Just as there are several phrases that are basically impossible to translate from Japanese to English, you might notice that there a few English phrases that just don’t work in Japanese.
English Phrases That Don’t Exist in Japanese
Obviously, things like idioms are never going to translate well. Every language has their own set of those. But there are a few very common phrases that we use in English that you just won’t find in Japanese. Some of them can be directly translated, but that won’t make much sense to a native speaker of Japanese.
So let’s look at a few of the most common phrases, and talk about some alternatives you can use when speaking Japanese.
This may seem a little odd, because usually you learn that “Konnichi wa” (こんにちは) means “hello.” While it is used as a common greeting, it doesn’t actually mean “hello.” “Konnichi wa” is much closer to the English phrase “Good day.” It goes along with the two other common greeting phrases: “Ohayou gozaimasu” (おはようございます) and “Konban wa” (こんばんは), meaning “Good morning” and “Good evening” respectively. All of these could be translated into English as “Hello.”
However, a main difference between all of these phrases and the English “Hello” is the time you can use it. All three Japanese phrases are used at specific times of day. If it’s dark outside and you say “Konnichi wa,” it’s a little weird. You should say “Konban wa” instead because it is evening. The exact time when you should switch from saying “Konnichi wa” to “Konban wa” is arbitrary, but there is still a shift when it gets later when you do need to change. With “Hello” there isn’t any rule like this. You can always say hello.
The closest you can get to something that is closer to “hello” is when you use informal greetings. Some informal greetings you may hear are things like “O-i!” (おーい!) or “Iyo!” (いよっ!). These can be used any time of the day, but they are definitely less formal. If you want to bump up the formality a bit, you can say something like “Doumo,” (どうも), but if you’re looking to be more formal, you may as well just stick with one of the first three phrases we discussed.
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Have a Nice Day
Now that we’ve talked about some greetings, let’s look at parting phrases. I don’t know if that’s really what they’re called, but things you say when you’re saying goodbye. There’s a lot of things you can say in Japanese when parting with someone, but one key English phrase is not among them. That phrase is “Have a nice day.” One of my American friends tried to translate this one into Japanese, and she came up with “Yoi ichinichi wo” (良い一日を). I will tell you, the look on the cashier’s face when she said this at the grocery store was absolutely priceless. Don’t say this. It doesn’t work. It just confuses people.
There’s not really going to be a way for you to say “Have a nice day,” so let’s look at what you can say instead. Obviously, “goodbye” is on this list. The first way you learn to say goodbye is actually one of the least common. Even if you haven’t studied Japanese long, I’m sure you’ve heard “Sayounara” (さようなら) somewhere. I swear, it’s in every movie and TV show at least once. The thing is though, “Sayounara” has more of a permanent feel to it. I rarely ever heard people use it, because it kind of has that “I’m never going to see you again” meaning.
Instead, for informal situations you can use “Mata ne!” (またね！), which literally means “again,” but is usually translated as “Later!” or “See you!” You can also just say “Bai bai!” (バイバイ). If you noticed, “Bai bai” is written in katakana. That’s because it’s a borrowed word. It just means “Bye bye” and you will hear it way more than you expect, so get ready for that. Also it sounds cute? So use it. Always take an opportunity to sound cute.
When you want to be more formal, you can say “Shitsurei shimasu” (失礼します). Oooh, this one sounds very professional. It literally translates to “I’m being rude,” but in English it’s more like “Excuse me.” You can tack on “De wa” (では) at the beginning to sound even more fancy. “De wa” is kind of like “with that.” If you’re still in a formal situation, but not crazy formal, you can actually just say “De wa,” and the “shitsurei” bit will be implied. Interestingly, you can make this informal again by using the less formal contraction, “Jyaa” (じゃあ). If you add “ne” to the end of this, you end up with one of the most common ways to say goodbye to a friend, which is “Jyaa ne” (じゃあね).
