Japanese expression: ”何からやる” (nani kara yaru)

By | October 25, 2022

Changing your PC’s language setting to Japanese is a great way to get daily exposure to a bunch of words, and to actually test your understanding of those words in a real way. There are drawbacks, like the possibility of running into unnatural translations (since after all much software is first written in another language and then translated to Japanese after the fact), but overall it’s been a good way to enrich vocabulary and force one to actually read things instead of just skimming over them without a full understanding.

Just the other day I was using the enterprise tool Slack, which of course is set to Japanese language on my computer, and I came across this phrase on a screen that said I had no more unread (未読) messages. 

  • 何からやりますか? (nani kara yarimasu ka?)

While made of very simple words, this expression caught me a little off guard so I decided to write a short post about it. First, let’s talk about each of the words briefly:

  • 何 (nani):  question word “what”
  • から (kara): used to show the direction from which something is/will happen, often translates well to “from”
  • やります (yarimasu): polite form of “yaru”, which has a variety of meanings, but for our purposes we can treat it as a generic “do it” for some action. Note that this contrasts with “suru” that can also mean “do”, but most often is preceded by some word (i.e. 勉強する). (See an article comparing these two words here.)
  • か (ka): Question particle, roughly equivalent to “?” when at the end of a sentence

If we try to put these together literally (making the common assumption that the subject is “you”), we end up with something like:

  • What will (you) do it from?

You probably agree this is a bit weird given the context.

While I have never actually heard this expression said by a native speaker, an online search shows it is quite common, especially when talking about what you are about to do (when studying, etc.). In this case the context is that there are no unread messages, so it is starting to make sense.

Grammatically, the key point here is the word “kara” which is often used in Japanese to express the starting point of something. For example:

  • 何から始めればいいの? (nani kara hajimereba ii no?)
  • Where should I start?

In this case a literal translation (and a proper understanding) is much more straightforward due to the “hajimeru” (to start) verb.

But in the “nani kara yarimasu ka?” case we only have the “yaru” verb, and given the use of the “kara” verb (and the context) we can infer it is talking about what work should one begin from. In fact, “yaru” can also be used with some words in a business setting, like “kaigi o yaru” which means “to hold a meeting”. 

So with our above understanding, we can now make a natural, nonliteral translation of this phrase:

  • What will you do next?

Just for curiosity I went back and changed my Slack to English and checked again. It was tricky to quickly compare since this screen cycles through a series of messages each time you view it, but I think I found the one that roughly corresponds, and this part said “What’s next?”. So my interpretation looks good after all. 

As a side point, I noticed one of the Japanese messages actually seemed to be translated quite awkwardly, it actually had spaces between the words, and used みどくinstead of 未読, so I’m not going to assume all the Slack Japanese translations is completely natural. (Actually, after writing this paragraph I went back and see that the message said “みどく メッセージを やっつけた” with a picture of two swords crossed. It is possible that this translation was actually done to emulate classic RPGs, so it may be natural after all. Furthermore, research shows that at least one Japanese person was apparently on the translation team, making it more likely this was intentional.)

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