Spend long enough in Japan — whether on vacation or a more extended stay — and you’ll encounter phrases in Japanese that just become part of your daily life. But step back and think about them a little longer, and (especially) try to translate them to English. The sentence you end up with probably sounds clunky and downright strange.
Some Japanese phrases simply can’t be translated smoothly into English, requiring more context or a really nimble translator to get the meaning across succinctly. For most folks, the following phrases offer a particular linguistical challenge, and boast far trickier meanings than they initially lead on.

“Otsukare sama desu” (お疲れ様です)

When and how to use: when leaving work: when seeing someone off: when asking how someone is doing: in an email.
You’ll hear this phrase constantly during the day, albeit in various situations. Sometimes you’ll overhear friends saying this to when meeting up for the first time, but then you will also hear co-workers say this to one another when someone wraps up for the day and is heading home. Or maybe they aren’t even leaving — maybe they just finished something up. And then take a glance at business emails in Japanese, and note the ever-present presence of “otsukare sama (desu).”
This sentence gets deployed for situations ranging from “nice to see you,” “thanks so much” and “thanks for your hard work.” But “otsukare sama” avoids any one meaning, and the actual closest English one could tag to it would be something like “I appreciate all that you’ve done.” That makes sense for a workplace setting, where co-workers would say it to someone wrapping up a meeting or if someone heading out early wanted to let those around them know how much they appreciate the work they are doing. But then you see friends and family use it too.
“Otsukare sama (desu),” then, is best viewed as a general acknowledgement of working hard, whether in school, at a job, or just at life itself. There’s no one English translation for it, but it can be used for all sorts of situations.

“Shouga Nai” (しょうがない)

When to use: When something can’t be helped;
At first brush, “shouga nai” simply means something similar to “it can’t be helped” or “nothing can be done.” So maybe you could use it for your bike getting a flat tire, or when inclement weather forces you to cancel dinner plans with a friend. But in reality, “shouga nai” is far more complex and, in some people’s minds, central to Japanese culture.
That “it can’t be helped” is often more used to talk about larger pi…

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