Translating Phatic Expressions

Language is complicated, yet somehow, we manage to express infinite meanings with the limited words and sounds in our languages.

But how do you translate a line of dialogue when the words the character is saying don’t actually matter?

Let’s talk about phatic expressions in translation!

(And yes, the Tom Scott video on this is one of my favorites!)

What are phatic expressions?

A phatic expression is a phrase that primarily serves to establish or maintain social relationships.

To put it simple, it’s a phrase you say as shorthand for a social gesture: “I’m listening”, “I’m being polite”, “I’m willing to talk with you right now”.

Let me give you some examples, and it’ll all make a lot more sense.

In American culture, if someone sneezes near you, it’s polite to say “bless you”.

You don’t really MEAN that you want a divine being to grant them a blessing, you’re saying it because it’s polite. You’re showing the other person you’re kind, you’re cool with them, etc.

We use phatic phrases all the time — in fact, they’re usually one of the first things we learn in a language!

Hello! How are you? I’m fine, and you? I’m fine, thank you.

While sometimes, “How are you?” is a genuine expression of concern for someone’s well-being…

…most of the time, we use it as a phatic expression. Think of when you’re paying for something at the grocery store. You’ll probably hear the cashier say “Hi, how are you?” 

Answering that question with anything other than “fine”, “good”, or “okay” — or God forbid, a long sob story about your day — breaks the unspoken laws of social exchange.

Some other common phatic phrases said in American English:

Oh, my God! Holy shit! Jesus Christ!

(Said even by non-believers to express shock or surprise.)

Good morning! What’s up?

(Not actually asking what is up, or that the morning is good.)

Some linguists even consider certain forms of small talk as phatic.

“How about those Mets, huh?”

“Do you come here often?”

“Cold enough for you?”

You don’t particularly want to discuss the weather, you’re picking a common topic to begin conversation.

The message you’re sending is “I want to talk to you!” The words are just the vehicle.

Then there are phatic expressions that serve as an indication that you’re listening. Typically, you say these at the ends of sentences, or pauses in the conversation.



“No way.”

“That’s crazy.”

“He seriously said that?”

There are loads more if you’re like to look them up, but they all have one thing in common: they serve a social function. This pragmatic meaning (what they accomplish in the conversation) is much more important than the semantic meaning of the words they’re saying.

And, as always, the context matters — some phatic expressions can express literal meaning. 

Barry the Bee was starting a conversation with “You like jazz?”, but if I want to buy my dad a present and have a cool jazz CD, I might ask the same question with the purpose of actually gleaning information.

Phatic Expressions and Culture

Phatic expressions in English

Cultural context also matters, even between speakers of English.

For example, in the UK, “You alright?” is a phatic expression used as a greeting, while in the US, it’s interpreted as a genuine expression of concern.

Funnily enough, the same goes for “What’s up?” in the US — UK natives might give a ‘real’ answer.

There can even be cultural gaps between different age groups — here’s one my Mom (Boomer) gets on me (Millennial) about all the time.

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome!” vs. “No problem!”

Boomers are more likely to hear “No problem” as non-phatic, interpreting it as you saying “this was not a problem”, while millennials hear “you’re welcome” as overly formal or sarcastic.

There are some interesting articles about phatic expressions online, too — the message you send when liking a post, or QRTing with “ratio”.

My point is, phatic expressions are deeply tied to culture, like all language — and most languages don’t share phatic expressions between them!

Phatic expressions in other languages

Here are some examples from other languages that are very different from their functional equivalent, “What’s up?”.

 你吃饭了吗? [Nǐ chī fàn le ma?] (Chinese)

Have you eaten?

Hvor’n skær’en? (Danish)

How does it cut?

Hvað segirðú gott

What say you good?

What’s this? Is your translation theory alarm ringing?

Ahhh, it was the word “equivalent”, wasn’t it?

You must’ve thought you’d caught me…

But psych! We’re going to talk about functionalism!

Phatic Phrases in Translation

Functionalism is a concept in translation theory that focuses on, well, the function of the text.

Instead of asking “what does this mean”, we ask “what is the FUNCTION?”

What is this bit of text attempting to achieve?

Why did the author put this text here?

