Before I proceed any further, I would just like to make it clear that I am aware that this post is simply contributing to a large circlejerk in which all the participants are sad Japanophiles, and I would also like to make clear that my Japanese is still not all that great. I can already hear the cackles of far more experienced students of the language coming from their tall ivory towers before I even hit the publish button on this post. So, if these 1500 words aren’t too boring for you fine men and women who already know the language, please feel free to point out anything I got wrong.

People always talk about how things get “lost in translation” or how “anime just feels different in Japanese” but I haven’t seen many people on the blogosphere attempting to qualify these statements, even though they’re 100% true.

Ever since I’ve returned from my journey to the East, I have been watching anime without subtitles more often. That said, I’m still in the habit of acquiring subtitled versions afterwords in order to pick up anything I may have missed, but there are occasions where I will simply watch entire shows in raw Japanese. As you begin to watch more things purely in their native language, one thing you begin notice is a lack of nuance across a lot of translations. However, what’s missing is something that isn’t lost as a result of poor translation–what I’m talking about are the fundamental aspects of the Japanese language that are simply unable to be carried over into English. Again, I realize this may have been noted time and time again, but I wish to cite examples.

Japanese is a very contextual language. In English it’s not often that we can reduce an entire sentence to just a verb or a noun, like you can sometimes do in Japanese. Japanese is very keen on leaving out words if the context is understood, even if that context may not be obvious to foreign listeners. Here’s an example that confused me pretty good when I was in Japan: We were all watching TV, and Yamazaki Masayoshi came on. Closet otaku K-san says to me, “Popular amongst girls.” Note, that is the literal translation of what he said. (A lot of these translations will be intentionally literal in order to draw attention to the linguistic quirks they’re meant to highlight.) A more sensible translation would be, “He’s popular amongst the girls.” But what he said to me literally was “popular amongst girls,” and Fresh-Off-The-Boat me was pretty confused for a few seconds. That’s just how they roll over there.

Another example of Japanese’s contextual nature can be seen in the omission of entire clauses in sentences. One good example–regarding Japanese’s much loved te-form verb conjugation (there will be more on te-form later)–can found here, in this post on How to Japonese. I’m not going to say that similar things are completely alien in English, but this certainly happens more often in Japanese.

Another thing the Japanese like to do is end sentences with “kedo,” which translates to “but” or “however.” The use of this can be pretty obvious to English speaking listeners. For example, say Guy A asks if Guy B can help him out, and Guy B responds with, “Dekiru kedo…/I can help, but…” which basically implies that he can help out, but there’s a catch. A response like this isn’t totally out of the blue in English. However, here are some examples I can’t get my head around–“Majide kawaii da kedo/That’s really cute, but…” for when someone is looking at something particularly cute, and “Moshimoshi, XXX desu kedo/Hello this is XXX, but…” for when someone is answering the phone, with XXX standing in for their name. My Japanese teacher at Sophia told us that this use of kedo was simply to soften sentences, since the Japanese tend to avoid being direct, but I can’t help but wonder if there’s more to it.


Aside from all that contextual junk that the Japanese are famous for, the fundamental structure of Japanese sentences is different. In Japanese sentences the most important stuff goes at the end, and the most important part of any sentence is its verb, so expect that at the end about all of the time. Particularly poor translations will sometimes keep this sort of sentence structure when it’s used for dramatic effect. Here’s an example you’ll probably see in shounen fight shows a lot: “Omae wo… korosu!”, which means “I WILL KILL… YOU!” for those keeping score. The verb to kill is korosu, and as you can so plainly see, it is at the end. There are more complex examples, and they get pretty difficult to translate effectively. Especially when the surprising part is at the end, and the only way to have it make sense in English is to put that surprising part in the middle.

On the subject of verbs, Japanese verbs have far more conjugations than English verbs. English employs the use of helping words to communicate various nuances one may wish to apply to a verb, but in Japanese such ideas can be conveyed by simply conjugating the verb. For instance, say you want to say that someone “can eat.” In Japanese that’s simply the verb “taberu” conjugated into “taberareru,” which is the potential form.

Here’s some other examples:

  • Causative Form: “Allowed to eat/Made to eat.” -> “Tabesaseru.”
  • Volitional Form: “Let’s eat!” -> “Tabeyou!”
  • Passive Form: “Was eaten.” -> “Taberareru.” (Passive form conjugates in the same way as potential form in some cases.)

In the end, communicating these same ideas in Japanese may not be faster (especially when you put these verbs into a real sentence with a main topic and particles), but these ideas being rolled up into one word is one of the things that gives Japanese a flavor different from what you encounter in English.

Lastly, I’d like to address the mysterious te-form–a conjugation (I think it’s a conjugation? I’m not a linguist, so excuse me for any misuses of certain linguistic terms up to this point.) that can do a variety of magical things. However, I am only going to address two of its magical abilities. One usage is to justify actions–you can change both verbs and adjectives into te-form, and use them to justify the actions that follow. Here’s an example: “Samukute kooto wo kiru” or “It’s cold, so I will put on a coat,” with “samui”–meaning “cold”–changed to “samukute.”  There are of course other ways to communicate the same idea in Japanese–“Samui kara kooto wo kiru” and “Samui no de kooto wo kiru” to name a couple. But the use of te-form and similar types of abbreviation gives Japanese a more compact and efficient flow than what can be found in English.

The other usage I’d like to address is its ability to link actions and list off adjectives. Once again, I will turn to How To Japonese for a fine example of this right at the bottom of this post. While we list off items in a similar manner in English, there is one key difference–the use of “and”. In English when we list off things, we typically preface the last item in the list with the word “and.” In Japanese you have to do no such thing. Further more, you can mix and match these uses of te-form (within reason) to come up with sentences like, “Atsukute kurushikute aircon wo tsuketa,” meaning “It was hot and suffering so I turned on the air conditioning.” Here te-form’s ability to link items and to suggest cause are used together.

So what am I trying to say with these 1500 words of boring Japanese lecture? It’s as I said when I started out–there are certain nuances to the Japanese language that simply cannot be translated. Rather, they should not be translated. If you came out with an English translation that tried to capture the things I outlined above, it would be pretty unreadable. However, if you do know the language (or kind of know it, like me) then it’s possible to appreciate the things I mentioned above, along with a whole host of things I neglected to mention or simply don’t know enough (or anything) about. What I outlined was mostly in regards to how efficient Japanese is as language, along with its unique (to English) sentence structure and how most of the time these things are unable to carry over well into English. But there are lots of things I’m not prepared to talk about, like the magical properties of kanji…

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