いる (iru) for example. These words can roughly be translated as “to have” or “to exist,” but they do not translate cleanly into English. ある can be used to say a person possesses (meaning “has”) an inanimate object, but it can also be used to say sentences like “There is a building over there.” A more direct translation of the Japanese for that sentence would probably be “Over there, a building exists.” This second translation sounds funny to most native English speakers, and many native speakers would prefer the first translation, even though it is only a rough one. ある is also used to talk about past experiences. In other words, the Japanese language uses ある to mean something along the lines of “having had that experience previously.”
いる is used to say a person possesses (or has) a living object, such as an animal. This verb is also used for people, especially when talking about where someone is. For example, you could say ちちがあそこにいます(Chichi ga asoko ni imasu). This means “My father is over there,” but could also be directed translated to, “My father exists over there.” Again, native English speakers would prefer the first translation, and it is what the sentence actually means. Some words (like ある and いる) are just difficult to convey in English.
The best way to overcome differences when translating Japanese to English is to practice. It is also important that your practice includes interaction with a native speaker. It is a good idea to take Japanese classes taught by a native speaker if possible. If this option is not available to you, you can interact with native Japanese speakers online. Many are willing and happy to help you practice your Japanese (and you can probably help them with English)! Don’t underestimate the benefits of practicing with a native speaker—you’ll begin to see when to use the different English translation options a lot quicker by practicing with a native speaker.