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How Do You Say 'Snafu' In Japanese?

The Senate looks ready to move ahead with trade legislation, after a daylong delay that the Obama administration repeatedly described as a "snafu."

"These kinds of procedural snafus are not uncommon," said White House spokesman Josh Earnest after Democrats held up the bill, which would give President Obama authority to expedite passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Asked if the administration had to do some hand-holding with 11 other countries taking part in trade negotiations, Earnest confessed, "I don't know how 'snafu' translates into a variety of Asian languages."

Luckily, in Washington, D.C., diplomats and language scholars are just a phone call away.

"Maybe in Japanese, you would say konran shita," said Ken Knight, coordinator of the Japanese language program at American University. The phrase means "confused" or "convoluted."

"There's another word that you might use which is mecha kucha," Knight added. "Mecha kucha means, roughly, 'messed up.' Mecha kucha is more slang, so it probably has a little stronger feel to it."

Australian trade negotiators might substitute the slang term "ballsed up," while Spanish speakers from Chile, Mexico or Peru might use a word like bodrio.

Snafu, of course, is military slang from World War II — an acronym for "Situation Normal, All [let's say Fouled] Up."

Implicit in snafu is a uniquely American nonchalance. The sense that fouled up situations are nothing out of the ordinary isn't easy to translate.

"I don't think 'snafu' or even the concept has made its way into the Japanese culture," Knight said.

He points to another useful Japanese phrase, though: wabi sabi. It refers to an appreciation of imperfection, in a work of art, or perhaps the U.S. Congress.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.