I’m a huge fan of Hikaru Utada and think her album Ultra Blue is phenomenal with it’s beautifully performed songs and poetic lyrics. Below you’ll find my English translation of the song Making Love from that album. You can listen to the song while reading timed subtitles of my English translation, view the full Japanese and English lyrics, and read some discussion about the meaning of the song and challenges in translation.
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(Chrome or Firefox recommended for proper playback. Move your cursor off of the above video so the controls don’t appear and cover the subtitles)
Hikaru Utada – Making Love song meaning:
The most direct way to interpret the song is that it is about Utada’s close friend who is moving away to start a new life. Rather than being sad and thinking about how missing her friend will impact her, it becomes a turning point into maturity where Utada puts her feelings aside and truly (possibly for the first time), thinks about her friend’s happiness above her own. While wishing her friend the best she reflects on the positive impact her friend has had on her. Utada develops new resolve to do her best in her current place and looks into the future beyond this immediate moment of sadness with lyrics like line 17 – “I want to do my best in this town”, line 34 – “when the evening comes, the light remains”, and the final lines 41-43 – “No matter how much I cherish those piano notes of long gone summer days, it’s time for me to wake up.” The last line is a realization that like her friend, she too must move forward in life.
I came across a second, very different possible interpretation when trying to understand lines 38-40, which in the context of expressing love and gratitude for a friend who is leaving just didn’t seem to fit in. That’s when I did some searching for those lyrics in Japanese and found a difficult to understand Japanese post (which I unfortunately didn’t bookmark), suggesting that Utada is not in fact only singing about a friend that is moving, but is also singing about her old self and her new maturing self who is ready to move forward in life. In our early adulthood we often make big leaps, moving far for school or work. In the process we leave a lot of our old self behind and discover a new self in a new environment. Lines 12-15 could be her coming to a point of maturity where she can be honest with herself. The lyrics “I’m so happy I met you” could possibly be interpreted as her self-realization that she had to go through her previous immature phase to arrive at the point of realization she’s at now. And the problematic lines 38-40 make a little sense if you interpret them as an ounce of regret that Utada didn’t mature earlier and spent too much time looking up to and relying on her best friend.
This isn’t meant to be a conclusive or exhaustive analysis. Utada may have written the song with a variety of meanings in mind and left it open for the listener to determine. Whichever way you interpret it, you can feel the emotion and a sincerity in her voice which is what I love about her.
Translation challenges & notes:
Translation is not as easy as knowing two languages and changing material from one to the other. Different languages (and the cultures attached to them), put the emphasis on different aspects of information. As a result you often find sentences which provide enough information to satisfy the mindset of native listeners, but leave things unclear when expressed in other languages. You also have to make the choice of translating the words or translating the meaning by using equivalent expressions that might use different meaning words.
One challenge in translating this (and many), songs is that Japanese sentences don’t explicitly have to state subjects and objects to the level that English does. As a result it’s very unclear in lines like 17 and 20 if it is I, you, or we that are “are in the middle of a long, long dream…” and “… need a best friend.” This is a major challenge of Japanese for translation software which often gets pronouns wrong or uses “it” when referring to people because who is often determined from context and not specified in the Japanese language as often.
Another translation challenge is that Japanese doesn’t have plural for nouns. The phrase 花が咲いた could equally be “a flower has bloomed” or “flowers have bloomed“. So when dealing with phrases similar to this you have to be alert to context and nuances being conveyed. Line 30 in the song actually does specify “a single flower” in the Japanese. But I’m still left with the decision of do I encoded that information as “a flower has bloomed” which sufficiently indicates 1 to an English speaker, or “a single flower has bloomed”, which puts more emphasis on it’s solitary nature? If the meaning of the line is a metaphor for Utada’s friend or an intangible thing that Utada received, than using the word “single” might be more appropriate. If on the other hand the meaning of the line is that she’s going through a change represented by the first flower, than the word single becomes a bit of a distracting nuance.
Line 34 is literally “Even if it becomes night it is still bright.” Literal translations often don’t reflect the feeling or mood of the piece so phrases of equivalent meanings and matched feelings/artistry to the piece become more appropriate to use. The Japanese word “akarui” was used which can mean bright, but it could also be referring to “cheerful”. What is akarui isn’t specified either so possible alternative translations of line 34 could include “When the evening comes, you’ll still be cheerful” or “Even when nighttime comes, it’s still bright“. I chose “When the evening comes, the light remains” to reflect the symbolism and optimism I feel from the song. That also helped me to avoid repeating words too close to each other since the next line talks about light too.
When talking about the song’s meaning above, I mentioned lines 38-39 as a challenge. It’s one of those cases where the Japanese text itself is somewhat vague and a fully literal translation of “If I hadn’t met you I wouldn’t need a best friend” didn’t fit well enough for me to want to use it like that. I softened it a bit by phrasing it as “I wouldn’t be needing a best friend”, so that it would still be representative of the Japanese but not lean towards any one interpretation or another of the song. If you can think of a better translation or interpretation please let me know.
These may seem like a very minor things that I’m over analyzing, but these decisions flavor translations and take them closer to or further from the original meaning and nuances of works as written in their original native languages. It’s impossible in many cases for long or creative works to be translated with 100% accuracy to what the original author was saying so it’s important to take time and think about the material and reflect the nuance, feeling, and meaning as best you can.