The translation process is rarely straightforward – it’s more like a giant obstacle course filled with cultural gaps, linguistic pitfalls, risky assumptions, and more. It’s a constant learning process that often includes learning things the hard way.
In this third Tricky Translations article, we’ll take a brief look at the concept of “false friends” and then focus on one tricky Japanese word in particular: “hip”.
If you’ve ever studied a foreign language, you’ve probably encountered a “false friend” at some point. Basically, false friends are words that seem similar between two languages, but are actually very different.
An easy example of a false friend is the Japanese word manshon. This term comes from the English word “mansion”, so if you heard someone say manshon in Japanese, you’d instinctively want to translate it as “mansion”, right?
But you’d be wrong. A manshon in Japanese is actually a type of apartment or condominium building:
And for comparison, here’s what a mansion looks like in English and in Japanese:
As we can see above, the original word “mansion” is sometimes displayed in English on Japanese signs and advertisements. This happens a lot with false friends and just adds more to the confusion when jumping between languages.
Another common false friend in Japanese is the word tenshon, which supposedly comes from the English word “tension”. But unlike the English word, which generally refers to negative things like strain, tenseness, or anxiety, the Japanese word refers to almost the opposite: energy, excitement, peppiness, or a raring-to-go attitude.
These are just a couple common Japanese/English false friends, though. There are many more out there, and I hope to cover some of them in future articles.
Translators can make false friend mistakes due to inexperience, stressful situations, or slipping into “auto-pilot mode”. When it comes to entertainment translation, false friend mistakes tend to lead to minor confusion. But in other fields, false friends can have serious consequences:
In 1980, medical personnel in a Florida emergency room mistakenly translated the Spanish “intoxicado” as the seemingly similar “intoxicated” (i.e., by drugs or alcohol) rather than as “food poisoned.” This error resulted in delays in critical care that left a Cuban-American boy a quadriplegic. It caused anguish not only to the patient and his family and friends, but also to the hospital community. It also cost the hospital system a $17 million lawsuit. (Full article)
In short, false friends are tricky and easy to mishandle in translation, and they can lead to a wide range of unpredictable outcomes.
Similar to the “tension” example above, there’s another Japanese false friend that often gets missed in translation: “hip”.
In English, “hip” and “hips” are defined as “a projection of the pelvis and upper thigh bone on each side of the body in human beings and quadrupeds”. Some examples of hips:
Another way to put it: if you were to hit someone with your hip in English, you’d be hitting them with the side of your body.
In Japanese, “hip” can mean “hip” the way it’s used in English. But in everyday use, “hip” in Japanese almost always refers to the buttocks:
In other words, if you were to hit someone with your hip in Japan, you’d be hitting them with your butt. In fact, the “Hip Attack” is a common Japanese wrestling move:
Of course, the English “hip” and Japanese “hip” refer to a similar body area, so leaving the word as “hip” in translation probably isn’t a huge deal. At worst, it’d probably lead to minor confusion and funny misunderstandings. Still, accuracy is important in translation, no matter how minor an issue might be.
The above “hip” examples are mostly for beauty products, but the word regularly appears in Japanese entertainment too. In video games, “hip” usually appears as part of a butt-related attack name, like “Hip Attack” or “Hip Drop”.
Due to the false friend problem, however, this “hip” often gets left as-is:
Hip-related terms appear in a lot of Japanese Nintendo games too. Usually these names get localized into things like “Ground Pound” or “Smash Attack”, but not always:
And there are other times when “hip” isn’t part of an attack name but still gets translated as “hip”:
This false friend problem with the word “hip” is so common in games that fan sites include notes like this:
Throughout the Smash games (Melee to Ultimate), in-game descriptions have had Peach Bomber described as a hip bash. However, Peach is actually striking with her buttocks.
Basically, this is all to show that while the “hip” issue is an easy one to recognize and isn’t a huge deal for fans, it’s also one of the most common false friend problems in Japanese-to-English entertainment translation.
I was lucky to learn about this false friend early on in my studies, but it makes sense why it’s such a pesky problem. False friends aren’t heavily covered in school, and different dictionaries handle the word “hip” differently. Even the same dictionary can give very different definitions!
Between the widespread practice of leaving “hip” untranslated, and the formal introduction of the “Hip Attack” name in other fields like wrestling, I’m sure we’ll continue to see Hip Attacks and Hip Drops in all sorts of entertainment.
In a way, the word “hip” is being slowly re-imported back into English. As an example, if you watch Japanese shows or play Japanese games, you’re probably already used to “hip” being used in the “buttocks” sense. Or if you’re into beauty products, you’ve probably run across “hip” items that are clearly butt-related.
In any case, hopefully this was a helpful look at an overlooked translation obstacle, and why sticking too close to source text can backfire during translation. Plus, maybe years from now, when everyone is suddenly trying to “hip up” their butts in English, you’ll already be ahead of the curve.