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I've often seen 'read the air' (literal translation) or 'read between the lines' but is there a better rendition of this concept in English? Or does it just not exist?

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"Read between the lines" = 眼【がん】光【こう】紙【し】背【はい】. Also related (but possibly outdated slang) - When Japanese say KY on the Internet, what does it mean exactly? –  istrasci Sep 12 '13 at 14:12
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Not an answer because I don't think this translation exists widely outside my own family, but my mum says "has no antennae" for 空気読めない. –  nkjt Sep 13 '13 at 7:32

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I don't think "read between the lines" accurately conveys the intended meaning of 空気{くうき}を読{よ}む. Reading between the lines is usually if you are given a specific phrase, written or spoken, and you are expected to understand an implied, and intended, meaning that is not directly stated. Whereas reading the air, as far as I know, is about understanding a situational context, which may have no verbal component, that might ensue whether or not anyone intended it to be that way. Reading the air is much more ethereal than reading between the lines.

There is no one-to-one match in English for "reading the air", but the concept definitely exists. Never mistake not having a set phrase for not grasping a reality. People talk about that kind of thing all the time, it's just that they will have to construct descriptions from words and grammar suited to the situation, not easily refer to a preset.

If someone had no ability to read the air, I would simply say that person was "oblivious". If someone did have the ability to read the air, I would say that person was "intuitive", "perceptive", or "sensitive".

Sensitive to what? The "atmosphere", the "mood", or the "situation". Or, to be even more ethereal, I might just use "it" to encompass the things I feel I can't encompass, like when we say, "don't you get it?".

So, for situations of not successfully reading the air, I might say, "That guy is oblivious to the situation". For successful reads, "that guy really gets it." If I wanted to push someone, I might say, "dude, can't you see what's going on here?"

Other related phrases that might give you a sense of how English applies in similar situations are (note these are just my own constructions, easily understood but not conventional):

  • "Do I have to spell it out for you?"

  • "There's more going on here than meets the eye."

  • "Get with it."

In short, to describe reading the air in English, you'll have to successfully read the air to the point where you can apply the most suitable English phrasing.

As a last note, I think "read the air" has a high potential for transfer into English. I believe that if one person told another to "read the air", and even if they had no knowledge of the Japanese phrase, the meaning would very likely be understood. It sounds a little poetic, but well within the bounds of everyday usability.

In fact, I think I'm going to start using it in English, as I feel like it closes a lexical gap. We have the idea, but not the phrase. So if you ever hear someone in English refer to "reading the air" as a part of their discourse, you'll know where it started. ;).

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This is an awesome answer!!! I totally understand the 'just because there isn't a word for it, doesn't mean it doesn't exist' sentiment since it's easy enough to just default and believe that it doesn't exist. Random follow-up question, is there any meaning in the fact that there isn't a set-phrase for 空気を読む in English? –  ishikun Sep 12 '13 at 4:46
    
@ishikun: I couldn't tell you if there is meaning, but it might be an indicator of where each culture puts emphasis on collective understanding. In Japan, you could say that a context of understanding between people is thought to be more objective and separate from all participants, even though it ensues from all of them. Whereas in the west, collective understanding is assumed to be contingent on each observer's perspective, and necessarily subjective. That's just me playing armchair sociologist, though. I can't offer anything more factual. –  Dave M G Sep 12 '13 at 7:26
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There is totally an English equivalent though - 'read the atmosphere'. –  Sjiveru Sep 12 '13 at 14:04
    
@Sjiveru: You could say that, sure, but I definitely wouldn't go so far as to say it's particularly special or different from any other alternative option. "Read the room", "catch the mood", "feel the vibe"... etc... –  Dave M G Sep 12 '13 at 15:16
    
Although terribly politically incorrect, someone who in Japanese I might hear described as being "KY" or who is always "KY", I often hear the same kind of person talked about as being "a bit aspergic" in English (whether they are or not). The implication being that people with Asperger's / autistic spectrum conditions are pathologically unable to "read the air". –  atheistwithrum Sep 13 '13 at 2:03

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