(For my nerdier followers out there still eyeing the word “equivalence” — yes, this was built off Nida’s concept of equivalence, by theorist Katharina Reiss! It views text at the level at which communication is achieved, and defines a successful translation as one that achieves equivalent function.)

Functionalist approaches to phatic phrases work really well, because phatic phrases aren’t about their MEANING, they’re about their FUNCTION in social settings or building relationships.

With that in mind, let’s walk through an example.



Even if you haven’t taken a Japanese class, if you’ve watched enough anime, you might know the meaning of this one!

Good morning!

If we want to translate the literal meaning of おはよう, well…


(Comes from お早くからご苦労様でございます, lit. “Thank you for your hard work so early.”)

It’s about as interesting as insisting on the literal meaning of “good morning”. Is it a good morning? Not for most people who have to be up at 6 AM.

Instead, let’s examine the function of telling someone おはよう in the morning.

It’s a phrase, typically used before 12 PM, used to begin a social interaction between the speaker and the receiver.

What’s a phrase we have in English that achieves the same function? You guessed it.

Hold that thought for a moment. “Typically.”

Here’s a scene from Tokyo Mew Mew New (Ep. 6) where おはよう is used in a much different context:

The girls have dressed up as performers to sneak into a recording studio late at night. Every time they pass someone, they say おはようございます, and the staff reply with the same phrase.

Tricky, tricky — the phatic phrase is also used by coworkers to greet one another at the start of their shift, regardless of the time of day!

Even if you didn’t know that, it’s clearly nighttime when the girls are trying to sneak in. Translating it as “good morning” wouldn’t work, because in English, we only use that phrase when it’s morning.

So, we rely on functionalism — what’s a phrase with equivalent function?

How would performers greet staff members in English? What phatic phrase would they use?

Here’s what I picked.

The translation (“Hello!”) functions the same way as the source (おはよう).

You could say, this translation just -works-!

Now that we’ve walked through an easy example, let me list a few of my favorite phatic phrases in both English and Japanese, and discuss how we might translate them.


Hey! おい!

used to attract attention; express surprise, interest, or annoyance

Ouch! いた!

used to express pain

Oh! あっ!

used to express emotion, such as surprise or desire; or in response to stimuli

Ooh! わぁ!

used to express amazement, joy, or surprise

Huh. へー

used to express interest or mild surprise in topic of discussion

Uhh… ええと…

used to signal the speaker is pausing to think but is not finished speaking

Many newbie translators make the mistake of transliterating these phatic phrases instead of translating them — “waa”, “oi”, ah!”, etc.

It’s important to remember that these phatic sounds don’t necessarily function equivalently in the target language or context — “Oi!” can evoke Cockney or Aussie vibes that can sound very out of place; “Wah” evokes Waluigi, as per this unfortunate scanlation:


In Japanese, repetition is used phatically, and quite often!

This means that the speaker repeats something, but they don’t literally mean the phrase they’re saying; they’re repeating it with the intent of encouraging the other person to elaborate, or continue speaking.



In English, we don’t typically use repetition phatically, at least not to the extent that Japanese does. That’s why, when translated literally, it can sound a bit silly. 

I bought a book.

A book?

(Of course, sometimes, this is how it’s intended in the source!)

This can make it sound like you’re surprised, or want to know if you misheard them.



I bought a book.

You did? / What book? / Is that right?

Here, the intent comes through clearly — you want the person to continue the conversation. You are listening.


Here’s where things get tricky. Ask any translator about the following phrases, and they’ll probably groan and say they’re always tricky to translate.

The tip for translating phatic phrases is, of course, to consider how they’re functioning! Why is the character saying it? What are they trying to achieve? Why is the author having the character say it there?

First, our favorite: よろしく(お願いします).

Yoroshiku is the conjugated form of よろしい, which means “good” or “appropriate”.

It has multiple phatic functions depending on the context, but typically expresses:

1. positive social intent towards the receiver

2. a desire for the receiver to act with positive social intent towards the speaker

Here are a few examples of how よろしく translates differently depending on phatic function:

A very famous yoroshiku from Summer Wars.
  1. カトリーナです。よろしくお願いします。

My name is Katrina. [Yoroshiku.]

Here, the phrase functions to establish a positive social relationship between myself and the receiver, whom I’ve never met before. Depending on the context, we could go with…

“Nice to meet you.”

