Lost in translation: things don’t always match up at the word level

By | November 5, 2015

The other day I was reading some posts about Japanese on Twitter and came across a post that had a simple phrase written in English, and then translated into Japanese. Here is what it said:

  • Hey, did you lose weight?
  • あれ?やせた? [Are? Yaseta?]

At first, this looks like a pretty innocuous phrase. Both the English and Japanese versions are natural and completely make sense.

However, as I looked at this closer, one thing caught my eye – the fact that the words “Hey” and “あれ” didn’t exactly match up. “Hey” is used more when trying to get someone’s attention, and “あれ” is used more as a phrase said to oneself when you realize something weird is going on. If I were to translate these words into the other language here is some things I would consider:

  • Hey  => おい, ねえ
  • あれ? => Huh? What? Hmm?

I became curious about whether this really was a good translation, so I asked a Japanese person as well as posted a question on Oshiete Goo.

The overall consensus was that the translation was fine, although there were several other valid ways to express this, such as “おや?やせた?” .  They agreed that the meaning of “あれ” wasn’t exactly the same as “Hey”, however the important thing was the overall meaning. To quote the first responder on Oshiete Goo, with my rough translation:



Ultimately, all that is needed is to express that that person seems to have lost weight, so there is no need to be concerned that much about the word “Hey”.


This was a good exercise and brought me down to earth, reminding me that being particular about every single word in a translation was a waste time. What mattered most was that at the sentence level (or higher) things matched up semantically – the overall meanings and feelings were as close as possible.

Having said that, as someone who thinks alot about the best way to teach Japanese to others, I feel that just looking at these two lines can cause a student to incorrectly that “あれ” equals “Hey” (I talked about this pitfall in a recent post). To avoid that I think it would be nice to give a side note about this to clarify the meaning of “あれ”.

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