There is one phrase that comes fairly close to “Have a nice day,” and it is used to wish people well when you part. This phrase is “Ki wo tsukete” (気を付けて), or, more formally, “Ki wo tsukete kudasai” (気を付けてください). Please don’t ask me to directly translate this. “Tsukeru” has like fifty meanings. And “ki” is… well, “ki.” But the way I would translate it is something like “Take care.” Again, not “Have a nice day,” but a lot closer than anything else in Japanese. An important note for this one: you only really say it to someone who is traveling. So if they visit your house and they are leaving, sure. But if you are leaving after visiting their house, it would be a little odd to tell them to be careful. They’re in their house. They’ll be okay.
Here’s a phrase that hopefully won’t surprise you with its inability to be translated into Japanese. In English-speaking cultures, it is common to say “Bless you!” when somebody sneezes. A lot of other cultures have this too, wishing people health or blessings or something when they sneeze. A quick internet search will teach you that the full phrase is “God bless you,” and it has a fairly ambiguous, but definitely religious history. Lots of things in Western culture are based in Christianity, so it follows that Japan doesn’t do this. Japan, as I really hope you know, is not a Christian country. When I looked it up, the internet told me that about 1% of Japanese people are Christian. To put that in perspective, the internet told me that about 75% of Americans are Christian. Can you see why Japanese culture doesn’t really have its roots in Christianity?
So you might be wondering what to do if someone sneezes in Japan. How do you react when you sneeze? The answer is very simple: you ignore it.
Yes, that’s it. Everyone sneezes, even the Japanese. But they just ignore it. Sometimes, if a sneeze is loud and maybe a little disruptive, like if you are in class or a meeting, you can say “Excuse me.” This is just “Shitsurei shimasu” (失礼します). If you want to be more discreet, a quiet “Shitsurei” will do. If your sneeze is really loud or you just can’t stop sneezing because of all that stupid pollen, they might ask if you’re okay. But otherwise, you will be ignored.
I Miss You
This last phrase is a tricky one. There is no Japanese word for “to miss,” as in the sentimental kind of missing someone or something. There are some verbs that kind of come close, but they usually have a romantic feel to them. In English, “I miss you,” doesn’t always mean the relationship is romantic.
So how can you express this without being weird? Well, it kind of depends on what you miss, and how you feel about it.
I typed this bad boy into a translator (don’t trust those) and got “Anata ga inakute sabishii desu” (あなたがいなくて寂しいです). There’s a bit to unpack here. First of all, using the word “anata” makes this sound like it’s being said to a lover. Then with the “desu” at the end, it’s very formal. This sentence sounds kind of stiff, almost like it came from a formal love letter. Not exactly what we usually want to say with “I miss you.” However, it did give us the word “sabishii.” This one is actually a pretty good one for expressing the same feeling as “I miss you.” “Sabishii” literally means “lonely,” so it’s a good word to use when expressing that you long for the company of someone.
You could also tone back your personal sadness by using the phrase “Aitai” (会いたい). This one directly translates to “I want to meet,” but it has the same feeling as “I miss you” when you are talking to a close friend.
If you’re talking about something that reminds you of the past, and you want to say “Aw, I miss that!” or “Man, I miss him,” you can use the word “Natsukashii” (懐かしい). I’ve talked about this word before, and it just means “nostalgic,” but you can use it in this way too.
You can make all of these words more formal just by adding “desu” (です) to the end of them. I can’t really think of any other phrases that are more formal than that. But then again, discussing things or people you miss is more personal, and you probably won’t be doing that in situations that require higher levels of formality anyways.
It’s important to know that this is not an exhaustive list. Translating is difficult work, and phrases like these make it even harder. People all have feelings, and each language has its own way of allowing people to express themselves and show others that they care.
I think it would be good to not think of these untranslatable phrases as limiting when you are trying to learn Japanese. Rather, this gives you an opportunity to express yourself differently in Japanese than you might in English.