Monday, August 28, 2017

uso 嘘

The word uso うそ, sometimes written in kanji as uso 嘘, is a word that has way too many translations in Japanese to make sense. You see uso translated as "that's a lie!" or "I can't believe" and so on. How is that possible? What does uso really mean in Japanese?

Lie in Japanese

The definition of uso is actually a single one: it means a "lie.

When used in a phrase that allows a simple, direct translation, you can very well see it means a "lie." in Japanese. For example:
  • sore wa uso desu それは嘘です
    That is a lie.

Note that uso doesn't mean "to lie," it means "a lie." It's a noun, not a verb.

However, sometimes uso does get translated as "to lie" even though it's not a verb. This happens because sometimes translators take some liberties with their translations so the phrases sound better in English. For example:
  • uso da 嘘だ
    uso deshita 嘘でした
    [It] was a lie. (literally)
    [I] lied.
    [He] lied.
  • uso darou? 嘘だろう?
    uso deshou? 嘘でしょう?
    [It] was a lie, right?
    [You] are lying, right?
    [He] is lying, right?
  • uso janai! 嘘じゃない
    [It] is not a lie! (literally)
    [I] am not lying!
    [He] didn't lie!

Now, if you don't know anything about Japanese grammar the above examples might look very weird. After all a single phrase got three translations, and honestly could even get more than that if I bothered writing all possible possibilities. But how is such thing possible?

It turns out that in Japanese you don't need to explicitly state the subject of a sentence every single time like we do in English. Most phrases lack a subject because the subject is implicit, that is, you know what the lie is about and who is lying from context.

For example, if someone said you lied and you said uso janai うそじゃない, it clearly means "I didn't lie." Because someone just said you lied, you're clearly denying it, so we can safely translate it as "me, yeah, me, I didn't lie."

Looking from the other side, if you did lie and admit it, uso da うそだ, "it's a lie," can be translated as "I lied," even though there's no word that literally means "I" in the phrase uso da.

Character Usopp from the manga One Piece laughing and saying "it's a lie,"  uso da! うそだ!

And looking from a third side, if someone said someone else lied, a third person, that he lied, and you said uso janai, you're obviously denying that he lied. So, in this case, uso janai gets translated as "he didn't lie."

That's how a simple single phrase with the word uso can get multiple translations from Japanese depending on the context, depending on what was said before the sentence or what happened before it was said.

Uso = I can't believe it?!

Extending on the point above, sometimes the lone word uso can get translated as "I can't believe it." Clearly, this breaks a bunch preconceptions you might have about translation. Because there's no way a single word can mean one personal pronoun, one negative auxiliary verb, one verb and one impersonal pronoun all at once. So how does it work?

Basically, if we take the phrase
  • uso da! 嘘だ!
    It's a lie!

And twist it a bit, we can eventually reach to the translation "I can't believe it." Here's how it would work:
  • uso da! 嘘だ!
    It's a lie.
    = I think it's a lie.
    = I don't think it's true.
    = I don't believe it's true.
    = I don't believe it.
    = I can't believe it!

But why would any sane translator do something like this? Such madness? Such chaos?! Why not just translate as "it's a lie" the way it's supposed to be?

That's because that would suck. Like a lot.

I mean, imagine watching an anime where the bad guy in piloting a giant robot and he just dumped every last bit of his arsenal upon the main character, creating a vast, thick cloud of... explosions... and cosmic stuff. He smirks and thinks he has won and everything. Starts laughing, etc. Then the main character shows up unscathed behind the cliche cloud. The bad guy scream: ussssoooo daaaa!!!! and the subtitles say: "it's a lie."

That would suck. That would really suck. That totally ruins the mood. Spoils the scene. Makes everything worse. That's not a sentence you'd expect the bad guy to utter in such occasion. You want him to go nuts, you want him to express his pure disbelief with words that just come out of his mouth.You don't want him to sound like he's just stating a fact: it's a lie. It doesn't work like that. That sucks.

So that's why a single uso da or can get a number of different translations depending on the situation.
  • uso da! 嘘だ!
    uso darou?! 嘘だろう?!
    uso deshou?! 嘘でしょう?!
    It's a lie!
    That's a lie!
    I'm joking!
    I kid!
    I can't believe it!
    No way!
    That didn't happen!
    Stop lying to me!
    This is impossible!

And so on.

How to Literally Say I Can't Believe It in Japanese

For reference, to say "I can't believe it" in Japanese, literally, you'd say:
  • shinjirarenai 信じられない
    [I] can't believe [it].

You may notice there's no for "I" like watashi, boku or ore in the example above. That's alright. Normally you don't need an "I," people just assume you're saying you "don't believe" because of the context. Also there's no word for "it" in Japanese, that's assumed too.

So shinjirarenai means "can't believe" in Japanese, a negative auxiliary verb and a verb. It might sound weird a single word gets translated as three words all at once, but that's just how verbs work in Japanese.

To Lie in Japanese

To actually say "to lie" in Japanese, as a verb, you'd use uso together with the verb tsuku 吐く, which can mean "to breathe" or "to vomit," two acts where something might come out of your mouth. Basically:
  • uso wo tsuku 嘘をつく
    To lie.
    To tell a lie.
  • uso wo tsuita 嘘をついた
    To have told a lie.
  • uso wo tsuitenai 嘘をついてない
    To not lie.
    To not tell a lie.

There are some other verbs which are related to lying but aren't exactly lying. These are:
  • gomakasu 誤魔化す
    To fool. To trick. To swindle.
  • gomakashita 誤魔化した
    To have fooled. To have tricked. To have swindled.
  • damasu 騙す
    To deceive. To trick.
  • damashita 騙した
    To have deceived. To have tricked.

Character Ozen from manga Made in Abyss saying "I don't like tricking kids" in Japanese: watashi wa kodomo damashi ga kirai nanda 私は子供騙しが嫌いなんだ

Liar in Japanese

Lastly, how to say liar in Japanese, though I'm pretty sure if you watch One Piece you already know. To say "liar," we just use uso wo tsuku, "to tell a lie," and change it a bit to create a noun that expresses the behavior:
  • uso tsuki 嘘つき
    Teller of lies. (literally)

Sometimes the word above gets pronounced slightly differently when used colloquially. Like this:
  • uso tsuke 嘘つけ

So that's everything there's to know about uso in Japanese.


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  1. Though it was noting knew, since I started studying Japanese. I find your articles so entertaining and easy to understand. I just discoverd them and have already read like 5 of them, just because they are so fun to read! Thank you so much for writing them

  2. "Also there's no word for 'it' in Japanese, that is assume too."

    What about "それ" (sore)? Like many things in Japanese, it's not an EXACT translation and depends on context (for instance, it can also be "that" depending on the sentence), but it is the Japanese equivalent in how it's used as far as I can tell.

    1. In English, the word "it" is often added to sentences because of syntactic requirements. The grammar syntax needs you to explicitly say the subject and the object, and "it" is the closest thing to implicit you can have. In Japanese, there's no such grammar syntax requirement, so you can omit the subject and the object, so there's no need in Japanese for this use of "it" to exist, thus, it doesn't exist.

      The gender-neutral "it" or "they" doesn't exist either. You can say sore それ, soitsu そいつ for things, sono hito その人 for people, but those words are closer to "that" than to "it". E.g.: that thing, that one, that person, and so on.

      So I don't think there a word for "it" in Japanese.