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12 “Made-in-Japan” English Terms that Might Confuse English Speakers

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Globalization has given us such incongruous cultural mash-ups as the Hindu-friendly Big Mac and Bulgarian Music Idol, but perhaps nowhere in the world has the interaction between foreign cultures been so fruitful as in Japan. The rise of English as the global tongue has created a whole new subset of language in the Land of the Rising Sun, a sort of fusion of English and Japanese called wasei-eigo (which actually means “made-in-Japan English”). These are words with English roots that have been so thoroughly Japan-ized as to be rendered barely recognizable to native English speakers. So for those hoping to “level-up” (there’s some wasei-eigo for you) their communication skills before traveling to Tokyo, consider memorizing these Japenglish gems.

1. “Baiking

If you eat in Japan, chances are you’ll come across a restaurant advertising a baiking (“Viking”) lunch. But you won’t find customers wearing horned helmets and dining on the spoils of war—baiking just means a buffet. The story goes that Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel was the first in Japan to serve buffet meals, and their “Viking smörgåsbord” (which was in turn named after the Kirk Douglas adventure film The Vikings) caught on as the name for everyone’s favorite way to all-you-can-eat. 

2. “Donmai

It sounds like it should mean “I don’t mind,” but donmai actually comes from the clunky English reassurance, “Don’t pay that any mind,” i.e., “Don’t worry about it!” In other words, “Your fugu sashimi’s poisonous? Donmai.” 

3. “Maipesu”

In Japan’s hyper-speed, group-oriented society, doing something at one’s own pace isn’t exactly an accolade. Which is why the term maipesu (“my pace”) is used somewhat pejoratively to describe someone who dances to the beat of their own drummer or does their own thing. For example, “Yoko Ono is so maipesu.” 

4. “Wanpisu”

You can probably guess that wanpisu comes from the English term “one piece.” But if the sentence, “My cousin’s wedding was beautiful, the bridesmaids all wore lovely one-pieces,” has you imagining a row of ladies posed in matching swimsuits, think again—wanpisu is actually the Japanese word for a woman’s dress. 

5. “Handorukipa

For a wild night out, a handorukipa is a necessity. That’s because Japan has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to drinking and driving—so you’d better hope your buddy is willing to be the “handle keeper” (i.e., designated driver). 

6., 7., and 8. "Konsento," "Hochikisu," and "Shapupenshiru"

Don’t be alarmed if your Japanese co-worker comes to you asking for konsento (“consent”). This just means they want to use your “concentric plug,” i.e., your power outlet. Same goes if they’re looking for a hochikisu (“Hotchkiss”), which means stapler, so named because the E. H. Hotchkiss Company was the first to produce the office staple (pun intended) in Japan. And if they ask for a shapupenshiru (“sharp pencil”), toss ‘em a pencil of the mechanical variety. 

9. and 10. “baiku” / “bebika”

Shock your Japanese friends by telling them that you spent all weekend teaching your 5-year-old daughter how to ride a bike. In Japan, baiku means motorcycle. Likewise, if a toddler goes out for a spin in the bebika (“baby car”), they’re merely riding in a stroller. 

11. “romansugurei”

Rather than Japanese Fifty Shades of Grey fan fiction, “romance grey” actually describes the Anderson Coopers and Richard Geres of the world. Think a handsome older gentleman with grey hair, or what we’d call a “silver fox.”

12. “manshon”

Don’t expect too much if a Tokyoite invites you over to their “mansion”—you won’t find marble floors or an indoor pool, because manshon simply describes a condominium-style apartment complex. (‘Cause good luck trying to fit a real mansion in Tokyo.)

Most Japanese people are surprised to find out that a perfectly grammatically-correct sentence like, “I got wasted at the viking, but luckily the handle keeper will gimme a ride back to my mansion,” sounds like gobbledygook to the average English speaker. But not everyone has embraced the widespread use of wasei-eigo. In fact, one 72 year old man recently made headlines when he sued the Japanese national public broadcaster because he couldn’t understand their Japanenglish-riddled programming. (Thus, he claimed, causing him 1.41 million yen worth of emotional distress.) He lost—which makes you wonder whether, after delivering the verdict, the judge told him, “Donmai.”

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8 Professional Translators Choose Their Favorite 'Untranslatable' Words
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Readers tend to think of a translated novel as having just one author. While that’s technically true, each work contains two voices: that of the author and the translator. Translators must ensure that their interpretation remains faithful to the style and intent of the author, but this doesn't mean that nothing is added in the process. Gabriel García Márquez, the author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, once famously said that the English version of his novel was, in some ways, better than his original work in Spanish.

“A good translation is itself a work of art,” translator Nicky Harman writes. Put differently, translator Daniel Hahn believes translation is literally impossible. “I don’t just mean it’s really, really difficult, but really, it’s not actually possible,” he says. “There’s not a single word in any of the languages I translate that can map perfectly onto a word in English. So it’s always interpretative, approximate, creative.”

In a show of appreciation for this challenging craft, the Man Booker International Prize was created to annually recognize one outstanding work of literature that has been translated from its original language into English and published in the UK. Ahead of the winner being announced on May 22, the translators of eight Man Booker International Prize nominees have shared their favorite "untranslatable" words from the original language of the novels they translated into English.

