Lost in Translation: “Malesh” and Other Linguistic Hazards

Culture Lifestyle

Studying a foreign language can sharpen one's appreciation of the deep layers of meaning beneath the words one is accustomed to use casually, without much thought. Conversely, using words casually in that unthinking way can lead to serious misunderstanding, making one keenly aware of the challenges and pitfalls of using a foreign language. Obviously, words can convey more than one meaning, and their meaning can change drastically depending not only on the context but also on the way we say them.

No Worries?

The Arabic word malesh is a perfect case in point. Among the Japanese, this is surely one of most misunderstood words in the Arabic language. The origins of the term are too complex to explain here, but the basic meaning is: "There's nothing to it"; in English, it is widely translated as "never mind." In my native Egypt, we often use it sympathetically, in the sense of "that's tough," or "never you mind," or "there, there." But it also frequently serves as a somewhat terse apology, along the lines of "Sorry!"

Here are two perfectly acceptable examples of the use of malesh.

(A steps on B's foot.)
A: Malesh. [Sorry!]

A: Everything's been going wrong for me lately.
B: Malesh. [Don’t let it get you down.]

For some reason, however, the tendency among native Japanese speakers is to reduce malesh to a single definition, corresponding to the English "never mind" or "don't worry." As a result, one often hears of instances in which Japanese takes offense when someone bumps into them or steps on their toes and then says malesh. They think the offender has just told them, "Don't sweat it."

I actually found myself in the position of mediating a similar misunderstanding between an Egyptian and a Japanese. In this case, it was the Egyptian who took offense, complaining that the Japanese person had refused to apologize, while the Japanese person protested, "I apologized already! What's the problem?" When I heard them both out, I realized that the Japanese person had apologized using the expression sumimasen. The Egyptian, who had just begun learning Japanese, had thought that sumimasen means "excuse me" and nothing else. He believed that gomennasai was the proper way of saying "I'm sorry."

After I explained that sumimasen also meant "I'm sorry," the Egyptian grudgingly relented. Still, he remained peeved, grumbling that the other party "didn't sound very apologetic."

When Tone Trumps Semantics

There is no denying that an unapologetic tone of voice or demeanor can completely strip an apology of its meaning. Occasionally my wife responds to a complaint or criticism of mine by saying, "Okay, okay, I'm sorry!" To my ears, this is not so much an expression of regret as a clear admonition to consider the subject closed or risk a backlash.

At such times, it would be comforting to have someone nearby to utter a sympathetic malesh. (Another good usage example, by the way.)

The point I'm trying to make, in my roundabout way, is that anyone trying to learn a foreign language needs to do a lot more than memorize vocabulary. An understanding of the country's culture and customs is, of course, essential. But one also needs to keep in mind that a given word or expression can convey more than one meaning, and that even the most artful turn of phrase can rub the listener quite the wrong way, depending on one's tone of voice.

As many wise people have remarked, words are like living things. Not only does their usage shift over time but their nuance and impact can change drastically according to the listener and the circumstances.

This is one of the things that makes language so difficult—and so endlessly fascinating.

Arabic Japanese tragedy