Japanese expression highlight: “ああ言えばこう言う” (aa ieba kou iu)

By | October 24, 2018

In this article I would like to talk about an interesting Japanese phrase: “aa ieba kou iu” (ああ言えばこう言う). This, like many of the phrases of expressions I write about on this blog, is a phrase that I have heard used in conversations with native speakers as well as used myself.

This expression is interesting because it uses very simple elements, yet can be hard for non-native speakers to understand.

First, let’s look at the pieces it is made up of:

  • ああ (aa)  = a word that doesn’t quite exist in English, but roughly means an exaggerated version of “that”
  • 言えば (ieba) = the -eba conditional form of the verb “iu” (to say or speak). On its own, this means something like “if X says…”
  • こう (kou) = roughly means “that”, though like “aa” is used more as an adverb, not a noun.
  • 言う (iu) = a verb meaning “to say or speak”

One of the reasons this expression is a bit tricky to understand is because there are no subjects, as they are often omitted in the language. This makes it difficult to understand, as well as translate. Often when a subject is omitted it is either referring to the speaker, the listener, or a previously-referred topic. In this case, the first two of these options are used, such that the subject of the first verb is “I” and the subject of the second is “you”.

So now we can take a shot at literally translating this sentence:

  • If I say that, you say this.

You may now have an idea what this phrase actually means. If you heard this phrase in a conversation where someone was being difficult and not going on with someone else’s idea, you might be able to guess what it means. However, let’s be a little more explicit about it’s meaning.

One of my dictionaries has the following definition:

相手の言うことに対してあれこれと理屈をつけて従わない。

This can be roughly translated as:

Making various excuses about something said by another person and not listening to them.

Or, to make it a bit more specific:

When the listener makes excuses about something said by the speaker and not listening to the speaker.

As for a natural English translation of the phrase in question, that is a little challenging. I found a few online but generally they either were unnatural or didn’t quite convey the meaning as I had hoped. One of the better ones was:

You always have to have the last word.

Other ways to translate the sentiment of the phrase “ああ言えばこう言う” include:

  • Contrary
  • Argumentative
  • Uncooperative

In closing, I’d like to mention a creative way to translate this phrase that came to mind while I was writing this article:

When I say jump, you say how low

While this may take a little too much mental parsing on the listener’s part, to me it captures the essence pretty well.

 

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