AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Translating Obama into Japanese

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, October 14, 2009

SOME LINGUISTS claim that Japanese rivals English and German in its amenability for incorporating outside influences. Indeed, the Japanese might well surpass native speakers of the other two languages in their ability to borrow words and chop and channel them for their own purposes.

And now comes word that the first faint signs are beginning to appear of Japanese young people importing another word into the language—this one based on the name of the President of the United States.

A contributor to a mailing list for Japanese-English translation that I read reports that the verb obamu is gaining currency on the Kyoto University campus. He writes, “It means something along the lines of, ‘to ignore anything which appears to make you likely to fail or (be) wrong, and blindly surge ahead (preferably chanting, “yes we can, yes we can”)’.” He adds that he heard a friend jokingly try to cheer someone up by saying, “obandoke, omae.” (オバんどけ、お前.)

If I had to translate that on the fly, it would come out something like, “Lighten up and think positive, guy!”

A quick look at the Japanese-language turf on the Internet turns up few examples, but one in particular is meaningful. I found it as an entry dated 22 September in a collection of slang and modern usage put together by the Japanese Teachers’ Network in Kitakyushu. Here’s what they write:

obamu: (v.) To ignore inexpedient and inconvenient facts or realities, think “Yes we can, Yes we can,” and proceed with optimism using those facts as an inspiration (literally, as fuel). It is used to elicit success in a personal endeavor. One explanation holds that it is the opposite of kobamu. (拒む, which means to refuse, reject, or oppose).

They give the following example:

ほら、何落ち込んでいるんだよ。オバめよ、オバめ。

Or, “Hey, why are you so down in the dumps? Cheer up, cheer up!”

That people cite its use in cities as far apart as Kyoto and Kitakyushu suggests some fire might be under those wisps of smoke.

One more Japanese-language citation is from a Twitter tweet, which defines it simply as believing you can accomplish something.

Those familiar with the language will understand immediately that such a coinage would sound very natural, and that it is typical of Japanese creativity and their sense of humor.

I asked my wife, the television-watcher in the family, if she had heard anything about it, but it was news to her.

It remains to be seen whether this word is capable of hitoriaruki (literally, walking alone, or becoming independently viable), and whether the tweety Pollyanna definition or the more pointed Kitakyushu definition become the standard.

But considering the nature of the Internet and the Japanese love of wordplay and new coinages, it shouldn’t be long before we find out.

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20 Responses to “Translating Obama into Japanese”

  1. Bender said

    I thought German tries to translate foreign words instead of just incorporating them, which stance differs from English and Japanese. It took me a while to understand that Fernsehen means TV. It’s like “far-see”, which is what tele-vision means…

    I think modern Japanese- I think it’s the media and the business people that are the problem- incorporates too much foreign words, to an extent that it makes magazine articles and presentation materials difficult to comprehend. And the names of “mansions”! Why are they named so silly?

  2. Ken said

    I do not think Obama is so popular in Japan though,
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/01/23/japanese-use-obamas-speec_n_160260.html#
    ——-
    Ken: That original article came from the New York Times, I think, who are Obama’s biggest cheerleaders.
    There is some popularity, but it looks to me as if it is based on image. They don’t realize his politics are straight 社民党.

  3. dave said

    hope you saw that you got some good publicity in The Atlantic Web site… http://jamesfallows.theatlantic.com/archives/2009/10/to_obama_in_japanese.php

  4. johnnyanoni said

    Have you ran into the word ブッシュる? My friend said it means “to say something stupid” in honour of America’s last president, but I have only ever heard it used by him.

  5. [...] Not only is Obama, Japan, a city of 32,000 people, but now it is a verb, a blogger in Japan said. [...]

  6. [...] I thought that this item from the Ampontan blog, written by a foreigner in Japan, was more fascinating. It is about the way [...]

  7. [...] [...]

  8. [...] The verbing of Obama: A contributor to a mailing list for Japanese-English translation that I read reports that the verb obamu is gaining currency on the Kyoto University campus. He writes, “It means something along the lines of, ‘to ignore anything which appears to make you likely to fail or (be) wrong, and blindly surge ahead (preferably chanting, “yes we can, yes we can”)’.” He adds that he heard a friend jokingly try to cheer someone up by saying, “obandoke, omae.” (オバんどけ、お前.) [...]

  9. [...] has now been rendered a verb. Courtesy of the folks at Visual Thesaurus, and quoting from the blog Japan from the Inside Out: obamu: (v.) To ignore inexpedient and inconvenient facts or realities, think “Yes we can, Yes we [...]

  10. [...] the Japanese have added a new word to their dictionary obamu: (v.) To ignore inexpedient and inconvenient facts or realities, think:  Yes we can. [...]

  11. [...] Ampotan here: obamu: (v.) To ignore inexpedient and inconvenient facts or realities, think “Yes we can, Yes we [...]

  12. Tomohiro machiyama said

    I’m a japanese,but i’ve never heard of the terM “obamu”.
    And I googled the word in Japanese, but found nothing.
    Did you really hear the word in real conversation?

  13. ampontan said

    TM: Thanks for your note.

    Please read this again more carefully.

    I did not say I heard it. I said that someone else heard it, and that it is just getting started.

    Since it is identified as college slang, you probably haven’t heard it unless you’re on a college campus.

    If you Googled the term using “oba” as katakana, you would have found the two citations I mentioned.

  14. [...] on his blog, Ampontan, Bill Sakovich revealed that a new word – Obamu – is catching on among Japan’s youth. Sakovich credited the [...]

  15. [...] Goff and the wondrous practice of obamu Alf picked it up from The New York Times’ Schott’s Vocab, devoted to word and phrases, but Schott picked it up from James Fallows in The Atlantic who picked it up from Amptonan. [...]

  16. [...] “Yes we can!”, the tag line for President Obama’s campaign was chanted by domestic and international supporters. Now the Japanese have translated “Obama” into a word that encompasses the audacity and s… [...]

  17. [...] Anpontan's post about the word “obamu” (オバむ) , a Japanese word play that's a verb form of “Obama”, was picked up by James Fallows at the Atlantic and is making its way across the blogosphere, although very few Japanese people actually seem to have heard of the word, as Daniel Krieger at cnngo reports. Cancel this reply [...]

  18. [...] and absorbing the words of other languages, and lending them their own meaning. The great site Ampontan explains how this affects [...]

  19. I stumbled on your site today and I find it quite interesting. I enjoy the subjects and the way you write.

  20. SarahR said

    Any updates on the use of ‘obamu?’
    ———–
    SR: Thanks for the note.

    No. Apparently just a passing fancy if a few quarters.

    - A.

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