Translating 頑張る / 頑張って (Ganbaru/Ganbatte) into English

What does 頑張る / 頑張って (Ganbatte/Ganbaru) really mean?
Usage Examples
When 頑張る / 頑張って (Ganbatte/Ganbaru) gets translated…
Ganbaru (頑張る) Spirit



If there was ever a word or phrase to describe a country and its people, it would definitely be the Japanese word “頑張る / 頑張って” (Ganbaru/Ganbatte).  Hearing and seeing this word so often naturally makes one reflect upon their own native tongue, trying to find its own equivalent. Ganbaru, however, is what I’d like to consider an experiential Japanese word. Therefore, when the Japanese express Ganbaru, more often than not, they are making reference to a collaborative task or ‘experience’ if you will. It can also be used to refer to ultimately to a successful completion of a task or ‘experience’ upon due diligence, hard work, and persistence.



What does 頑張る / 頑張って (Ganbatte/Ganbaru) really mean?

Many years ago when I moved to Japan, I first heard the Japanese word 頑張る expressed as 頑張れ (the imperative form) and ガンバ at a high school track and field competition. I also heard the word expressed to me personally upon the start of a new job. I soon began to think that the word meant good luck. It turns out, however, that even the most accurate of translations do not encapsulate the experience of the track team’s hard work up until the competition. Neither does it encapsulate the experiences shared in the past by friends during their university years. But remember! Ganbaru and Ganbare is typically used prior to an event occurring. If an event has already occurred and you would like to congratulate others for their hard work, try taking a look at the word: “Otsukaresama desu“!



Usage Examples

Consider the two prototypical Japanese dialogues, their English ‘translations,’ and how the dialogue may transpire amongst natives:

Example 1

A: 明日から新しい仕事が始まるんだ。
B: そうなんだ。がんばってね!
A: うん、がんばる。

A: I’ll start a new job tomorrow.
B: Ohh, do your best/hang in there, yeah!
A: Yeah, I will.

Example 2

A: 今月は新しいプロジェクトがあってすごく忙しくなりそうです。
B: 大変ですね。がんばってください。お体、気をつけて。
A: ありがとうございます。がんばります。

A: I’ll start a new project this month, so I expect to be really busy.
B: That’s rough. Hang in there. Take care of yourself.
A: Thanks. I’ll do my best.


When 頑張る / 頑張って (Ganbatte/Ganbaru) gets translated…

It becomes abundantly clear, that both languages become lost in translation. Why? Because the Japanese tend to express the broader depth and experiential coverage in using the term 頑張る, as opposed to simply “doing one’s best” at the current pending job. Perhaps a friend is thinking of one’s past work experiences, conversations about his/her past job, or even recollections of a friend’s complaints about his/her boss. And from those recollections, 頑張る is then expressed.

Consider further the English “translation.” If your friend has applied and accepted a new position, it seems reasonable that it is implied that s/he would “do their best.” After all, if your friend’s interests lay elsewhere, why would they apply for the job in the first place! Ultimately, although a similar situation is clearly expressed differently amongst the two languages, both apparently seem to show encouragement.


Ganbaru (頑張る) Spirit

The fact that annually, the Japanese use the least amount of paid holidays compared to the rest of the world is a clear-cut example of the 頑張る spirit. The two major earthquakes, previously in Kobe, and more recently in the Tohoku region are also classic examples. And yes, the word spirit can easily be attached because as a consensus or group society. The Japanese often collaborate on tasks, so there is a strong sense of this ganbaru camaraderie to a task’s completion. Without question, the phrase expresses persistence. MORE importantly, it shows will and effort. And MOST importantly, however, it defines one’s resilience—all of which, accordingly, are experiential terms.

So the next time you try to express 頑張る as, ‘hang in there,’ or ‘do your best,’ or even the Japanized-English (和製英語) ファイト(fight, which by the way is often used in advertisements in lieu of Ganbaru), reflect on the experience as a whole and then, and only then, will you have encapsulated the meaning and spirit conveyed by the Japanese in using the word 頑張る!

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