🇯🇵 Japanese poetic word – 何気ない nanigenai

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I love my students’ questions. They often give me new perspectives and deeper insights on the subtleties of languages!

Today, I want to share about the Japanese adjective “何気ない” (nanigenai), which I was recently asked about by a student. In English/Japanese dictionary apps, it is translated as “casual, unconcerned, nonchalant,” which isn’t an accurate translation of its true meaning.

This word is a tough one to translate into other languages, and in my opinion there’s no equivalent in English or in French. What is important, is to understand the word’s core meaning, and then we can translate it appropriately in phrases, adjusting to contexts. The Japanese words system and sensitivities are different from English words, so unless we are talking about something concrete like a “table,” it sometimes becomes harder to translate with one word, especially for subjective terms. The translations may even differ significantly depending on contexts, which is sometimes confusing for students. For example, the word 積極的 (sekkyokuteki) is translated as “positive, assertive, proactive, aggressive” which are pretty different. But I’ll talk more about this word in another post. Therefore, I always recommend that intermediate students check the definitions in a Japanese/Japanese dictionary when they don’t understand a word, rather than picking up translations.

Back to our word, “nanigenai” (何気ない) means “with no particular or deep thinking, without paying attention, without showing interest.” It is something that can be “simple, nothing special about, ordinary, not affected,” however none of these words are reflecting exactly the word’s nuance and feeling.

Let’s go over some examples:

何気なく窓から見てみた。Nanigenaku madokara mitemita. (*Here it is used adverbially.)

The meaning is: “I just looked through the window without any purpose.”

何気ない日々に幸せを感じる。Nanigenai hibi ni shiawase wo kanjiru.

The meaning is: “Simple, ordinary days make me feel happy.”

何気ない景色が美しい。Nanigenai keshiki ga utsukushii.

The meaning is: “I see beauty in a scenery that is just simple, that has nothing special.”

彼の何気ない一言が嬉しかった。Kare no nanigenai hitokoto ga ureshikatta.

The meaning is: “What he just said like that, with no deep thoughts made me happy.”

All these translations above are not satisfying, because this feeling and sensitivity don’t really exist in the English concept, in my opinion. The idea is that we appreciate something “simple and subtle,” “that is not flashy,” “that is not affected,” which is a leitmotiv in Japanese language and culture. That’s why 何気ない nanigenai is often used in poetry or lyrics for example. For example, in this song (with English subtitles):

In the song above, it is translated by “ordinary,” which renders the meaning, but not its poetic nuance, because it doesn’t exist in English. It is a word to “feel.” I suggest that you try to feel what it means in this song, or the next time you encounter it somewhere else. 

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