Word Wise: Keeping Active

By Richard Medhurst

It is time to take the initiative again and consider various ways of translating Japanese words. This column is on the pairing of 積極的 and 消極的, looking particularly at the former, which is commonly encountered. One way to think about how to translate 積極的 is to roughly divide usage into three categories. The first is how a given action is performed. For example, 積極的に検討 can become “actively consider,” while in business 積極的な展開 might be rendered as “aggressive expansion.” Sometimes, I think it’s simpler to just talk about an increase, so that 積極的な検査 can become “more testing” rather than “more active testing.”

Secondly, when there is no particular task or when talking about someone’s 積極的な personality, for instance, we might use words like “proactive” or “assertive” or talk about “taking the initiative.” Finally, the term can be applied to how people feel about something, such as “positive” or “enthusiastic.”

Language is usually too complex to be neatly divided into such categories, and some of the suggested English words above do not fit clearly into just one of them. Still, considering the Japanese word’s purpose in the sentence is a useful first step to choosing the best English equivalent.

The term 消極的  may describe “half-hearted” actions or “retiring” personalities. When it comes to feelings, however, it is worth remembering that the word can cover a broad range of attitudes from “unenthusiastic” to out-and-out “negative.” One possibility in describing a government or organization’s 消極的 response to rumors of speculated action is to say that it “downplays” them.

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(Illustration: Stuart Ayre)

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