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Translating the ‘Meaning’ of ‘Life’: Historico-Linguistic Remarks

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1The question of the meaning of life is commonly held to be as old and widespread as human culture itself. My presentation aims to cast doubt on this view. I would like to suggest that (i) the question of the meaning of life is less than 200 years old, and (ii) when we ask this question, we may consider different things depending on the language we use. I begin the first section by remarking that authors from the Greek, Latin, or medieval worlds used a phrase that does not, at least literally, correspond to the English expression ‘meaning of life. They had not been arguing about the meaning of life but about happiness, flourishing, beatitude, or the purpose of life.

2This proposal addresses two questions : Who first used the phrase, and what made that person use it ? As to the first philological question, the Oxford English Dictionary states that the expression first appeared in Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, published in 1833-1834. Regarding Japanese equivalents, according to Nihongo Daijiten (The Great Japanese Dictionary), the first example is found in a short story, Gougai (Extra Issue), written by KUNIKIDA Doppo and published in 1906. However, my research revealed that the first instances were in his journal Azamukazaru no Ki (Diary without Deceit), written in 1893-1894 and published posthumously in 1908-1909. KUNIKIDA admired Carlyle and had read Carlyles Sartor Resartus and On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841) in around 1890-1892, just before he wrote the journal. This fact strongly suggests that Carlyle’s works inspired KUNIKIDA’s usage.

3From these historical remarks, at the end of the first section, I hypothesise that we began to contemplate the meaning of life in the 19th century due to a peculiar feeling of being unable to understand life.

4In the second section, I offer three observations concerning Japanese words that correspond to the meaning of life. To begin with, I enumerate translations of the English words ‘life’ (Seimei, Jinsei, Seikatsu, Sei, Isshou, Inochi, etc.) and ‘meaning’ (Imi and Igi) and describe the differences in their nuance. Next, I offer an etymological explanation of the Chinese letters that compose the word ‘Imi’. Finally, I mention a Japanese word that closely relates to the meaning of life, i.e. ‘Ikigai’, which translates as ‘something for which to live’. I comment that Ikigai does not have to be something socially important. If something—for example, pottery, gardening, or stamp collecting—provides me satisfaction, pleasure, or a reason to live, it can be my Ikigai.

5From these observations, I infer that in Japan, there may be a tendency to emphasise subjective elements when discussing the meaning of life. At the end of the second section, I hypothesise that relative to the language we use—more precisely, because of the connotations of the words ‘life’ and ‘meaning’—each person may ask a different question and, as a consequence, answer differently.

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MURAYAMA Tatsuya, «Translating the ‘Meaning’ of ‘Life’: Historico-Linguistic Remarks», Acta Litt&Arts [En ligne], Acta Litt&Arts, La traduction du savoir et ses méthodes, C. Transferts culturels : Arts du spectacle et philosophie, mis à jour le : 14/05/2019, URL :

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Tohoku University