Untranslatable phrases are what I love in Japanese …

Not too long ago I blogged about untranslatable words and since then a whole bunch of untranslatable phrases have jumped into my head, mostly from Japanese. I wonder if it’s because Japanese is such a “polite” language (people too!), or just because they have a whole bunch of valuable traditions that haven’t been altered by immigrants (it’s one of the most homogeneous societies in the world), but whatever the case, I wanted to share some of my favourite untranslatable Japanese phrases.
The set that I love are all about what you say when you are leaving to go somewhere or returning from somewhere else. In other words, you don’t just say goodbye (or worse, say nothing and just walk out!).
When you leave, you say Ittekimasu! If I remember correctly, this translates to something along the lines of “I’m going, but I’m coming back,” which I think is adorable – as if you need to reassure your loved ones (or colleagues or whoever remains behind), “Yes, I am leaving you now, but it will not be forever, and one day (or in half an hour) I will return, so please don’t fret too much in my absence”. Those who are remaining at home reply with Itterasshai! which means something along the lines of “Come back safely” (I think!).
When you get home, you say Tadaima! (“I’m home”, although literally it means nothing like that). And, the bit I especially like, is that those who are at home when you arrive reply with Okaeri! (“Welcome home” … approximately).
Perhaps it’s not just the language and phrases itself, but the tradition of always saying something as you leave and arrive that appeals to me. It just doesn’t work as beautifully in English!
Any untranslatable phrases spring to your mind now? Do let me know in the comments!


  1. I think ‘Adieu’ comes closest to ‘I’m going now but I’ll see you again’. English is scattered with so many untranslatable French words or phrases, saying someone has ‘a certain je ne sais quoi’ or that something is their ‘raison d’etre’. My fave, though is ‘le petit gout’, literally the small taste, but actually the snack kids have when they get home from school. Baguette and jam! Yum!

  2. Ooh, “le petit gout” is cool! Pity I probably can’t pronounce it properly 🙁

  3. Our Park Life says:

    i am racking my brains for a phrase to add here…I lived in South Korea for a year and phrases like this were a daily occurrence! Wouldn’t you know I can’t remember ANY right now…Ahh, will be back later if any spring to mind…

    So pleased to have discovered your blog….It is lovely

    Gill xo

  4. Thanks so much Gill, lovely to have you here!

    It’s funny, the same thing happened to me when I wrote this post – I was sure I had more phrases in mind but they went missing.

    I taught lots of South Korean students here in Perth and they were heaps of fun, bet you enjoyed your stay there!

  5. 頑張る/頑張り/頑張って/頑張ろう and the sort…
    I think “do one’s best” does quite cut it… O_O
    Or 紅葉、花見、木漏れ日…
    Good luck translating those…
    Man, with all those words one’s gotta love Nihon… 😀

  6. Ooh I will have to get my Japanese friends to help me out with this lot! Thanks for stopping by.

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