One experience that has stuck with me was an evening when my wife and I were getting dinner with a couple of coworkers of hers who are from Israel. The conversation turned to halva, a dessert popular in many countries, including Israel, and my wife — a fond lover of puns — mentioned that they should have a brand of halva called “Halva Nagila,” after the Israeli folk song “Hava Nagila.” They both briefly stopped and kind of stared into the middle distance before going “…OH, okay, now I get it.” Apparently, in Hebrew, the two words do not sound similar in the same way that they do in English.
At the same time, though, I’ve had plenty of experiences with this phenomenon in Japan, with English. Even back in 2005, during a study abroad program…
…the school festival that fall had the theme of “All You Need is Laugh,” which sounds obviously strange in English simply because the parts of speech don’t really work, but it’s less obviously so in Japanese, partially because the subtle distinction of why “laugh” sounds weird there isn’t intuitive (“laugh” can be a noun, but “laughter” would be more natural here), and also because the vowel sounds of “love” and “laugh” both reduce to the same equivalent sound in Japanese.
Here’s a product with a name I’m really fond of!
The Japanese word for mackerel is saba, and in Japanese, “v” sounds are generally reduced to “b” sounds because “v” isn’t a sound native to the language. The result: canned mackerel with the name “ça va?” (“how’s it going?” in Spanish).
Here’s a unique foodstuff with a unique name:
Unsurprisingly, “New Yolk” is meant as a play on “New York,” and I can’t really fault them for going with a name like that. Incidentally, I can’t let this go by without noting that the sign in the bottom right advertises “the world’s hardest-to-eat hot dog,” and the sign in the top right suggests that they may have a strong claim to the title.
This one takes advantage of different naming conventions in Japan:
In Japan, it’s very common for a business to put what kind of business it is at the beginning of the name, rather than optionally at the end, like in English (i.e. something like “Ramen Ichiro” is far more common in Japan, instead of something like “Ichiro’s Ramen” that would be more natural in English). In this case, it’s a bar with what appears to be a finance motif — a web search suggests that they have big-screen TVs inside over the bar showing some sort of data visualizations — and even though the logo is clearly a line chart, I couldn’t help but absolutely love the way the name works.
Sometimes, though, the wordplay can work just as well in both languages!
This restaurant is named for the fact that it’s run by the Iwai family, and because the restaurant specializes in hamburgers, steak, and other “American” foods, they wanted an “American-sounding” name, so they went with “E.Y.’s,” not because the letters stand for anything in particular, but because it sounds like “Iwai.”
Finally, we have one more that I’m honestly not sure about!
I love this name, but I don’t actually know if it’s meant to be a play on The Da Vinci Code or not! Is it a clever pun in English, or is it a play on the tendency of many Japanese speakers to de-voice voiced consonants at the end of some loanwords (i.e. “bed” becomes “bet,” or “bag” becomes “bak”)? Or maybe the owner just likes Leonardo da Vinci? It remains a mystery. The coats in the window looked quite nice, though.
Hello! I’m Greg, an American who has lived in Japan since 2008. I have a tremendous fondness for both reading and writing, which helps out quite a bit in my work as a translator: after all, at its core, the job is built on writing. I’ve always been fascinated with languages, and how they can differ in how they treat even seemingly basic, fundamental things. In particular, there are many common Japanese words that have no good English equivalent, so finding a good way to translate them can be a really interesting challenge.
My other hobbies include cooking (Serious Eats is one of my favorite websites, and I cook dinner from scratch nearly every evening), playing games with friends (both tabletop and video games), calligraphy (both English and Japanese, filling an A6 page with some sort of calligraphy practice every day for the past few years), photography, and a long-held interest in computers (as a teenager, I installed operating systems recreationally).
I also drink too much oolong tea.