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Don't "view cherry blossoms"—talk about your traditions naturally

Cherry blossoms in a public park—but no one is doing "hanami"

There is a Japanese springtime tradition known as "hanami", when people of all ages have a picnic—and a drink or two—under a canopy of cherry blossoms. If you go to a park in Tokyo during spring, you will certainly see big crowds lounging on picnic sheets.

However, when discussing "hanami", there's one problem: Western people don't do it. There are certainly cherry blossoms in cities around the world. My hometown of Vancouver has plenty of beautiful trees, but there is no tradition of having a picnic and enjoying the view.

Yes, "hanami" can be translated as "cherry blossom viewing", but if you simply say, "On Saturday, I did cherry blossom viewing," then a native speaker won't really understand you. They might wonder, "Did you view them from a bus? Was the goal to see as many trees as possible?" 

When discussing traditions, simply do what I did in the top paragraph: say the proper name in your native language, and then explain it. This requires you to gauge the understanding of the listener. You might ask, 

Have you ever heard of "hanami"?

If the answer is no, then describe it. You can teach the listener and broaden their horizons, and they'll even learn a new word in your language.  

The danger of using direct translations 

When I lived in Japan, I heard that there was a festival where many people will carry "portable shrines". 

I imagined tiny shrines, like the ones that some people have in their house. Those seemed portable to me. 

In fact, the speaker meant "mikoshi" which are huge shrines on wheels, requiring dozens of people to pull and push them through the streets. They are indeed portable, but they are grand structures, similar to floats in Western parades, with people riding on them playing traditional instruments.

When I saw the "mikoshi", I was shocked. They were not at all what I had imagined! 

If the speaker had told me the Japanese word and explained it a little, then I would have been a lot more excited about going to the festival.

Sometimes, of course, there is a translation that works. For instance "shinkansen" is a "bullet train" in English. That is a perfect translation. But, when it comes to traditional things, there is rarely an effective translation.

So, please teach people about your local culture, and when you do, follow these simple steps: 

  1. Use the best word to describe it—that may be a word in your native language.
  2. Check understanding, "Have you ever heard of ----- ?"
  3. Explain it in English.

Doing this will build cultural bridges and make you a more effective, more interesting speaker. 

I hope you've enjoyed "hanami" this year! 

canopy [noun]—like a roof, but not part of a building. It may be natural, like how cherry blossoms have the shape of a roof.
lounging [verb]—relaxing by sitting or laying down.
gauge /GAYj/ [verb]—estimate or measure the level of.