Notable Japanese word: “Shikumi” (仕組み / しくみ) and some ways to translate it

By | June 18, 2018

When learning a foreign language you sometimes come across words that, while mostly translatable on a case-by-case basis, are hard to translate literally to your native language (English in my case) such that all its nuances are carried over. If you can understand the ins and outs of these words you can even make them part of your own lexicon, and I think this is one of the great things about learning a foreign language: being able to express things in a different way than your native language(s).

This time I’d like to talk about the Japanese word “shikumi”, which is written in kanji as 仕組み or in hiragana as しくみ. This is the noun form of the verb “shikumu” (しくむ/仕組む) which loosely means “plot” or “work out”.

Looking in a dictionary, we see the following meanings for “shikumi”.

  • (構造) structure
  • (機構) mechanism
  • (制度) a system

So this gives a good idea of what this word is about. Now let’s look at an example of a book title I’ve seen in a Japanese bookstore.

  • パソコンのしくみがよく分かる本 (pasokon no shikumi ga yoku wakaru hon).

This sentence is a little tricky to understand (and translate) for a few reasons. One is the word ‘shikumi’, but the other is the usage of verb “分かる”, plus with the lack of who exactly is doing the understanding.

If we look at パソコンのしくみ, we literally get something like “structure of a computer”, “mechanism of a computer”, or “a computer system”. Again, we get a rough idea of what this means, but all of these literal translations sound a little unnatural so it is hard to get a complete understanding.

As for the “分かる” part, this is a tricky verb that uses が to describe what is being understood (and, in rare cases, を). Sometimes the person doing the understanding is included before は or には、but here that is missing. So who is doing the understanding? Well, let’s write a literal translation of this book title:

  • A book where [undefined topic] understands a computer system well

Of course this is a horrible translation, and almost hurts my brain to read it.

If you picked up this book, you would see a bunch of explanations about the internals of a computer, and you’d soon realize who is doing the “understanding” – it’s you! So let’s refine the translation:

  • A book where you (will) understand a computer system well

I added the word “will” which, while not explicit in the Japanese title, is safe to add since there is no exact word for “will” in Japanese.

Anyway, to get back to the word “shikumi”, after hearing/seeing this word enough times I realized that “how ~ works” is one way to think of it that gives a little more natural understanding, at least compared to some of the above words. So let’s refine our translation again:

  • A book where you will understand how a computer works

At this point I think our translation makes sense, however it still sounds very verbose and awkward for a title. Here’s my guess at a better translation:

  • Learn all about how computers work!

Or perhaps the even simpler, more natural:

  • How computers work

To give another example of しくみ, several years ago I found this line (or something close to it) in a novel:

  • 世の中の仕組みが知りたい (yo no naka no shikumi ga shiritai)

Again, a literal translation gives us something like “I want to know about the system/structure/mechanism of the world”, which sort of gets across the meaning, but is still a little vague (and unnatural).

Assuming this is for a fiction work and it is OK to dramatize a bit, you could a translation like this:

  • I desire to learn how the world works.

Again, using “how the ~ works” gives a pretty natural translation. However, to make an even better translation I would try something:

  • I crave to uncover the world’s secrets.

Here, words like “crave”, “uncover” or “secrets” are far from the literal meaning of the Japanese sentence. But I think the resultant translation has a nice feel to it and captures the essense of the original text here. However, as always the best translation requires a good understanding of the context (and I don’t remember those details too well).

While I don’t think it’s a good idea to always translate words from a foreign language into your native language in order to understand them, sometimes making connections like this can help you link concepts in your mind. That’s why I think the act of translation (together with a proper study of grammar, vocabulary, and other areas) actually can help you gain a deeper understanding of both the source and target language you are working with.


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