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I came across this phrase in the sentence:

勘【かん】というものは、しょちゅう経験【けいけん】していながら、どことなくつかみどころがなく、いまの科学【かがく】ではまだその正体【しょうたい】が、明らか【あきらか】にされていない。(Soumatome N1 dokkai, p45)

My best effort to translate it naturally would be:

"Although we all often experience intuition, it is an intangible phenomenon that modern science has yet to explain. "

But this is a guess with some added words. The expression can be googled as 'it is slippery in some way'.

Does anybody know this expression (or can suggest a good reference for such expressions)?

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I might be wrong, but besides the word "intuition" I like your translation. I might use the broader term "metaphysics", but I don't think your interpretation is that different from the nice answers so far. – Louis Jul 30 '12 at 15:04
Wow...I came here to ask about どことなくつかみどころがなく from seeing it in the exact same sentence in the exact same book! Extra +1s for synchronicity if I could! – Questioner Mar 29 '13 at 3:30
There is a typo in the example sentence. You've got 生体{せいたい} where it should be 正体{しょうてい}. – Questioner Mar 29 '13 at 7:39
Thanks - put it right now but I think the reading is しょうたい ? – Tim Mar 30 '13 at 12:29
up vote 7 down vote accepted

The way I interpret it is that つかみどころがない literally means something like "no places (you) can grab onto", and that it can mean "eludes grasp", "elusive", "slippery", "vague", "unclear" and similar, and that どことなく means "somehow":


While being experienced quite often, the sixth sense somehow eludes our grasp. The way it physically manifests remains unclear to modern science.

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I like this translation much more. "no places to grab onto" seems right on. – Chris Harris Jul 30 '12 at 3:12
Wow - word by word I can see where you get the extra depth but I had not felt it when I read the passage first time. Thank you both. The Space ALC website is going to come in useful. – Tim Jul 30 '12 at 4:54
When you see the right translation, it's like somehow vaguely you just feel it's right, like some kind of sixth sense. ;) – Questioner Mar 29 '13 at 3:37
The same typo in the question has been reproduced here in the answer. In the book the sentence has 正体, not 生体. – Questioner Mar 29 '13 at 7:39

I think part of the problem comes from trying to understand the phrase as a whole. If you take it piece by piece, it can become clear.

Instead of looking at つかみどころがなく, try just つかみどころ first. So a rough translation might be "to have a hold or grip on something". You also could go the "kanji way" and look at 掴み所 which can shed light on the meaning.

So, I would probably translate どことなくつかみどころがなく as:

"For some reason, we cannot seem to grasp this concept."

You could also probably say:

"For some reason, this (idea,concept) is elusive".

but that seems not as clear.

You can see part of the expression on Space ALC.

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Breaking it down into the constituent parts:

  • どことなく : not anywhere in particular (adds vagueness to the word); somewhere (but I cannot tell where)

    From goo辞書:

    • どことはっきり言えないが、なんとなく。 - "Unable to clearly say where; somehow or other"
  • つかみどころ (掴み所) : gripping point

    From goo辞書:

    • つかむ部分。また、そのものの本質や真意を押さえる手がかりとなる点。とらえどころ。 - "The point that pins down the essence and/or intention (of the thing in question) that is key (to understanding); clue; vital point."
  • ~がなく : not having ~

It comes together to form "not having a gripping point somewhere (but I do not know where in particular)".

The "gripping point" represents a step towards understanding for which if you manage to "grab" it, you can start to understand more of the intangible phenomenon of intuition.

Opinion: Think of it as rock-climbing, and every hand-grip (clue to understanding) you manage to grab, hold on and pull yourself up brings you closer to the top (complete understanding)

To continue the metaphor, imagine rock climbing while being blindfolded. You recognize that there are hand-grip points around you, but you reach out and cannot find any, so you do not have a gripping point. But you know it is somewhere, just not exactly where. It is also possible that there are no hand-grip points around you, because you were blindfolded from the start and led to the wall, you might not even know that it could be an unclimbable smooth wall!

Bringing it back to trying to understand the phenomenon of intuition scientifically, the "blindfold" symbolises scientists trying to look into an unknown field. But scientists assert that there must be some systematic way of understanding it so they look for the "hand-grip points" in an attempt to understand and "ascend the wall". However because little is known about the nature of the wall, it could in fact be a flat smooth wall with no way to climb over.

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