How Do You Say 'Snafu' In Japanese?

How Do You Say 'Snafu' In Japanese?

7:02pm May 14, 2015

The Senate looks ready to move ahead with trade legislation, after a daylong delay that the Obama administration repeatedly described as a "snafu."

"These kinds of procedural snafus are not uncommon," said White House spokesman Josh Earnest after Democrats held up the bill, which would give President Obama authority to expedite passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Asked if the administration had to do some hand-holding with 11 other countries taking part in trade negotiations, Earnest confessed, "I don't know how 'snafu' translates into a variety of Asian languages."

Luckily, in Washington, D.C., diplomats and language scholars are just a phone call away.

"Maybe in Japanese, you would say konran shita," said Ken Knight, coordinator of the Japanese language program at American University. The phrase means "confused" or "convoluted."

"There's another word that you might use which is mecha kucha," Knight added. "Mecha kucha means, roughly, 'messed up.' Mecha kucha is more slang, so it probably has a little stronger feel to it."

Australian trade negotiators might substitute the slang term "ballsed up," while Spanish speakers from Chile, Mexico or Peru might use a word like bodrio.

Snafu, of course, is military slang from World War II — an acronym for "Situation Normal, All [let's say Fouled] Up."

Implicit in snafu is a uniquely American nonchalance. The sense that fouled up situations are nothing out of the ordinary isn't easy to translate.

"I don't think 'snafu' or even the concept has made its way into the Japanese culture," Knight said.

He points to another useful Japanese phrase, though: wabi sabi. It refers to an appreciation of imperfection, in a work of art, or perhaps the U.S. Congress.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

We're going to take a moment now to consider the word snafu. It came up yesterday after Democrats blocked a bill that provided President Obama a path for a big Asia-Pacific trade deal. White House spokesman Josh Earnest was philosophical about the whole thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSH EARNEST: These kinds of procedural snafus are not uncommon.

BLOCK: Today, Earnest was asked if the White House had to do some handholding with the other countries involved in the trade talks.

EARNEST: I don't know how snafu translates into a variety of Asian languages.

BLOCK: So we asked NPR's Scott Horsley to pull out the Rosetta Stone.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Luckily, we're in Washington D.C., where diplomats and language scholars are just a phone call away.

KEN KNIGHT: Maybe in Japanese, you would say konran shita.

HORSLEY: Ken Knight runs the Japanese program at American University. His translation, konran shita, means confused or convoluted. Snafu, of course, is military slang from World War II, an acronym for Situation Normal All, let's say, Fouled Up. Australian trade negotiators might say ballsed up, while Spanish speakers from Chile, Mexico or Peru might use a word like...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Bodrio.

HORSLEY: Knight says the air of resignation implied by normal in snafu doesn't really translate.

KNIGHT: I don't think snafu or even the concept has made its way into the Japanese culture.

HORSLEY: Knight offers another Japanese phrase, though, wabi sabi. It suggests an appreciation of imperfection, as in a work of art or the U.S. Congress. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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