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In this Bump of Chicken song, the line 笑えないかな is used a number of times.

For example:

全て受け止めて笑えないかな

If only I could just accept everything and smile.

誰かに優しく出来ないかな 全て受け止めて笑えないかな

If only I could be kind to someone. If only I could accept everything and laugh.

笑えないかな

If only I could laugh.

The translations are a combination of those provided online, my native speaker friends and mine. If I translate 笑えない literally I come up with "I can't laugh." With 笑えないかな, I get "Can't I laugh?" So how does "Can't I laugh?" become "If only I could laugh." I see the correlation in meaning but I am not 100% there in understanding it. I guess verbない + かな has this nuance of "If only.."

The more literal way of saying this phrase would be ”笑えたらいいのになぁ” "If only I could laugh." But how does this colloquial version work?

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4 Answers 4

makes a question, but it does not make a tag question as you thought. And in this case, it can be interpreted as a rhetorical question.

笑えない
'I can't laugh.'

笑えないか
'Can't I laugh?'  (Rhetorical question with the expectation: 'I can laugh.')
→ 'I expect/wish that I can laugh'.

The expectation that follows from the question is the opposite of how you translated. I don't know where your idea of translating it into a tag question came from.

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thanks. I changed my error. Do you think "If only I could laugh," is a good translation? Also, do you mean to say "I wish that I could laugh," as opposed to "'I expect/wish that I can laugh'."? –  yadokari Dec 21 '11 at 23:52
    
@yadokari "If only I could laugh" is not a bad translation. What I meant is that your translation before the edit: "I can't laugh, can I?" expects "I can't laugh", whereas the expectation that follows from the correct translation is "I can laugh". Is "I expect or wish that I can laugh" too far away to you from "If only I could laugh"? If so, I cannot help further. –  user458 Dec 21 '11 at 23:57
2  
I think you could have better treated the question. I think 笑えないか is not equivalent to 笑えないかな. The former asserts that one can laugh through use of a negative question, the latter seems to convey a higher degree of uncertainty because of ~かな. How that translates into English I'm not sure. –  Flaw Dec 22 '11 at 5:09
    
@Flaw You are right that changes the degree of the expectation, but it does not change the polarity. –  user458 Dec 22 '11 at 6:44
1  
@yadokari They are roughly the same, but the former is softer. –  user458 Dec 22 '11 at 6:59

笑えないかな literally means "can't (I) laugh?" but it looks like it has a number of different meanings depending on context:

  • "I wish to laugh" or "if only I could laugh"
  • "I think you'd laugh if..." or "I think you'd have a happy time if..."
  • "isn't that something you can't laugh at?" or "can you really laugh at that?"

In this context, it does seem to be a rhetorical question. A literal translation might be "can't I laugh?" here, though it clearly doesn't have the same meaning in English if it's translated that way:

全て受け止めて笑えないかな
Literally: "I wonder if I can't stop everything and laugh?"
Means: "I wish to stop everything and laugh."

あなたと楽しく笑えないかな
Literally: "I wonder if I can't laugh together with you joyfully?"
Means: "I wish to laugh together with you joyfully."

笑えないかな
Literally: "I wonder if I can't laugh?"
Means: "I wish to laugh."

I think these kind of rhetorical questions can't always be directly translated to English and that it might need to be taken from context:

  • 笑えないかな
    "I wonder if I can't laugh" (with the implication that "I can laugh")
  • 彼がそんなことをするだろうか(=彼は絶対にしない)
    "I suppose he'd do that sort of thing?" (he would absolutely not do that)
  • そんなことがあり得ようか(=あるはずがない)
    "Is that sort of thing possible?" (that doesn't happen)

See also the Japanese Wikipedia page on rhetorical questions. I'm not sure there's going to be a simple answer to this question as rhetorical questions in Japanese seem very different to English.

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thanks. any thoughts on why "I wonder if I can't laugh?" = "I wish to laugh." These sentences are not equal in meaning in english. –  yadokari Dec 24 '11 at 5:59
    
@yadokari I'm not sure you can translate it directly. I think the rhetorical question here emphasizes that "I am (of course) able to laugh" and from there takes the meaning of "I wish/desire to laugh" with added emphasis. –  cypher Dec 24 '11 at 7:34

Building off of sawa's answer my understanding is now this:

笑えない 'I am unable to laugh.'

笑えないか 'Am I unable to laugh?'  

The next logical thought would perhaps be, "I am unable to laugh, but if only I could laugh." I understand this line of thinking but it is still a bit of a jump in meaning for me. I guess the な at the end makes the sentence even more rhetorical, forcing the concluding thought. I don't understand exactly how the final meaning corresponds to the grammar, but I will remember this as one of the meanings of 笑えないかな.

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笑えないかな can also be taken to mean something like "I don't think I can laugh". Whether this ambiguity is intentional by the lyricist, I do not know...

In any case, it seems like you're having trouble internalizing the "I wish I could ..." meaning of ~ないかな, so I'll give it a try.

Most of the analysis in the other answers focuses on just the question part, but I think the key to the understanding lies in な (or maybe the combination かな)

な has many nuances and usages, but in the combination かな, I would translate it as "I wonder if ...".

明日は雨かな I wonder if it will rain tomorrow

笑えるかな I wonder if I can laugh

笑えないかな I wonder if I can't (couldn't) laugh

Once we've got this far, the jump to "I wish I could laugh" might not be so painful.

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