Field Note #5 — Lost in Translation (Sketchbook)

Some Linguistics humor to wrap up my day…


(Puta means “whore” in Spanish.  While in English the /b/ sound is more firmly voiced and held longer, in Japanese it’s a softer, more “staccato” consonantal sound that’s very close to the Spanish bilabial stop /p/ —so the two come out sounding dangerously similar.)

Archived Blog: yui yaku 1 • “mendokusai”

etymology plug: yui + yaku
yui = ゆい me                yaku = 訳 (やく) "translation"

yui yaku (ゆい訳) is a series in which I attempt to explain obscure words and phrases from modern Japanese culture that do not have equivalents in English.  The reign of Schadenfreude as the New Foreign Word on the Block has ended, and I think one of these Japanese words could be next.

Why should I care about understanding words that only exist in Japanese culture?

Great question!

The thing is, Japanese culture didn’t invent these concepts.  The culture just put linguistic labels on them, so people could effectively communicate their thoughts and feelings to others and build connections with those who understood.  Just because the words only exist in Japan doesn’t mean those concepts aren’t experienced elsewhere.  Feelings, sensations, and experiences can be universal, beyond the grasp of language.

There was, at one point, a claim that language controlled thought—and therefore language also limited the categories of thoughts that a person could have.  Based on the Sapir-Whorf Theory, a speaker of one language would have the ability to understand something that a speaker of another language would not.

The fallacy in this particular aspect of the theory can be demonstrated by our understanding of animal cognition and sentience.  Chimpanzees can be compassionate toward one another (1).  Elephants grieve over the loss of their loved ones (2).  Dogs can’t help but act on jealousy (3).  These aren’t just valuable life lessons I learned from Disney movies; there has been actual research done to demonstrate that animals experience the world in similar ways as humans—even if they don’t have the language to communicate their feelings.

My point is that sometimes, when you can’t understand someone because they come from a different cultural background, it could just be a matter of differences in cognitive identification.  You might not recognize certain feelings and expressions the same way, but that doesn’t mean that you’re genetically or culturally wired to be incapable of ever understanding the other person.  Recognizing that your world perspective is expanding is part of what makes learning words from other languages so fun!

Okay, that’s my intro for this little project.  Let’s jump into our first word!

yui yaku 1



Hybrid of めんどう men•dō  くさい  kusai
*    *    *
A very timely word.  The winter quarter at my college has just begun and, knowing myself, I’m in for a whole lot of moments where I throw my hands in the air and sigh dramatically and mumble this word to no one in particular but also to everyone within a 5 ft radius.  School, among many other things in life, elicit hefty doses of mendokusai.
I’m almost certain you’ve experienced this before.

From JPN → ENG, this term is typically reduced to the following laconic translations:

  • bothersome, troublesome
  • pain in the ass
  • feeling lazy, on the level of that Bruno Mars song
  • (whining) “but I don’t wannnaaaa”

These expressions are not necessarily wrong.  In fact, they’re good to keep in mind so you’re at least in the ballpark of how you’d feel toward something that is mendokusai.  But I think an explanation for this word requires more analysis in its hidden implication than its projected meaning.

Mendokusai is an adjective.  Something that is mendokusai is characterized by the heavy weight of ugh that drags you down until you’re lying face down on the cold hard floor grumbling inaudibly.  But by describing a task as mendokusai, you haven’t just conveyed the nuisance of all the time and effort that has to go into its completion.  You’ve also implied something about you.

It’s for those nights when you’re craving a steaming bowl of 天ぷらそば (tempura soba) and you have all the ingredients to make it sitting in your kitchen, from the hearty burdock and lotus roots to the thin buckwheat noodles, but for some reason you would rather scarf down four and a half servings of slightly stale Cheerios drowning in nonfat milk, not even the honey nut kind but the crudely bland kind with absolutely no flavor except weirdly a hint of saltiness—and you feel absolutely no shame about it.

Deep, deep, deep down inside your soul, you know you don’t really have a good excuse to whine and complain and not get it done, but it almost feels like you’ve justified yourself when you blame the task for being mendokusai, and not yourself for simply being lazy.  After all, it’s not your fault that the task, by its own design, is mendokusai; you can’t help but succumb to this natural, perfectly healthy aversion to doing it.  You’re only human.

The essence of mendokusai is that with this one word, you can passively express your state of being without specifically articulating your thoughts and feelings.  All of the details of why you feel the way you feel—you’re tired, you’re busy, you’re just not interested—are omitted, yet enough is implied about the situation that you’ve presented a fair case against doing a task you don’t feel like doing at that moment.

Mendokusai lets you run away from having to confront your true feelings, and forgives you for being a flawed human being who lacks the emotional drive to do something feasible, for reasons unspecified but also unnecessary.  It is a subtle affirmation of self-acceptance and self-compassion toward who you are.  I find it profoundly beautiful. Let us all incorporate more glorious moments of mendokusai in our lives, the way we deserve.

Did I just put myself in quotes?  Yes.  I said those things, I have that right.

Thanks for reading yui yaku today.  If you have requests, send them my way and I will try my very best to cover it on a future post.