Translating "Black Lives Matter"

While reading NHK News Easy this morning, I read an article on the Black Lives Matter protests in Tokyo. In that article, I saw that they had chosen to translate the phrase “Black Lives Matter” as

「黒人の命も大切だ」

but this translation feels wrong to me.

It feels wrong because I understand the English phrase as a response to the question “Do Black Lives Matter?”. In that context, replying with「も」makes it sound like saying “yes, black lives matter, and so do all other ones”. In brief: “All Lives Matter”.

My assumption is that those of you who think that “All Lives Matter” is a reasonable response to that question think this translation is entirely acceptable. If so, then your job here is done. Nothing to see here. Thanks for dropping by! :wave:


To keep this language-related, and to have any reasonable hope of this not devolving into a screaming match, let’s assume that everyone who is still here agrees that “All Lives Matter” is not an acceptable response to the original question. In that case, the question becomes more interesting: how do you translate it?

(Incidentally, this seems to be a topic that is being discussed more widely (it even has its own section in the Japanese Wikipedia article for “Black Lives Matter”), with some resources that may be interesting).

In any case: I’ve seen a couple of translations out there that make for interesting discussion:

  1. 黒人の命も大切だ
  2. 黒人の命は大切だ
  3. 黒人の命が大切だ

Of these, I think 0 (using「も」) is not acceptable, but have only a slight preference for 1 (using「は」) over 2 (using「が」).

Speaking to my wife (who is Japanese), she agreed, but said she preferred an entirely different one:

  1. 黒人の命を大事に

which she said feels more natural in Japanese as a thing you say about 命, and still maintains at least part of the original nuance.

The Wiki page suggests a couple of other ones:

  1. 黒人の命を軽んじるな
  2. 黒人の命にも価値がある

Of these, I feel 4 has a certain appeal, while 5 feels like a too-literal translation (although I do see their appeal).

(Of course, all of these can have variations depending on the particle to use, which is what I thought made this a linguistically-interesting topic. For example, the Wiki suggests also「黒人の命こそ大切だ」).

An entirely separate thing is that this is a slogan, and as such, it’s the name of an idea that can be shared as shorthand. So to a certain extent, the details of the phrase are not as important as what the phrase stands for. So let’s for now focus on those juicy details.

What do you think? Do you share similar opinions on these (or other) translations? Or have I got it all wrong?

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I think using も is good because it’s still placing emphasis on black lives within the sentence (while “all lives matter” does not)

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Interesting question indeed! A couple of Instagram posts I saw about this topic in Japanese would use Black Lives Matter in English in the Japanese text, presumably because it’s the name of a movement, but translate it as 黒人の命大切だ, echoing your sentiment, e.g. this one (the translation can be found in the fifth image of the series):

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I don’t really see how that’s the case.

But it’s also not a literal translation of “Black Lives Matter” so I can see why people don’t want to use it.

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I actually read the same article earlier today, and thought “Oh, that’s how they translated that? Interesting!”
I, too, was surprised that they used も and not は or が, but I think I understand why NHK translated it this way.
I believe they wanted to emphasize the fact that black lives matter TOO, putting stress on the fact that some people seem to forget the importance of black lives. But that’s just a theory. They probably should have just gone with は to avoid any sort of confusion though.

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That.

@jjatria, when you say

I honestly think you’re interpreting the subtext of the も in reverse. It’s not “black lives matter as much as all the rest” but rather “lives matter - but more to the point, so do black ones”.

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Well people already said why I think も is acceptable here, but I can add a different example to illustrate that use of も.
The translation for “you are pretty today” is 「今日綺麗だ」
は has a contrastive meaning as well. If you were to say 今日は綺麗だ, it could imply “other days you are not”. 黒人の命は大切だ could imply that other lives do not matter (which is probably not what you want to say). Now, I see in your link that some news media chose to use the は anyway. I guess that’s because the contrastive meaning would be so outlandish here that the actual meaning is correctly understood? But I can see how that would trigger a discussion indeed.
が would work, but I feel it lacks punch. It’s just stating a fact.
There’s another one in the discussion (こそ), but I’m not sure I understand that nuance well enough. :thinking:

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The first source to the wiki article that the OP mentioned seems to make the same point as you do " But the point of Black Lives Matter isn’t to suggest that black lives should be or are more important than all other lives. Instead, it’s simply pointing out that black people’s lives are relatively undervalued in the US — and more likely to be ended by police — and the country needs to recognize that inequity to bring an end to it.

