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Google Translate translates 忘れたい女 as "Woman you want to forget"

But it translates 忘れたい人 as "People who want to forget"

Is that a correct translation? if so, why is that?

Should it be "People you want to forget"?

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Since GT uses statistical machine translation, the "why" is presumably to do with how phrases containing 忘れたい女 and 忘れたい人 are translated in the input corpus - any quirks of GT are much more to do with their algorithm and what gets put into it than they are to do with the actual Japanese language. – nkjt Oct 29 '13 at 11:12

It is "correct" because 忘れたい人 can mean two different things in Japanese even though Google Translate gave you only one. Which one it actually means in a given situation solely depends on the context.

There are phrases that we can use if we absolutely must avoid any ambiguity even WITHOUT any context, but those can sound kind of wordy to our own native-speaking ears so we usually use the shorter forms just as your examples. In real life, after all, there is always context. The non-ambiguous forms are:

私が忘れたい人 = the person(s) that I want to forget

私を(or 私のことを)忘れたい人 = the person(s) that want to forget me

As always, it is the particle that matters.

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so.. can 忘れたい女 also mean "Woman who want to forget"?? – DrStrangeLove Oct 29 '13 at 5:44
@DrStrangeLove Yes. If preceded by <object>を as the object that she wants to forget. 私を忘れたい女 means "the woman who wants to forget me" since 'wants to forget me' is modifying woman. – jmac Oct 29 '13 at 6:12

忘れたい女 fairly unambiguously means that it is a woman whom the speaker wants to forget, not that it is a woman who wants to forget something.

The reason is that -たい to indicate a desire is only used by a speaker to describe his or her own feelings, or those of someone she sympathizes with like a friend or family member, or any point of view that places the speaker "inside the head" of the subject. By referring to the subject as 女 (onna), it is fairly that the speaker is placing distance between him or herself and the subject, and furthermore 忘れたい does not have any explicitly given object which would deflect 女 from being its target.

If we want to say that someone else wants to do something, we use an ending which indicates that we are guessing or that someone is showing external signs of wanting something. This is expressed with the -たがる ending. For instance:


食べたがる: someone else looks like they want to eat; 食べたい: I or someone close to me, whose feelings I know, wants to eat. Why it is incorrect to mix these up that if you say

あの人は、ケーキを食べたい (That man wants to eat a cake)

you're implying that you can read his mind and have direct access to his desires.(Which isn't the case in English; it doesn't directly translate.)

See here.

So, a woman who (seems like she) wants to forget is 忘れたがる女 not 忘れたい女, but if there is something specific she wants to forget, then either syntax is possible, e.g. 失敗を忘れたがる女 or 失敗を忘れたい女. The latter narrate from a perspective of actually knowing the woman's feelings that she wants to forget a past mistake, rather than external evidence of that feeling. The speaker or writer has to be justified by context in using that perspective.

So, why the inconsistent treatment in Google Translate? We can only hypothesize, but it could be statistically based on a body of translation data. The difference is that one sentence uses 女 and the other 人. Hito is more likely to be found in sentences in which one sympathizes with the object.

In fact the combination 女の人 is more gentle than 女. Referring to a woman as 女 is rude, depending on the exact circumstances compared to 女の人. If you say あの女 about someone and she overhears, she may be offended, but not if it is 女の人 and certainly not 尾の女性. In Japanese news reports, a female criminal is often referred to as "onna". "Ano onna" entered the building, and was caught on the surveillance camera, etc. 忘れたい女の人 or 忘れたい女性 are more amenable to the interpretation that the woman is the one who wants to forget because of the more sympathetic terms used to denote the woman.

Google Translate still wants to render 忘れたい女の人 as "Woman you want to forget". However, 忘れたい女性 becomes "Women who want to forget". Interesting, isn't it! 男 vs. 男性 follows the same pattern.


忘れたい泥棒(どろぼう) → Thief you want to forget
忘れたいチンピラ → Thugs that you want to forget
忘れたい子供 → Children who want to forget
忘れたい学生 → Students who want to forget
忘れたい馬鹿 → Fool you want to forget
忘れたい運転手 → Driver you want to forget

I've tried numerous examples, and the results are surprisingly intuitive.

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Hmm... Then how do you explain phrases like 元恋人を早く忘れたい人? – snailplane Oct 29 '13 at 7:03
@snailboat In that clause, there is an explicit object, and so the object of forgetting cannot be the person. The clause is taking the perspective of knowing the person's feelings and using -tai, which I didn't rule out as being impossible. I added a few things to the answer to round it out. – Kaz Oct 29 '13 at 15:16
I do not think that it is correct to appeal to the difference between たい and たがる without knowing the rest of the sentence. For example, もっと食べたい人はいますか (Is there anyone who wants to eat more? > Does any of you want to eat more?) is perfectly fine although the subject of 食べたい is not the speaker. – Tsuyoshi Ito Oct 30 '13 at 2:06
@TsuyoshiIto Point taken! Context matters, always!!! But basically here we are discussing only fragments out of context. – Kaz Oct 30 '13 at 2:06
That is exactly why I think your reasoning about 忘れたい女 is flawed. Your reasoning may be correct in some context, but we do not know the context. – Tsuyoshi Ito Oct 30 '13 at 2:14

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