Japanese phrase highlight: うまくやんなよ (umaku yan na yo)

By | April 22, 2019

When reading a Japanese novel recently I came across the following phrase:

うまくやんなよ (umaku yan na yo)

At first I was a little confused as to the meaning here, but eventually I figured it out. In this article I’ll go over this phrase in some detail.

First is the word うまく (umaku), which is the adverbial form of the word “umai”. While “umai” can mean “tasty” or “good (at something)”, it can also refer to things proceeding smoothly or as desired. Here is a very common usage:

  • うまくいくといいね (umaku iku to ii ne)
  • I hope things go well.

Now, the magirawashii (misleading) part of this phrase is the “n” in “yan”, because it can be an abbreviation of two different things:

  • うまくやるなよ (umaku yaru na yo)
  • うまくやりなよ (umaku yari na yo)

The “na” particle has many uses, but the below two patterns are relevant to this discussion. Both refer to a command or emphatic request.

  • [premasu form of a verb] + na = Do not do [verb]
  • [dictionary form of a verb] + na = Do [verb]

So, for example:

  • それ、食べ (sore, tabe na)
    • Eat that.
  • それ、食べる (sore, taberu na)
    • Don’t eat that.

As you can see the letter before the “na” determines whether it is a positive or negative meaning, and the phrase “umaku yan na yo” can be interpreted either way. (By the way, the “yo” here just adds emphasis and doesn’t significantly change the meaning of the phrase)

So which meaning is it, positive or negative? Given the context (parting words to a friend), it is clearly the positive meaning. But what does “umaku yaru” really mean?

“Yaru” means “to do” (often with a rough undertone), and as discussed above “umaku” means something like “well”, or perhaps “skillfully” would be a little more appropriate. So literally “umaku yaru” means something like “do (it) skillfully” or, a little more more naturally, “do a good job”. I should note that I’ve seen at least one case (see the first review here) where (presumably) a native speaker was questioning what this phrase means, so it’s not something you’re likely to hear too often.

I think now you have enough information to understand this phrase in context, although translating the entire phrase it to natural English is still a little tricky––especially since it turns out to be a key phrase in the story. It may help to understand this phrase is not necessarily talking about a specific thing, but more about life in general.

A literal translation like “Do your best!” would convey the meaning, but that sounds a little cheesy to me. I’d prefer to use something more creative like:

Live it right!

There are a bunch of other options, especially if you want to take some artistic license. For example:

Be true to yourself.

Don’t let the bastards get you down.

Do no wrong.

Don’t give up on life.

If you have any other ideas feel free to leave a comment.

(Note: picture of skateboarder taken from Pexels.com)

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