To this end, a better way to understand Black Lives Matter is by looking at its driving phrase as “black lives matter, too.” So all lives do matter, obviously, but it’s one subset of lives in particular that’s currently undervalued in America." https://www.vox.com/2016/7/11/12136140/black-all-lives-matter

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Yeah, I think も here carries the punch that you don’t get in the English version without diluting the original phrase.

I think it’s not used in media because it feels more natural. That sentence just reads like a regular sentence rather than the name of a movement.

I honestly think either 黒人の命も大切だ or 黒人の命は大切だ is a pretty good approximation. In fact, I think just 黒人の命も would probably be a pithier way to put it.

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I suppose it does matter if the goal is actual translation, where you’re just explaining to Japanese speakers what the name means, or crafting something that will be used or chanted in Japanese.

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True, but here it’s a proper noun, and those have to be handled slightly differently so that they read as such.

I agree that there’s a distinction to be made between the name of the movement as a proper noun and the message you’d write on a placard.

Looking at photos from the recent protest in Tokyo on Twitter (see below for an example), it seems that some placards written in Japanese did read 黒人の命を大事に (or variations thereof) as well as 黒人の命を守るべきだ, which was the slogan used on one of the more “professional” designs (in the sense that people were able to download and print it instead of writing on cardboard).

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I prefer 黒人の命も大切だ over the suggested alternatives.

As said above I don’t think 「も」 implies a connotation of “all lives matter” in the same way that it’s being used in the West.

Here’s my rationale:

  • The phrase Black lives matter implies in English the “too”. I don’t see of any way it can’t be taken to mean “Black lives matter TOO”, “Black lives matter AS WELL as other lives,” and “Black lives matter AS MUCH as other lives.”

Hopefully that didn’t come across as me saying “all lives matter” because I’m not about that.

EDIT: upon re-reading the OP, you seem to understand it differently with it being an answer to the question, “Do Black lives matter?”
If this is the case then I agree with you that it isn’t the best response, but I can’t help but feel it’s less a response to a question and more a direct statement, hence my reason above.

EDIT 2: I think to avoid that sort of semantic argument it’s probably best to keep it as Black Lives Matter in all languages and then explain what the movement is in native language.

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I just did some research on the Korean translation of the term because I remembered that while there are a lot of functional differences between particles in Korean and Japanese, at least their topic markers 은 (eun) and 도 (do) behave quite similarly to は and も respectively, and I found that the same translation ambiguity seems to exist in Korean.

  • 흑인의 생명 소중하다 (Heug-in-ui saengmyeong-eun sojunghada) = 黒人の命は大切だ
  • 흑인의 생명 소중하다 (Heug-in-ui saengmyeong-do sojunghada) = 黒人の命も大切だ

The former (which is the translation used on the Korean Wikipedia) yields about 74,700 results on Google and the latter 80,300 results. I can read the alphabet, but I don’t speak the language as I’ve only been exposed to it in research papers so I can’t possibly comment on the nuance. But I thought it was interesting that this question appears to play a role there as well.

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While I am hesitant to rely on NHK for BLM-related news and information after their shamefully problematic video, that seems to be the traslation for “Black Lives Matter” that I’m seeing elsewhere. Like others have pointed out, it’s kind of a flipped nuance from English. So rather than implying “Black Lives Matter, but all lives matter too”, it’s saying “(all lives matter, but) black lives matter (too)”.

I would caution against using that fifth example because making a connection between black lives and monetary value is a very slippery slope <______<

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The translation I’ve most commonly seen here in Japan (and the one that my coworkers told me was their preferred translation for using in class) is 黒人の命は大切だ.

While it doesn’t explicitly say that “black lives are important, too” as many people in the US have come to understand it, it works well to emphasize that black lives are important, just like the English slogan. Interesting to think about, though!

Is this contrastive meaning stronger than in English? Because in English, people who say “You mean I’m not usually pretty?” are either messing with you or massively over-interpret any potential slight against them. While you could potentially mean that, almost everyone understands this as a compliment. And at least in English, this contrast really only appears when you’re talking about today vs. habitually, at least to my understanding, so I don’t think that using は would say that “Black lives matter right now, but don’t usually”

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価値 isn’t just monetary value though, it’s just “worth” or “value” in the same general way it is in English. And it of course can be applied to monetary contexts.

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From all the examples I’ve seen, though, it tends to come up largely in a financial (or at least corporate) context.

The very first example listed in the Cambridge page, やってみる価値はある isn’t monetary.

Okay, but I would still consult with native speakers on the suggested nuance of the term before I used it myself.

“Value” doesn’t have a strictly monetary meaning in English, but it would feel weird and maybe a little calculating to me to use it to describe lives. And I wonder if there is that same possibility in Japanese.

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