“Well met.”

“Great to e-meet you.”

[or even omit it!]

2. 例の知らせ、よろしくお願いします。

About that notice, [yoroshiku].

Here, we’re expressing desire for the receiver to do something inferred about the ‘notice’. It’s a request, not a statement. In English, we typically express requests as questions.

“Could you handle that notice?”

“Would you mind taking care of that notice?”

(Here’s how that line was handled in Summer Wars:)

3. ダンさんによろしくお伝えください。

Please tell Dan [yoroshiku].

Here, we want the receiver to express positive social intent to Dan.

(In other contexts, it might be a request — always figure out what the correct function is before translating!)

“Tell Dan I say hi!”

Here’s a list of common phatic phrases in Japanese you’ve probably heard of before.

Like よろしく、 they can be translated many different ways, depending on how they function in context.











If you thought よろしく was tricky, it’s time to dial things up a notch, because these tricky phrases can trip up even more experienced translators.

Why, you might ask? A few reasons:

  • they’re very simple
  • they have more specific functions
  • they appear very frequently
  • amateur translators often mistranslate them in fan translations, normalizing them in niche circles

Let’s start with this easier example.

あのう “Anou…”

We typically see this used two different ways in dialogue:

  • to signal the speaker is pausing to think but is not finished speaking
  • to initiate a conversation with another person

It’s easy to fall into the trap of translating it as “um” or “excuse me” without a second thought, but consider the plethora of similarly-functioning phatic phrases in English that may fit the character or context better:

As filler:

uh, well, like, you know, I mean, okay, actually, basically

As initiation:

hey, hello, oh, hi

Here comes two more phrases you’ve seen a million times, and likely not given too much thought to:


How often have you translated these as “I see” without thinking twice?

There’s a reason you see these so often — they’re phatic, and function to signify the listener’s attention, understanding, sympathy, or agreement, rather than convey significant information. This is also called backchanneling, or aizuchi (相槌).

We backchannel in English, too — so let’s find functional equivalents.

Here’s another you see often in anime and manga, particularly in dramatic, shocking, or sad turns of events:


Literally, it means “that kind of” or “such”, but phatically, it’s used to express shock or sorrow in response to information or an event perceived to be negative. 

Luckily for us, we’ve got a whole plethora of English equivalents we can use.


No way!

That’s horrible… / awful… / so sad…

I can’t believe it…

He wouldn’t…

Oh, no…

Oh my God…

And finally, the bane of my existence, the phatic phrase that ruins my day every time I see it translated literally:



それは… is a phatic phrase, used to respond to a question or statement and express hesitation.

The それ is a reference to the question or statement, with the implication that there is an explanation or answer (the は particle). 

The contraction “That’s…” does not function in the same way in English, so translating it that way is incorrect.

English has plenty of phatic phrases, words, or even sounds that can be used to express hesitation in a response:


About that…




[Speaker’s name]…



You also have the option to omit the equivalent entirely, instead expressing the hesitation in the response itself.

“Why is there a $10K charge on our credit card?”

“That’s…” “I bought the blu-ray for Inukai-san.”


“I might have…” “…bought the blu-ray for Inukai-san.”

We’ve covered a lot of ground here, so let’s wrap things up by returning to functionalism and improving translation quality.

Language is complicated. Nothing exists in a bubble.

Even the simplest phrases — many of them phatic — can have wildly different meanings and functions depending on their context.

When it comes to prose, there’s a lot more context to think about. On top of thinking about why Character A is saying this phrase to Character B, we also have to think about authorial intent.

Why did the author use this phrase? What does this choice say about Character A, or their relationship with Character B? Is this phrase important to the plot? To the aesthetic of the work as a whole?

It’s easy to translate phatic phrases the same way you’ve always translated them — じゃあね as “See you later”, それは… as “That’s…”

But by doing that, you’re missing out on the whole point of prose. There’s so much more to those phrases — why disregard that for the sake of ease?

Think about how to express equivalent function in your target language. How would you make it sound natural in context? For the character? For the work as a whole?

それじゃあ can be so much more when you take all that into consideration:

“I should get going.”

“Until the morrow.”

