困る and 助かる are two Japanese verbs which are used fairly commonly in everyday speech, and though their meaning is conceptually simple sometimes it can be a little tricky to translate into English.
困る (komaru), simply put, signifies being put into a bad situation. The dictionary says “Be in trouble”, “Be in a fix”, or “Have a hard time”, and although these do an OK job of capturing the basic meaning they fall short of the full depth of the word.
I’ll give a few example sentences to show how this word is used in practice, along with my 意訳 (“iyaku”, interpretive or non-literal translation).
- The TV broke again? This sucks.
- If you run into problems feel free to ask for my help.
- I think it’s a bit late for you to be telling me that [This one is particularly difficult to translate. Literally it means something like “If you tell me that sort of thing this late it will trouble me”. You could use this line if someone just told you there is a birthday party for a friend in 1 hour.]
- Today my back is giving me trouble [Lit: “Today I am troubled from back pain”]
The causative form of this verb 困らせる is also used, which roughly means ‘to trouble someone’. This usage isn’t nearly as common but you see it now and then.
- Don’t give your parents a hard time
助かる (tasukaru) is used when someone was ‘saved’, either in the sense of avoiding physical harm or some other undesirable condition. Though it isn’t a perfect antonym for 困る, in some ways it expresses the opposite meaning.
For the first example, imagine your friend finds your lost car keys that you’ve been searching for.
- Thanks! You’re a real life safer!
You can also use the non-past tense when talking about something that hasn’t happened yet.
- My father is going to drop me off at the movie theater. He’s a great help.
You can also use 助ける after the ‘te’ form of a verb (often after くれて to give respect to the person who did the helping).
- Your teacher explaining it to you was a great help.
Though the subject of 助かる in the first two examples is technically the speaker, the translation involves the helping party that did the ‘saving’.
In my experience 助かる isn’t used that often to express actual life saving, but more to express someone escaping or being removed from a bad situation, or getting out of some type of trouble.