Onomatopoeia are words that phonetically imitate, resemble, or suggest the sound that it describes. In English, onomatopoeia are most commonly the sounds that animals (woof, meow, chirp) or things make (tick-tock, beep, bang). The use of the former can sound rather childish to English-speaking ears, especially since children tend to use them the most. The latter, however, are very familiar and natural to child and adult ears alike.

Just like English, Japanese has onomatopoeia, but divides it into three types: giseigo (擬声語), giongo (擬音語) and gitaigo (擬態語). Let’s take a look at each type and discuss how they present challenges to both the Japanese-to-English translator and editor alike.

Giseigo are onomatopoeia that represent the sounds that animals and humans make. These are relatively easy to translate into English because we have equivalents for them. Examples of this would be wan-wan (ワンワン) for a dog’s bark, nyaa-nyaa (ニャーニャー) for a cat’s meow, and chi-chi (チチ) for a bird’s chirp. The most common giseigo we encounter in our manga are animal sounds, moans, and pants.

Giongo represent sounds made by natural or inanimate objects. These present a little bit more of a challenge for us, since we may be aware of the sounds that they make, but may not have an onomatopoetic equivalent in English. A closing door, for example, would be gatan (ガタン) in Japanese, but we might find ourselves a little stumped for an English equivalent. Some translators opt for shut, but this lacks the onomatopoetic pizzazz that the Japanese has. We may vary what we choose from time to time, but ptmp (or some variant of it) is personally what I prefer.

Gitaigo pose the greatest challenge for us. These are clumped together with onomatopoeia in this post, but do not mistake them as being actual sounds, since they refer to the state or appearance of things or people. Japanese certainly don’t believe that these are the “sounds” that states of objects or people make… at least, as far as I can tell. How would you describe the sound of silence, for example? What about an old, run-down apartment? Japanese would use shiin (シーン) for the former and boro-boro (ボロボロ) for the latter.

These gitaigo are probably the most widely used, and not only describe a state but can also be used to talk about the manner in which something is done (that is, they can act the way an adverb would in English). To list a few:

Pera-pera (ぺらぺら): describes fluent speech. Often translated into English as “fluent”
or “fluently.”

Ira-ira (いらいら): describes a feeling of irritation. Often translated into English as
“irritated.”

Peko-peko (ぺこぺこ): describes a feeling of hunger. Often translated into English as
“hungry.”

The list above is by no means exhaustive. You may have noticed that the examples above are the same word repeated twice. This is probably the most common group of words in the gitaigo group, but you will also encounter many that end with -to, -tto, or -ri in this group: chanto (ちゃんと), properly; sutto (すっと), standing; or bon’yari (ぼんやり), spaced out.

We often have to translate these in roundabout ways that don’t capture the full feeling in Japanese, so as you can imagine, it leaves us feeling like something is missing. We are not perfectionists by any means, but we do strive to capture the feeling as best as we can in our English translations.

Have you learned any fascinating English or Japanese onomatopoeia? Share them with us in the comments below!