Japanese translation. Translating a word that has no translation.

The further apart two languages are, like Japanese and English, the more likely you are to come face to face with it. A word that’s completely natural in a language, that’s common vocabulary and tends to be used in a specific context. Everybody who speaks that language knows what it means.

Only problem: that word has no real equivalent in English.

And there are dozens of those. For each language. People make lists of them online.

So how are you supposed to treat them? Do you even bother translating them?

Let’s have a look at what this Japanese to English translator did with the word “ittadakimasu”.

What’s “ittadakimasu”?

Japanese people will say that just before eating. Literally, it means “I receive humbly”. But that would sound strange in English conversation. For a movie where people talk like normal human beings, you’ll need to find equivalents. Here is one, from the Japanese movie, Umi no Futa (There Is No Lid on the Sea).

The girl, Hajime, is about to eat shaved ice. Just before eating, she says “ittadakimasu”. The translation says “Let’s give this a go!”. Okay, sounds fine.

But what happens later in the same movie when another character says the same word?

And finally later on…

Same word. Same movie. Different translations. Looking at tentative translations for the word, it seems the last one is pretty common. Ittadakimasu could also mean “Bon appétit” or “Let’s eat”. So what happened here?


Since there isn’t a unique, official way to say “ittadakimasu” in English, the translator took advantage of it to give us hints of the context it is said in. And since Japanese is a language full of unspoken rules and innuendo, I think it works well.

What are these three contexts?

  • The first picture is the first time they try this dessert.
  • The second one shows the parents of the shop owner. They’ll have a more casual “thanks” for the same word.
  • The last picture is a young girl, who will have a more respectful way to say it.

Context is important. If your translator does not have context to rely on, you would be very helpful to provide some. The end-result will be of a higher quality, like in this example.

When this approach won’t work

Translating like that isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to Japanese translation. Sometimes you should try something else. Here are two cases:

# 1 When the Japanese word is a famous one.

You wouldn’t translate “Dojo” by “training place” nor would you translate “kimono” by “Japanese garment”. Although both are correct translations, these words have entered English vocabulary and no longer need to be localized.

That’s obvious, but the same logic applies to lesser-known words. Kendo enthusiasts won’t need to see the translation for “Shinai” in a document about their own sport. English-speakers living in Tokyo already know what a “conbini” is.  If your audience is likely to know the word in Japanese, don’t translate it.

# 2 When it is used so often your audience will remember it.

You’ve probably had this experience. You see a movie or play a video game and keep hearing the same word in the original audio. You’ll likely remember it next time they use it in the movie or video game.

If that’s the case you can still translate the word. What you’ll want though, is consistency in your translation. If you see a word or term used over and over in your text, make sure you instruct your translation team to use the same translation throughout. Your (not confused) audience will thank you.

Trust your Japanese translator

All that being said, if your translator knows what he’s doing, none of it should be an issue. You should hire someone who grasps the nuances of Japanese and is creative enough to translate them into English. Even for words that just don’t exist in English.

Once you find a good translator like that, let them know how consistent you want them to be, and give them context if necessary. Like the translator in the example, they’ll get creative when needed.


Do you know other Japanese words that have no English equivalent? What about in other languages? Let us know! Our Japanese translation team will write more about this topic soon.