Word Wise: Get a Grip

把握 (Haaku)

By Richard Medhurst

Some words look straightforward enough in the context of a Japanese sentence, but are not always easy to translate. Take 把握, consisting of two kanji meaning to “grip” or “grasp.” This latter word, “grasp,” is a common J-E dictionary entry for 把握 as it has the same connection with physically holding and mentally knowing, but it has limited application compared with the Japanese term. Another common suggestion, “understand,” certainly works at times, but may leave a feeling of something lacking.

With 顧客ニーズの把握, “understanding customer needs” seems fine most of the time. However, when a politician talks about 被害状況の把握 after a disaster, “understanding the extent of damage” might be strengthened a little. Consider that 把握 means しっかりと理解する. Some possibilities are “fully understanding,” “clearly understanding,” or “gaining a full picture of.” Naturally, these judgment calls will depend on the surrounding text.

Often another word is more appropriate in English. Sometimes “understand” and “know” are interchangeable and sometimes they aren’t. We don’t “understand” facts and figures like who the leader of Brazil is or how many units the company sold in China last quarter, we “know” them. But take a look at this example: ニューヨークの天気を把握してもっと楽しもう! I suppose it’s possible to use “know” here too. “Know about the weather in New York and enjoy your trip more!” Yet, “learn about the weather” sounds a lot more natural. In other cases 把握 can be best translated as “identify,” whether the object is a trend or symptoms of a disease.

把握 is broad in meaning, covering the same ground as several loosely related English words. The first stage is to decide if it’s a state, like “understand” and “know,” or an action, like “learn” and “identify,” before picking the ideal translation. Grasp the nettle and tell us what you do with 把握 or other words you’d like to see tackled by dropping us a line at SWET INFO or leaving a comment on the SWET Facebook page.