1. BREF

Sam Taylor, who translated The 7th Function of Language by Laurent Binet from French to English, said the best definition of bref is “Well, you get the idea.” It’s typically used to punctuate the end of a long, rambling speech, and is sometimes used for comedic effect. “It’s such a concise (and intrinsically sardonic) way of cutting a long story short,” Taylor says.

2. SANTIGUADORA

Unsatisfied with any of the English words at their disposal, translators Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff left this word in Spanish in Die, My Love, a psychological novel by Ariana Harwicz. The word, which describes a female healer who uses prayer to break hexes and cure ailments, was explained in the text itself. The translated version reads: “If only there were santiguadoras living in these parts, those village women who for a fee will pray away your guy’s indigestion and your toddler’s tantrums, simple as that.”

3. HELLHÖRIG

The German word Hellhörig "literally means 'bright-hearing' and is used, for example, to describe walls so thin you can hear every noise in the next room," says Simon Pare, who translated The Flying Mountain, a novel by Christoph Ransmayr. Pare notes that while English equivalents like "paper-thin" and “flimsy” carry the same negative connotation, they don’t have the same poetic quality that hellhörig has. "'The walls have ears,' while expressive, is not the same thing,” Pare laments.

4. VORSTELLUNG

Vorstellung (another German word) can be defined as an idea or notion, but when its etymology is broken down, it suddenly doesn’t seem so simple. It stems from the verb vorstellen, meaning “to place in front of—in this case, in front of the mind’s eye,” according to Susan Bernofsky, who translated Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck. “The Vorstellung is the object of that act of mental conjuring-up," Bernofsky adds. (Fun fact: All nouns are capitalized in German.)

5. 눈치 (NUNCH'I)

Literally translating to “eye measure,” the Korean word nunch’i describes “an awareness of how those around you are currently feeling, plus their general character, and therefore the appropriate response,” says Deborah Smith, the translator of Han Kang’s The White Book. Korean culture stresses the importance of harmony, and thus it’s important to avoid doing or saying anything that could hurt another person’s pride, according to CultureShock! Korea: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette.

6. ON

Anyone who has survived French 101 has seen this word, but it’s a difficult concept to fully grasp. It’s also one that crops up regularly in novels, making it “the greatest headache for a translator,” according to Frank Wynne, who translated Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes. On is often translated as “one” (as in “one shouldn’t ask such questions”), but in general conversation it can come off as “preposterously disdainful,” Wynne notes. Furthermore, the word is used in different ways to express very different things in French, and can be taken to mean “we,” “people,” “they,” and more, according to French Today.

7. TERTULIA

Store this one away for your next cocktail party. The Spanish word tertulia can be defined as “an enjoyable conversation about political or literary topics at a social gathering,” according to Camilo A. Ramirez, who translated Like a Fading Shadow by Antonio Munoz Molina. Although tertulia is tricky to translate, it's one of Ramirez's favorite Spanish words because it invokes a specific atmosphere and paints a scene in the reader’s mind. For instance, the first chapter of The Hobbit, “An Unexpected Party,” becomes “Una Tertulia Inesperada” when translated into Spanish.

8. PAN/PANI

Like the French on, the Polish words pan (an honorific address for men) and pani (an address for women) are challenging to explain in English. While many European languages have both a formal and informal “you,” pan and pani are a different animal. “[It's] believed to derive from the days of a Polish noble class called the szlachta—another tradition unique to Poland,” says Jennifer Croft, who translated Flights by Olga Tokarczuk into English. This form of address was originally used for Polish gentry and was often contrasted with the word cham, meaning peasants, according to Culture.pl, a Polish culture site. Now, it’s used to address all people, except for children or friends.

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Why Are Small, Fancy Hats Called Fascinators?
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Chris Jackson, Getty Images

Even if you aren't invested in the lives of British royals, it will be worth tuning in to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's wedding on May 19 for a glimpse at all the elaborate headgear. Fascinators—tiny, elaborate hats that are clipped to the wearer's head—are a popular fashion choice among the women of the royal family today. The name may seem like a perfect fit for the eye-catching accessory, but as Co.Design explains, the hat was called something entirely different until the 1960s.

The term fascinator first surfaced in the fashion world in 17th-century Europe. Back then, it referred to a lacy scarf women wrapped around their heads (or "fastened," hence the name). Rather than attracting stares from across the room, this version of the hat was meant to give women an alluring air of mystery. By the mid 20th-century, a slew of new hat styles hit the scene, leaving both the term fascinator and the garment it described to fall out of fashion.

In the 1960s, a New York milliner named John P. John decided it was time for the fascinator to make a comeback. Instead of thinking about the headpiece in its original sense, however, he used the name to rebrand the petite cocktail hats that were known at the time as clip-hats or half-hats. The sexy new name helped the already-popular design become even trendier.

Fascinators aren't that common in the U.S., but they're a staple of high-profile royal events in the UK. Princess Beatrice realized the accessory's full potential when she debuted her now-iconic fascinator at the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in 2011. (She eventually auctioned it off on eBay for charity, where it sold for a cool $130,000.) As a result, her head will be the one to watch when she arrives at her cousin Harry's wedding this Saturday.

[h/t Co.Design]

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