A few pitfalls when using Japanese

By | November 10, 2014

In this article I’d like to discuss a few things to watch out when learning Japanese, most of which were something I struggled with personally.

The first is when talking about meeting someone in Japanese. If you aren’t careful, you might first think “I want to see you tonight” and then translate this as “今晩、君を見たい” which would be very unnatural though possibly understood depending on the conversational context. In this case, you need to remember “see” can be used to mean “meet” in English, so a more proper Japanese transition would be “今晩、君に会いたい”. Whenever translating some colloquial expression from English to Japanese, first think about what the actual meaning of that expression is (for example “keep your eyes peeled” means “keep watching for something diligently”) and then convert that to Japanese.

Next, in English it is very common to say “Can I ask you a question?”, but if you translate this directly into Japanese you would probably end up with “あなたに質問を聞いていいですか?” which would be unnatural and confusing. The proper translation involves understanding that 質問 is typically used with する to mean “ask a question”, so the correct Japanese would be “質問をしていいですか?” (the ”あなたに” part can be easily understood from context so it should be omitted). I believe the reason for the first translation being wrong is that きく can be used for both “to listen” or “to ask”.

In Japanese there isn’t a clear way to distinguish when transition verbs (i.e. when there is a direct object) are forcibly doing something versus allowing or permitting it to happen. For example, 入れる is normally used when putting something inside something else, like a wallet inside of a drawer. But I’ve heard it used both to mean “let someone inside a room” or “let someone into your traffic lane”. You might think of using something like 入れさせる or 入らせる but 入れる is most natural.

A final thing to keep in mind is that Japanese doesn’t have the wide range of verb forms that English has, for example “would have been”. This matters because if you hear “スープがよかった” it could mean “The soup was good” or “I would have preferred soup” depending on the context. Here’s another one that is tricky to translate: “I would have went if I knew” (for example if there was a concert that you found out too late about). The natural way to say this is “知ってたら行ってた”. Here the ”〜たら” verb ending is a bit tricky because it sometimes can have the nuance of “~when I did~”, as in “開けたらびっくりした” (“When I opened it I was surprised”). In the case of ”知ってたら行ってた”, there is an implied “if”, and though ”もし” could have been added to the beginning of the phrase for clarification, it is commonly omitted.

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3 thoughts on “A few pitfalls when using Japanese

  1. adamf2011

    I often find myself unconsciously falling into the logic and patterning of English when trying to speak Thai — and sometimes confusing my listener. Usage, it seems, is everything.

    1. locksleyu Post author

      Thanks for the comment. Yeah I think regardless of what foreign language we are learning it’s second nature to revert to our native language if we have mission information. So the goal is stuff our brain with as much stuff about the foreign language as possible so we stop subconsciously looking for info in the wrong place (:

  2. adamf2011

    I totally agree — I think “English-ish mode” can be my fallback/default when I don’t know the real (ie native) way to say something.


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