Lost in Translation: Love

The unofficial series on translation continues as a newly reworked official series on things lost in translation. Love is universal, or at least it should be, so how can something so universal and simple possibly be lost in translation? That is largely in part because such a word always brings with it an important contextual question: how much love? It is a common need to expand upon just what kind of love and how much is being discussed or conveyed. You love your spouse, and you also love anime, but surely they aren’t the same (unless we’re talking about 2D spouses but let’s not go there).

To begin to understand the Japanese take on love, let us first go to the now famous words of Natsume Souseki, who once said that “I love you,” translated from English into Japanese would be “月は綺麗ですね” which when translated back to English would be “The moon is beautiful, isn’t it?” As you will notice, those are very different sentences. Souseki argued that the reason for such a translation was to reflect the indirectness of words Japanese culture tends to use, and the shyness of its people, in great contrast to the forwardness of such a confession that would be far more common in the West. The idea behind his translation was disregarding the actual words and focusing completely on translating the cultural implication of the words based on matching intended meanings of the different cultures. Thus, when the actual Japanese words of love were spoken directly, they could contain incredible feelings of overflowing love that are not present in English. In other words, due to the indirect style of Japanese speech, speaking one’s feelings directly was far more rare and made for a very large impact, whereas such directness is far more common in English (this culturally applies not just to confessions of love, but extends to many aspects of Japanese life such as agreeing to or refusing a favor).  Of course, when you consider he made this statement over a hundred years ago, certainly the Japanese culture has shifted enough that his translation can no longer be called reasonable, but nevertheless, it is a famous example in the realm of translating with an important lesson regarding the differences in language as a result of culture.

Natsume Souseki featured on the Japanese yen
Natsume Souseki featured on the Japanese yen

So then, what are the direct words of love in Japanese? I’m sure many are familiar with them: 好き (suki), 大好き (daisuki), and 愛してる (aishiteru). From 好き to 大好き and finally 愛してる, there is a progression of the depth of feelings being conveyed, yet oftentimes they are all translated as “love.” The greatest of them, aishiteru, is a word which traditionally is reserved for the highest and most beautiful form of love that one would say exclusively to their life partner (I should mention here that this pertains to the verb aishiteru, and not necessarily the noun form 愛/ai. But as always, context is everything). As a result, it carries a very grandiose implication that might be comparable to the recitation of an entire love poem in English; yet, this is completely lost when the translation is merely “love.” Sometimes the other words are translated as “like” versus “love,” or adjectives are used to help convey the changing depths of the words, but even so, “love” more than fails to capture the implicit meanings carried in Japanese.

In fiction, however, it becomes less clear, especially over the past hundred years as Japan’s own culture has shifted to a more lenient usage of the words as well as direct confessions becoming more commonplace. As this leniency becomes more ordinary, it is increasingly unclear how authors are intending to use the words and what meanings are implicitly being attached, or even how other characters are interpreting the words. This is a result of some authors using it intending its original specialness while many others use it merely to create that overly dramatic atmosphere that fiction loves to depict. Like all words, the more it is used, the less special it becomes. Indeed, rather than trying to read between the lines, perhaps the only real question now is does it even matter anymore? And when such a stance is taken on words which once held such high degrees of love in Japanese, so much less is understood when it is all translated the same way into English – love, a word easily recognizable yet never truly understood without its proper context.

He didn’t understand you

In a similar way, the idea of God’s boundless love has been watered down and lost throughout the time and teachings of the Gospel message. The love of God has been interpreted by many, unfortunately, as love which is most convenient for us. Even worse, for the very same reason that we have no word with the depth and weight of Japan’s aishiteru, the word “love” fails to capture anything closely resembling God’s love which we wish to describe. To begin with, the word by itself is never understood without additional context conveying the strength and amount of love intended. And while the word has been used to convey a wide variety of emotional strength, no doubt the depth of God’s love is the rarest usage. It is no surprise, then, that the declaration of “God’s love” is inherently limited to others’ conceptual understanding of what love encompasses (and this in regards to both the believer and non-believer). Therefore, it is always necessary to clarify what exactly God’s form of love looks like. Like how Japan’s most beautiful love is lost on English listeners without explanation, so is God’s love lost on all who do not receive a thorough explanation.  The next question is of course, what is a detailed explanation of such love? 1st Corinthians is one place in the Bible where we get a detailed glimpse into the shape of God’s love:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. -1st Corinthians 13:4-7

This is a famous passage of love which is often used to ascribe the needed attributes of how love should act and look like. But lately I have felt that sometimes this passage is looked at the wrong way. That is, that love is some kind of checklist and once this passage’s checklist is complete, this is also where love ends. Recently rereading through 1st Corinthians, I came to a different conclusion: that this passage is a description of the bare minimum of love. The description in this passage, I think, is a description of how to begin to love but the most desired form is love is something that is still far greater than this. The Corinthians were, after all, infamous for being some of the most depraved people of the times before converting to Christianity. Thus, I feel this passage is only a guiding post to help them along the right path rather than the final goal. The perfect love of God is so limitless, so incomprehensibly beautiful, that even the greatest, most loving human could only hope to emulate the simplest parts, let alone the Corinthians.

