Japanese word highlight: 相談 (soudan)

By | January 25, 2019

In this post, I’d like to focus on the word 相談 (そうだん / soudan) for two reasons: it’s high frequency in business-level Japanese and the fact it doesn’t have a great single-world (one-size-fits-all) translation in English.

I’d like to begin the explanation by giving the Japanese definition of the word from Dictionary Goo, followed by my translation of it:

問題の解決のために話し合ったり、他人の意見を聞いたりすること。また、その話し合い。

The act of doing things like listening to someone else’s opinion or having a discussion in order to solve a problem. Can also refer to the discussion itself.

This is actually a pretty straightforward definition, but in context it can sometimes be a little difficult to understand the intended meaning. Let’s start with a simple example:

  • 上司に相談した方がいいですよ (joushi ni soudan shita hou ga ii desu yo)
  • It’s better for you to consult with your boss.

In this usage, where 相談 is used as a verb with the word する, the word “consult” is a pretty good fit. Not only does it sound natural in English, it matches well with the meaning in Japanese.

Let’s look at another example that is a bit trickier to figure out.

  • 相談に乗ってもらえないかな (soudan ni notte moraenai ka na)

It turns out that 相談になる (soudan ni noru) is a set phrase that while literally appears to mean “to ride on a discussion”, in practice it means something more like “to give advice”. This interpretation can be explained by the fact that 乗る also means 加わる (“to take part in”, “to join”).

This example sentence also uses the verb もらう (morau) to express the speaker “receiving” an action (the giving of advice), which basically means the listener would be doing a favor for the speaker. The かな (ka na) part has a connotation of “I wonder if…” and is a casual way to make a request. Notice that while this phrase might be used in a business situation, because it does not use any polite forms it would generally only be used to someone below your social / experience level (like to a subordinate).

Anyway, taking the above into account we end up with something like:

  • I was wondering if you might give me some advice.

相談 can be used with other verbs in surprising ways. Let’s look at another example:

  • 社長から相談を受けました。 (shachou kara soudan wo ukemashita)

Thinking in terms of the word “discussion” confuses who is giving the advice and who is receiving it. Because the verb 受ける (ukeru) means “to receive” you might think that the speaker received advice from the CEO (社長).

However, the actual meaning is actually the opposite: the speaker received a “consultation” from the CEO, which can be better understood as a request for advice. In fact, one source lists 相談に乗る as a synonym for 相談を受ける. So, trying to translate this nuance into English we get:

  • The CEO came to me for advice.

I feel this is a pretty natural translation as opposed to the more literal (and confusing), “I received a consultation from the CEO”.

Let’s take a look at one final example, perhaps the most difficult of all (if you’ve never seen it before).

  • たろうさん、相談があります。 (tarou san, soudan ga arimasu)

Here, with the “たおうさん” part the speaker is getting the listener’s attention. Other words like あの could be used here to aid in getting the listener’s attention.

But the tricky part is 相談があります, which, based on the definition we looked at earlier, literally means something like “There is a discussion.” The key to understanding this is to think in terms of “There is a discussion to be had“, in other words the speaker has something they want to talk about with the listener (たろうさん). You might wonder why a first person pronoun (僕, 私, etc.) isn’t anywhere to be found until you remember that words deemed unnecessary by the context are often omitted in Japanese. (By the way, the phrase 話があります is another similar phrase that means almost the same thing, “something to talk about”).

Now translating this sentence into natural English can be a little challenging, especially considering some of the common translations of 相談 don’t fit too well: “consultation”, “advice” or “offer”. For example, while the below sentence would convey the meting, the result would be awkward and likely rarely used in practice.

  • Mr. Taro, I have something to consult with you about.

It turns out that simply using the word “talk”, while arguably not as business-sounding as 相談, conveys the meaning in a natural way.

  • Mr. Taro, I have something to talk to you about.

Another option is to use the word “want” which deviates slightly from the literal meaning of the original sentence, but maintains the spirit of it in a natural-sounding way.

  • Mr. Taro, I wanted to talk to you about something.

To close, I wanted to mention that for an extra touch of politeness you can use the ご prefix with 相談 to get ご相談 (gosoudan). However, in order to avoid sounding overly polite, I personally use the regular 相談 form in most situations, even when speaking in desu/masu form. It’s interesting that the word お相談 (osoudan), while technically incorrect, also seems to be in somewhat common use. The reason ご is the proper prefix is because ご is generally used with 漢語 (Japanese words of Chinese origin) and 相談 is one such word.

(Featured image taken from Pexels.com)

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