“Welp. (slaps knees)”

In Conclusion

  • Phatic expressions are everywhere, especially in prose.
  • Think about the function of the phrase before you translate it.
  • Make sure your translation functions equivalently.

ATA63 (2022) Presentation

I was lucky enough to have ATA63 in my backyard this year — and be selected to present at this prestigious convention!

(033) Getting Unstuck: Using Translation Theory to Get Out of Tough Situations in Media Localization

Everyone gets stuck while translating, but movies, games, and other audiovisual media pose even more challenges that can turn a little pothole into a huge sinkhole. Translation theory can be the rope ladder that leads you to a solution! Join the speaker, an audiovisual translator, as she reviews critical concepts in translation theory and how to apply them to sticky situations in movie and game localization with Japanese to English examples.

View and download the presentation– click here. (229MB — contains video examples)

Terminology Management 101: Yes, you need a term base!

A splash image with a green background, a screenshot of a term list, and large text that reads:
You need to make a term list. Every project. Every show. Every game. No exceptions.

Let’s talk terms.

Anime, manga, game, and light novel translators, we need to talk.
Y’see, there’s something very, very important a lot of ya’ll aren’t in the habit of doing.
Sit down and let’s talk… about terminology management.

What is terminology management?

Simply put, it’s writing down frequently used words and phrases that need to be translated the same way every time. 

You might’ve heard it called a glossary, dictionary, term list, term base, cheat sheet, etc.

Why is terminology management so important? Well…

  • It saves you time searching for words later.
  • if you leave the project or get hit by a bus, the next TL on the project will love you.
  • If they decide to make a second season ten years down the line, you won’t have to dig through old shit to find stuff.
  • It makes you look hella professional.
A man in a hospital bed is comforted by a nurse standing at his side. Text is placed above the image.
Nurse: Sir, you've been in a coma for ten years.
Translator: Oh man, I hope the person who covered for me kept my term list updated while I was out.

Through the lens of translation theory, maintaining consistent terminology is important to creating equivalent experience. Using inconsistent translations creates more work on the part of the reader.

Imagine if a game used three different words to refer to the same skill. You’d be distracted, annoyed, frustrated, or confused. It’s the same concept!

“But Katrina”, you say, “I’ve already got a term list!”

What you’ve got is a great start! But I’m willing to bet a few things:

  • You haven’t written down every single one.
  • You don’t always jot down all the info for every term.
  • Your term list isn’t easy to search.

It’s not your fault — very few companies require us to provide full term lists, and those that do don’t really check to make sure we’ve done a really thorough job. And unless you took classes on translation in school, you’ve never been taught how to organize terminology.

So today, I’m gonna show you how to:

  • identify which words or phrases are terms
  • pick which information to write down
  • organize your terms to make them easy to reference later
  • look extremely professional and boost your worth
A comparison meme showing drug addicts' before and after images. On the left is a woman who has been negatively affected by alcohol use. On the right is a man who has been positively affected by terminology management.

Let’s start off with the most important question: how can you tell what’s a term? What needs to get written down, and what can you ignore?

I’ll keep things simple here, but this answer can get mega complicated. Some linguists have PhDs in Terminology, and there are careers in terminology management!

What is a term?

If a source word, phrase, or idea must be translated with the same target word, phrase, or idea every time it appears in the target text, then it is a term.

Let’s go down the list of categories from most to least obvious. I’ll add my tips for what to add.

Proper Nouns

Her comes our most obvious category: Proper Nouns.

If it’s capitalized in the English translation, then it probably belongs on your term list. 

Screenshot from Etrian Odyssey Nexus. Mueller says "Welcome to the Maginian Explorers Guild. I trust your presence means you're hoping to reach Yggdrasil?"
Can you guess Which Words here are terms?

🧑Character Names👧

Every single name that appears in the translation, from main characters to the rando that’s named exactly once. Why?

  • Weird kanji readings
  • You have to give a name to every balloon/line in your deliverable
  • Named rando could be important one day
A screenshot of the Kageki Shojo termbase showing only names with the type Character. Comment text reads: Out of 140 terms, 90 are character names. Some have only shown up once as part of a list of actresses in a production, but you never know when they will pop up again.

