When I see Japanese to English translations, I sometimes feel they are not as good as they should be. In Japanese, I’d use the adjective もどかしい (frustrated or impatient), to describe this feeling. This expression—and others like it—are a perfect example of nuanced Japanese, and I think that the only way to learn these expressions is by learning them in context.
That being said, here are 10 Japanese expressions that can be best learned and understood in context.
1. Expressing ‘try something’
The expression ～てみる is a stem that adds the meaning of “I will try to” or “I will do something to see if” to the preceding verb. It’s often translated as “try to do something,” as it implies one’s intention or willingness to do something. At the same time, though, the verb “try” doesn’t fully explain its nuance.
|辛いかもだけど食べてみる.||It looks spicy, but I will eat it (to see how spicy it really is).|
|行けるかどうか, みんなに聞いてみる.||I will ask everyone to see if they can go.|
2. Expressing a preference
The expression ～でいい means “be fine or okay with,” which is best understood in comparison with the similar phrase, ～がいい.
This expression can mean “I like…,” “I’m fine with…” or “I’ll take…” depending on the situation. But the particle が has the nuance of “nothing but…,” so it’s a way of stating one’s preference. How does the meaning change if you use the particle で instead of が?
Let’s say that it’s lunchtime, and you ask your Japanese colleague to eat with you. She happens to be quite busy at the moment and replies, “私はコンビニでいい.”
Don’t get frustrated if you have difficulty with nuanced Japanese. Every language has these kinds of expressions.
The direct translation would be “I’m fine with (the food I can get at) the convenience store.” The implied message here is that she doesn’t have time to go out for lunch, so getting food at the convenience store is a compromise she’s willing to make.
If she says “私はコンビニがいい” instead, it means that she wants food from the convenience store. Note that the Japanese “～がいい” is a shorter version of “～の方がいい,” which translates to “I prefer something” or “I like something better.” Therefore, it indicates that the speaker is stating their preference over something else.
3. Expressing ‘no’ or ‘don’t’
The next one is the shortest on the list: ダメ.
This simple word means so many different things. Parents say this to kids to say “stop” or “don’t.” While the basic definition is “no” or “bad,” the meaning becomes more nuanced in some expressions.
|君じゃないとダメだ.||“You are the one I need” or “It has to be you.”|
This statement basically means “I need you,” but when used in a romantic situation, what the speaker really means is something like “I will not function (as a sane person) without you.” It might sound too demanding or even scary.
|彼はダメな人です.||He can’t do things right.|
The most straightforward translation of this sentence would be “he is a bad person,” but it doesn’t necessarily refer to someone who does morally wrong things. Instead, it refers to someone who can’t do something exemplary (e.g., a smoker who can’t quit smoking even if they keep saying they will).
4. Expressing ‘maybe/perhaps’
If on its own, もしかして can be translated to “perhaps,” but, in many cases, it actually needs a longer explanation.
|もしかして, またあなたに会えるかもと思っていました.||I was hoping that maybe I could see you again.|
In this expression, もしかして implies the speaker’s wishful thinking. Thus, もしかして has the general nuance of “I have/get the feeling that” and when used for the imagining of a positive event, it implies the speaker’s wish, regardless of how likely it is to happen.
5. Expressing ‘it’s fine’
You have probably heard the Japanese “大丈夫” a lot. It can be used for its literal meaning to say “it’s fine” or “I’m safe,” but it gets nuanced in certain situations.
|この仕事は佐藤さんに 任せてあるから大丈夫です||I asked Sato-san to take care of this work, so I’m sure that it will get done perfectly.|
Here, “大丈夫” means more than just “fine.” This speaker is 100% sure that the work will get done without any problem.
|このケーキ、食べても大丈夫？||Can I eat this cake?/Is it okay if I eat this cake?/Is this cake edible?|
Depending on the speaker’s intention, this sentence can mean any of the above. For example, if someone asked me this, I would probably ask what they mean by “大丈夫.” But, on the other hand, if I made the cake myself and my friend asked me this, I might get a little offended because they could be questioning its editability, for whatever reason.
6. Expressing hassles and bothers
The expression “面倒くさい,” or the colloquial form, “めんどくさい,” is often translated as “hassle” or “troublesome.” But, in a way, the expression itself doesn’t mean much. People often say this as an excuse not to do something when they have to or should, instead of the more direct “I don’t want to do it.”
|洗濯物をたたむのはめんどくさい||I don’t want to fold the laundry (but I have to).|
|彼女はめんどくさい人だ||I would rather not deal with her.|
In this example, めんどくさい describes a person. It usually refers to someone who’s confrontational or an attention-seeker. In short, it relates to the kind of person many of us would not want to deal with.
7. Expressing ‘appropriately’
The literal translation of 適当に would be “appropriately.” It is one of the most ambiguous expressions in Japanese. I have a love-hate relationship with this word. I like to use it when I don’t want to make decisions myself, but I hate it when people use it at their request.
|適当に頼んでおいて||Can you order for (all of) us?|
I’ve said this a lot myself, and you hear people say this all the time when they are running late for a get-together at an izakaya, asking those who have arrived on time to order food. Unfortunately, there is no equivalent in English to convey the meaning of 適当に here. The speaker is telling the other person to order food appropriately but what they’re saying is this: “I trust your judgment, so do as you like but don’t make me disappointed.”
One interesting thing to note here is that the word 適当 has a negative connotation. For example, it could mean “careless” or “sloppy,” which is just another reason why this word is so obscure.
8. Expressing ‘anyway’ or ‘take the opportunity’
Another interesting word that has both positive and negative connotations is どうせ. When used alone, it’s often translated as “anyway” and almost always has a negative sense. However, when used in a conditional phrase or sentence, it usually shows the speaker’s positive (and often aggressive) attitude.
|どうせ間に合わないよ||You’re not going to make it anyway.|
|出張は嫌だけど、どうせ行くなら観光も楽しみたい||I don’t like traveling for business, but if I had to, I’d take the opportunity to sightsee.|
9. Expressing ‘for now’ or ‘give me time’
The expressions “一旦” or “ひとまず” more or less mean the same. Depending on the situation, they are often translated as “for now,” but the speaker might mean more than that.
|一旦, 考えさせてください||Please give me some time to think about it.|
When people say this in business situations, they usually mean that they need a certain amount of time, and the implication is that the outcome might not be pleasing to the other party.
10. Expressing frustration
Finally, we have “もどかしい,” which I introduced in the beginning. The basic definition of this adjective is “to feel frustrated,” and it’s often used when the speaker has little or no control over something that they deeply care about.
However, unlike the word “frustrated,” it doesn’t necessarily mean that one is annoyed or irritated.
|あの二人は両想いなのに, おたがいに素直になれないのが もどかしい！||The two like each other, but they can’t be honest with their feelings. I wish I could tell them they both like each other!|
Korean has its own nuance version of this phrase, which is 답답하다 (pronounced tap-tap-hada). In fact, Korean and Japanese have a lot in common in terms of grammar and vocabulary. So don’t get frustrated if you have difficulty with nuanced Japanese. Every language has these kinds of expressions.
Does your language have any nuanced expressions? What else in Japanese is hard to understand in English? Let us know in the comments!