Doing translations between Japanese and English is always an educational endeavor, teaching me so much about Japanese and language in general.
One thing that I’ve been thinking about lately is how one can be reasonably skilled in two languages, and yet translating simple phrases can be so challenging. I’ve seen this happen even when I feel I am very comfortable with the original phrase in Japanese and have used it many times myself.
I think a great example of this is the phrase “よろしくお願いします” (yoroshiku onegaishimasu). This happens to be one of the very first Japanese expressions I learned, and it happens to be notoriously difficult to translate to English. In fact, the Goo Japanese to English dictionary has a very awkward translation of this phrase and mentions that “this type of thing is not said frequently in English”.
The components of this phrase are actually quite simple to explain.
- よろしく: comes from よろしい that very roughly means “good” in the same was as 良い (yoi/ii)
- お願いします: polite form of the verb 願う (negau), which roughly means “to wish” or “to request”
Going a bit deeper, the Japanese to Japanese dictionary actually lists several meanings for よろしく, but this one is the most applicable to here:
- A word that is can be added when you want to express goodwill to someone or when you are requesting something.
So if I were to make a somewhat literal translation of “よろしくお願いします”, I’d say something like:
- I request you treat me well.
The “me” part is not explicitly stated in the original phrase because objects and subjects are often omitted in Japanese.
In case you are curious, the awkward translation I referred to in the dictionary is as follows. It’s of a slightly longer phrase so I’ll give that first, followed by their translation:
- I hope you will take a favorable view of my position in this matter
(Note: that I’ve never heard or seen this exact Japanese phrase used before, and the simple “よろしくお願いします” is much more commonly used)
In any case, what ultimately matters is when this phrase is used in practice. Here are few situations where it can be used:
- When greeting someone for the first time (may be prefixed with どうぞ）
- When starting a game or sport with someone (we always said this at the beginning of Aikido class)
- When making a request or asking for a favor
In order to make a proper translation of this, you would have to figure out what situation it is being used in, and then think of a matching English phrase. In the first example (greeting someone for the first time), you can generally use “Nice to meet you”. But what I wanted to talk about is the last case, when you are making a request. Recently I saw this phrase used at the end of a business email and was unsure how to translate it, despite the fact that I had a pretty good grasp of what it meant.
The first English phrase that comes to mind is something like “Please help me out here”. Although this is vaguely close to the Japanese meaning, I feel the tone is a bit too informal. Saying something like “I request that you help me out” is more polite, but still awkward.
In cases like these, usually the fastest way is to just do a bunch of web searches and look at possible translations until something fits. What I eventually settled on is:
- Thanks in advance
Even though I had used this phrase in English many times myself, until I stumbled upon a site discussing this I hadn’t thought of it.
This expression is a bit interesting because it is thanking someone for something that hasn’t occurred yet. But if you think about it, the meaning matches up pretty well with “よろしくお願いします” in the scenario where you are saying it at the end of an email where you are making a request.
I’m not going to make the claim this is the best translation in all scenarios, but it reasonably conveys the meaning of the phrase and would probably be OK in a majority of cases. For a bit more politeness, you could try something like:
- I really appreciate the help.
Of course, if you are part of a company or group, you might switch “I” for “We” here.
I’ve heard that just because you are bilingual doesn’t necessarily make you a great translator, and I completely agree. Even if you can understand and express yourself naturally in a variety of situations in both languages, bridging from one to another is a totally different ballgame. It requires a good understanding of not just the source text, but also information about the context, and even a bit of creativity. Sometimes when there is no direct mapping you just have to do your best, breaking the literal meaning just so you can get across the general point with natural language.