✏ Biggest tip on character terms:

Put a few words about their description in the definition. My go-to is hairstyle and one identifying mark, like a scar, hair accessory, speech quirk, etc. 

Screenshot from the Super HXEROS manga. Three generic anime girls are walking and talking in Japanese. An overlaid screenshot shows how two characters' names and descriptions were added to the term list: "Kirara's friend. Mid-length dark hair in a bob, girly. Dating a girl." "Kirara's friend. Short dark hair. Sporty."

🏫 Place Names 🏢

If a place has a name, it goes in the

  • Towns, Cities, Countries, Kingdoms
  • Schools & Companies
  • Government Offices or HQs
A screenshot of a Japanese school website. Overlaid text states: "Kouka School of Musical and Theatrical Arts. Term list kept me from translating it as "of Music and Theater" a few times. The anime committee made a whole fake school website!"
⚔ Groups, Monsters, Items, and Oddities 📐
  • Club vs. Team for 部
  • Councils, Committees, administrative groups (Dueling Committee)
  • Monster names or races
  • Items, minerals, chemicals, magic, you name it!

📚Lore, Nicknames, Catchphrases💭

  • Anything specific to the lore that needs to be translated consistently.
  • Catchphrases
  • Nicknames: Super easy to forget.
    • Example below is from Grimoire from Zero. This guy gets a nickname in 103, then shows back up in 108. Glad I wrote it down!
A screenshot from Grimoire of Zero. The subtitle reads "I talked things out with Dog-face". A screenshot of the term list entry is placed below.

🧙‍♂️Spells, Skills, and Mechanics🦸‍♀️

  • Spells – single-word and full phrase
  • Skills – same thing
  • Game mechanics (chihayafuru, long-shot card)
A screenshot from Chihayafuru Season 1. The subtitle reads "Now Mashima, you got the six-syllable cards, the long-shot cards." A screenshot from the term list for the entry "long-shot cards" is below.

Borrowed Source Words

If you’re not translating a word from the source and borrowing it into the translation, then add it to the translation. It needs to be translated consistently, after all!
A screenshot from Kageki Shojo. The subtitle reads "Winter Troupe, Top Otoko-yaku: Sei Satomi". Below the text is a screenshot of the entries for "otoko-yaku" and "musume-yaku" from the term list.

👑Titles, Honorifics, and Forms of Address🙇‍♂️

  • Military titles and ranks
  • Translations for honorifics (先生, 殿, etc), especially when specific to certain characters (Professor, Doctor, Lord, Sir etc.)
  • What one character calls another consistently (Master, Milord, Ser, etc.)
A screenshot from Vermeil in Gold. The subtitle reads "Most likely because you are failing all nine subjects, Young Master." Young Master is highlighted, and a screenshot of the term entry is placed below.

💁‍♂️Frequently Used Phrases🎮

  • The stat blocks you see used in isekai anime – they’re all formatted consistently!
  • Canned phrases, transformation calls, quotes.
    • One famous example you may know: “In the name of the moon, I’ll punish you!”
  • Scenes referenced often
    • Some shows really like to keep going back to a certain scene or quote. Instead of having to look it up every goddamn time, you can place the whole thing in a term!
A screenshot from Chihayafuru Season 2. The subtitle reads "Back when you and I played karuta in that old apartment..." The quote from the scene referenced is shown in a screenshot of the term list tab "Flashback Lines", with the comment text "The quote from that old apartment shows up every few episodes."

These categories cover a lot of what should be on your term list, but you may encounter terms that don’t quite fit!

Remember the golden rule: if this word or phrase should be translated with the same words every single time, PUT IT ON THE TERM LIST!

A screenshot from Chihayafuru. The subtitle reads "I'm playing Taichi in an official match." Below, a screenshot from the term list reads: "A karuta match takes place during a karuta competition." The words 'match' and 'competition' are capitalized.

That golden rule crosses off a lot of things that shouldn’t be on your term list.

Japanese words you just can’t seem to remember? Write a note elsewhere.

Accents or tones of voice for a character belong in a Style Guide. Alternatively, put them in the note/description for the character.

That’s a great segue into my next segment…

What information do you need
for each term?

Simple answer is: whatever will help you look up the term in the future!

You can get very complex with this — modern translation tools have all sorts of options. Here’s what memoQ’s term base editor looks like.

