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.
“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.
“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!
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.
🙋♂️ PHATIC SOUNDS AND WORDS 💥
used to attract attention; express surprise, interest, or annoyance
used to express pain
used to express emotion, such as surprise or desire; or in response to stimuli
used to express amazement, joy, or surprise
used to express interest or mild surprise in topic of discussion
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.
(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.
🦜PHATIC PHRASES 💬
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:
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.”
“Great to e-meet you.”
[or even omit it!]
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:)
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.
💢COMMONLY MISTRANSLATED PHATIC PHRASES💥
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.
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:
uh, well, like, you know, I mean, okay, actually, basically
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.
That’s horrible… / awful… / so sad…
I can’t believe it…
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:
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)”
- Phatic expressions are everywhere, especially in prose.
- Think about the function of the phrase before you translate it.
- Make sure your translation functions equivalently.