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I was sure about translating "火の玉" as "fireball", but Google Translate suggests another meaning - "falling star".

Can it really be translated like that? If it's true, then in which contexts?

Thanks.

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3 Answers

up vote 3 down vote accepted

I hope it is no sin to post an anwer without using a dictionary.

火の玉, when it is used by us native speakers, refers to only one thing 90% of the time --- the small light/fire that people claim to see flying around a graveyard at night as a sign of the spirit of the dead.

Sometimes we use the word to refer to other things ---- a fireball, falling star, bolide, you name it. 火の玉, as far as its literal meaning goes, only means "ball of fire", therefore, one could use it to refer to something that looks like a ball of fire.

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The English word for this is Will-o'-the-wisp. The Wikipedia entry for the English word does confirm the association with 火の玉. Interestingly, it also mentions the very similar-sounding (but differently spelt) 人魂【ひとだま】... I wonder if there was some sort of eggcorn process involved there. BTW: the reason the word exists (and means the same thing) in many languages, is that will-o'-the-wisps are real, not just a legend. –  Dave Nov 28 '13 at 3:01
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I hope you realize that answers that cite dictionary entries are only there to provide a little backup to something that a nonnative speaker is saying. Had you prefaced your answer by copy/pasting "1 球状の火のかたまり。特に、夜、墓地などで空中を飛ぶという火のかたまり。鬼火。人魂(ひとだま)。" with your interpretation then it would not have degraded the quality at all and would only have cemented the validity of your words rather than just coming off as another guy on the internet's opinion. –  ssb Nov 28 '13 at 6:22
    
Is this something conceptually different than 不知火【≪しらぬい≫】 (even though those appear on the ocean, correct?)? –  istrasci Dec 4 '13 at 17:31
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A quick search on jisho.org has shown me:

火の玉 --> falling star; fireball

This definition suggest that it can mean either falling star or fireball. You'll probably have to figure this out based on the context of the sentence.

Another good online Japanese to English dictionary to check out is WWJDIC.

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They both use the same source - EDICT (as do most of other free J-E dictionaries), so recommending to check both is not really necessary. –  Igor Skochinsky Nov 27 '13 at 19:12
    
I said "check out." Rather than "check." I'm implying that he may prefer Jisho.org or WWJDIC for other reasons. Good info to know though :-) –  coyote Nov 28 '13 at 8:03
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Daijirin gives one of its meanings as a ball of light that looks like it's flying through the night sky. As such, I think the meaning "fireball" comes first, which then got attached to "falling stars" because of visual/descriptive similarity. So, (unless a native speaker would like to prove me wrong ;) ) it doesn't necessarily mean "falling star" but is often used to refer to falling stars.

BTW, if you want to refer to shooting stars explicitly, you can use [流れ星]{ながれぼし}.

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