A screenshot of memoQ's term base editor screen.

First, the basics: the source term and the target term. Duh.

  • Don’t include articles (a, the)
  • Singular, unless plural is the only form (例: The Killers).
  • If a term has multiple translations, separate with a semicolon.
Screenshot of a term list. The term "stats" and "statistics" is separated by a semicolon.
From Reincarnated as a Sword.

Next up: The reading for the source term, if applicable.

Why do I do this? Because it’s easier to search for readings when:

  • terms have obscure kanji in them
  • terms have uncommon or completely made-up readings
  • you don’t have the script and only heard the audio
  • you only remember part of the term

(It’s also a good learning exercise.)

A screenshot of a term list. Between the Japanese word and English word, a column types out the readings for each word in hiragana.
From Reincarnated as a Sword.

First Appearance (Episode, Volume, Chapter, Page)

This helps out if you ever need to remember when or where something appears for the first time, like characters or important scenes for flashbacks.

I can’t count the number of times this has helped me, and it takes only a few extra seconds.

A screenshot of a term list for a manga series. After Japanese and English columns, there are two columns, one for volume and one for page.
From Kageki Shojo.

Next, a description or comment column. You can keep it simple or get detailed.

Personally, I’ll use it for:

  • quick appearance description
  • puns or references
  • translation notes for my editor
A screenshot of a term list. Next to English terms, a large description column details information about each term, including physical descriptions, explanations of puns, and notes to the English editor.
From Super HXEROS.

Category: Not 100% necessary for smaller lists for one-off TV shows or features, but a must-have for long lists or game titles.

Some sample categories:

  • Character
  • Monster
  • Lore
  • Weapon / Item
  • Spell / Skill
Screenshot of a term list. In order, it lists Japanese word, English word, volume and page, description, then category. The categories shown are School, Drama Term, Character, and Show Lore.
From Kageki Shojo.

Those cover the basics, but you can always add more info columns as need be. I sometimes have:

  • Context: How a word has been used in a sentence or in context
  • Image: Worth a thousand words of description!
  • Reference Link: Useful when you’re always looking something up, or if your editor might appreciate extra information.
A screenshot from Kageki Shojo. The subtitle reads "Maybe I'll save you a primo seat in the SS section". Below, a screenshot of the term list details the Japanese and English term, the volume and page, a description and category, and finally, a link to the Takarazuka wiki's explanation on seat sections.

Conclusion (and grab my template!)

My last tip for term management: do whatever is best for you, your team, and your project. Whether that means adding columns, forgoing categories, using tons of tabs for images, anything — as long as it helps you and your team stay consistent and provide a quality translation.

Oh, and you can grab the basic template that I use right here! Find it on Google Drive at this link.

Screenshot of the Excel template for the term list, linked above with the text "this link".

Happy term managing!

P.S. 1: Term Extraction or How to Find Terms from Legacy Material

For Arifureta and Reincarnated as a Sword, I wasn’t provided with a term list, despite the source material having many volumes published already! I went through the LN and did a full Term Extraction:

  • Read through the original text.
  • If a word looks like it should be a term, write it down.
  • Later, when translating, match JP words to the EN word and fill in the term accordingly.
Screenshot from the light novel for Reincarnated as a Sword. Every proper noun is highlighted, and boy, are there a lot of them.

P.S. 2: Times I was Saved by the Term List

My dedication to keeping good term lists has saved my dumb butt in lots of situations.
Here are a few I remembered while working on this guide:

SELECTION PROJECT: Never remembering how to read 力弥 because he only appeared a handful of times. Every time I had to write his name in as the speaker, I could just search “dad” and boom! There that rascal was.

KAGEKI SHOJO: Completely translating a scene wrong because I got the twins mixed up. Later, some dialogue seemed weird, so I went back to my term list. Surprise! Wrong twin! No wonder that made no sense.

SUPER HXEROS: Forgetting which female friend is which in Hime’s random side stories. Most of the time when they pop up, no one says each other’s name, but I gotta put a name down. I can search “friend” and look at the descriptions to remind me who’s who.

Obligatory Self-Promotion

Need a terminology hero? I’d love to bring my brand of quality localization to your next JA>EN project! Contact me now and we’ll work something out.