And this is perhaps the most important part. So many “Christians” today are lacking and needing redirection when it comes to what God’s love is for us, for them, for everyone, and how to show and spread it to others. Like the changing Japanese culture’s usage of aishiteru, so too has God’s love been reduced to something easily understood and accomplished. If there were a singular reason (and to be clear, there never is) for all the “bad Christians,” I wonder if it is because they were never taught God’s love in depth. I wonder if God’s love is too often left as just that – love – the true meaning left up to one’s own imagination. And why imagine when it’s so simple to define it as whatever is convenient?  Perhaps the reason hateful “Christians” exist is not that they are hateful, per se, but that they have created their own twisted definitions of love and truly believe such love is God’s love.

But God’s love is not convenient. It is hard, even impossible to love the way God calls us to love. Even so, we as Christians must always strive to reach that unattainable goal of God’s love. In doing so, we can show people the smallest fraction of love which God has for everyone. Where words fail, actions can succeed (to go further, actions can even override words). The question that naturally follows, then, is who should we as Christians love? Well, Jesus answered this very question with the parable of the Good Samaritan. As I briefly explained previously, this parable showed who our “neighbor” was. It was not necessarily our friends, family, and literal neighbors. No, the Samaritans were people hated and reviled by the Jews at the time. Our neighbors, the people who we should love, include the groups or individuals we hate most in this world and ones we consider our greatest enemies. This is difficult beyond comprehension, and I imagine impossible without God’s support to help us love the most difficult peoples in the world.  But that is how God calls us to love, and that is how God has loved us and others.

The Bible often uses a marriage metaphor to describe Jesus and the Church. How fitting then, that the traditionally usage of Japan’s aishiteru was reserved for marital partners. God’s love, the greatest love is beyond what words can describe, but perhaps Japan’s aishiteru is the closest short descriptor we can find (not that I’m aware of any other languages). I won’t tell people to stop start using the word “love” differently, because language cannot and should not be so easily and whimsically changed. It evolves, for better or worse, and using the language of our peers is the most effective form of communication. But let us not forget the depth of God’s love. Let us not forget how beautiful and special the love God has given us and calls us to give to others is. Regardless how the culture around us changes and tries to, intentionally or otherwise, lighten the depth of love, Christians are the ones who must stand up and teach everyone (read: including our own fellow Christians) that God’s love is deeper, wider, and greater than they could ever imagine. God’s love is something we must never allow to be lost in translation of language, culture, or ideals.

5 thoughts on “Lost in Translation: Love

  1. This was absolutely beautiful! My Japanese language teacher is teaching me one phrase a day aside from class. One day, she asked me if I would like to know how to say, “I love you.” She told me “Ashite Imasu” was a different kind of love then I as an American knew. She said it was more like “I’m in love with you”, the love being everlasting, and reserved only for the most important people in your life. She explained that sense it’s such a strong meaning, it’s not used as frequently as I would toss around the english word “love”. Maybe, we should stop using the word love to loosely. I use the word “love” to describe my feeling towards God but then I can turn around and use the same word to describe something so insignificant like a bowl of cereal. We’ve lost a sense of respect in the word love that expresses my true feelings of adoration towards God.

    1. Thank you! Yup, it’s exactly as your teacher said. I really love (oops?) how Japanese has such a special word, reserved for only the most beloved of people. I definitely feel you about our culture using “love” too loosely but at the same time I’m not sure if changing our usage is the right approach. This is more because I advocate using language as its culture uses it, rather than trying to change it our preferences (I’ve noticed arguments can arise simply from unknowingly using words differently)…but that’s a more general rule in contrast to this specific example, and I certainly wouldn’t mind if others started using the word love more strictly ^^

  2. Very interesting stuff! I didn’t know about the distinctions between Japanese words for love. It reminds me a little of the various Greek words for different kinds of love (philia, storge, eros, agape). Makes me wonder whether there are any parallels between the two languages!

    I agree with your observation about our inadequate understanding of the love of God, though I’ve seen many attempts to surmount it. Most often I see Christians pointing to the Cross as a perfect illustration of God’s love, though even that might not be sufficient; it’s challenging to look at Christ’s sacrifice and then have to figure out all the practical ways we’re meant to show that kind of love in our day-to-day lives. I suspect divine charity is too huge and complicated a concept for any word or even image to express, and we need the whole narrative of God and His people just to get the basic gist of it.

    1. Yes, I was reminded of the Greek words for love as well when I was writing this post. Unfortunately, my knowledge of the Greek language stops there, so I have no idea how much the two languages parallel each other. I have, however, just started reading a book on translation of the New Testament’s Greek, so hopefully it will be edifying.

      While I would argue human illustrations are always underwhelming in comparison to the true form of God’s love, I think that honest attempts are all we can really ask of ourselves. But while it may be conceptually beyond us, it practically just comes down to “never stop trying to be a more loving person,” and that, at least, is easy to understand although perhaps quite hard to do.

  3. I translate Japanese manga and books to English for fun and practice, and I find I often have to take a moment to really consider the context if I translate “suki” as “like” or “love”. I usually end up translating “suki desu” as “I love you” if they’re talking to or about a person they’re romantically attracted to, but translate it to “like” if they’re just saying they like a thing. Sometimes the best translation I can come up with for “aishiteru” is something like “I love you so much”.

Leave a Reply