Japanese word highlight: まま (mama)

By | May 6, 2019

When learning a foreign language, words can be grouped into two categories: those that map easily to some word in the speaker’s native language, or those that do not. The latter are, of course, generally more difficult to master. From a translation perspective, words in the second category are also often more difficult to translate, and require some creativity on the translator’s part.

In this article I’d like to go over the Japanese word “mama”, which is usually written in hiragana as まま, and rarely written in kanji as 儘. I have only seen the latter used in quite old Japanese stories (50-100 years old).

“mama” is one of the words in the second category, meaning it can be little tricky for students to learn at first. Because it doesn’t have a perfect parallel word in English, I try to remember it more as a concept as opposed to a particular word. (Note: まま can also mean “mother”, especially when said by children, but that is generally written in katakana as ママ. That meaning is not related to this discussion.)

The concept of まま is basically to keep something the same, or to avoid doing certain thing(s) that might normally be done. You can also think of this in terms of “as is”.

There are a few common grammatical forms for using this word with differences in nuance. Let’s go over them one at a time with examples.

Form 1: (verb in past tense) + まま …

In this form, まま follows a verb in the past tense in the middle of a sentence. (Rarely would a sentence end with まま, though that isn’t grammatically incorrect.)

  • 寝たまま勉強できない (neta mama benkyou dekinai)
  • (you) can’t study while asleep.

Here, the word まま means that the state of “falling asleep” was kept as-is, in other words the person was not woken up. In this case, the word “while” can be used to capture that nuance in English.

  • 彼は髪の毛が濡れたまま出かけました。 (kare wa kami no ke ga nureta mama dekakemashita)
  • He went out with his hair still wet.

In this case, someone performed the action of “going out” with their hair still in the state of being “wet”. In other words, they didn’t dry their hair. I used “with” to express this in English, but “while” could have been used. Other translations options that change the flow are possible, like “Hair still wet, he went out.”

Form 2: (verb in past tense) + ままにする

This form is basically an extension of the first form, using the addition of the phrase ”ni suru” which can be used to express a choice or to make something occur.

In form 1 there was the sense of not doing some action and leaving things “as is”, however in this case this is made more explicit. For example,

  • ドアを開けたままにしてください (doa wo aketa mama ni shite kudasai)
  • Please leave the door open.

Here the meaning is to leave the state of the door being open, which implies not closing it. A more literal (but less natural) translation could be, “Please do so that the door stays open.”

This same sentiment could be expressed in Japanese asドアを閉めないでください, though this feels a little more direct.

As you can see, in this sentence I used してください instead of する, and pretty much any form of the verb する––including combinations with other verbs or words––can be used (した、しておく、するべき, etc.)

The meaning in this form is somewhat similar to the word とおり (toori), however generally you wouldn’t use that word in the same way. (ex: 開けたとおり sounds a little strange to me)

Form 3: (demonstrative pronouns) + まま …

In this form, a demonstrative pronouns refers to words like この, その, or あの (this, that, that over there) which are generally placed before nouns (ex: このねこ). This form is probably one of the most common ways to use まま, and one of the simpler ones.

  • このままでは上手くいかない (kono mama de wa umaku ikanai)
  • At this rate, things will not go well.

In this case, the connotation is that things will not go well unless something is done (or changed). Basically, with the current state as-is, things will not go well. The “de wa” should be included because the verb here is negative, and this gives the connotation that “but if something changes, things will go well”. If the result was positive, the “de wa” could generally be omitted.

There is a lot of flexibility for what you can put after the まま in this form (as if it was a noun). Here is another example:

  • そのままでいいです (sono mama de ii desu)
  • Things are OK like that.

Here the でいい form is similar to the していい form, and expresses permission or being “OK” with something. For context, imagine someone asked to move the position of a picture on a wall because they thought it was off-center, but you felt it was perfect where it was.

  • このまま一緒にいよう (kono mama isshou ni iyou)
  • Let’s stay together. (lit: “Let’s stay together like this”)

I think I heard this line in a song once. The nuance here is to stay together “like this” and not change anything, which means not separate. I think this can refer both to the present (“hold me now”) moment or in a more long term sense (“let’s not break up”).

Form 4: (noun) + の + まま

This form is similar to the previous ones mentioned, it is just that the grammar (the requirement of a の) is a little different.

  • 先生のままでいい (sensei no mama de ii)
  • I’m OK with staying as a teacher.

The nuance here is remaining in the state of being a teacher, essentially not changing occupations.

By the way, you can think of the previous form (demonstrative pronouns) as being a subset (or special case) of this form. For example, このまま basically means the same thing as これのまま, with これ also being a demonstrative pronoun, which can be treated just like a noun.

Form 5: ままならぬ

Generally there is some word before まま (and tightly connected to it), but I can think of one expression where that is not the case: ままならない (mama naranai), which can be also written as ままならぬ (mamanaranu).

This expression can be rephrased as 思いどおりにならない (omoidoori ni naranai) which means “(things) will not go as (you) like/hope”.

Test your understanding

In closing, I’ll give you another example using まま that is a little tricker to understand. Let me know what you think it means in the comments:

  • このままじゃいられないよ (kono mama ja irarenai yo)
  • ???

(Note: featured photo of thumbs up was taken from Pexels.com)


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