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I quite like the expression "... eludes me" (or in French "... m'échappe"). I can express this with something like 分からない, 理解できない but this is not faithful to the expression "... eludes me".

Indeed, "... eludes me" describes something that you can't catch, the thing itself try to not come close to you so as not to be caught. That is the thing eludes you on its own. On the other hand, 理解できない or わからない only tells that you can't understand but misses the nuance that the thing tries not to be caught.

Is there a word in Japanese that matches this nuance?

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4 Answers 4

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The first phrase that comes to mind is:

「ピンと[来]{こ}ない」

or

「いまいちピンと来ない」

At least those are natural-sounding phrases often used by native speakers (and are less boring and far less dictionary-like than [理解]{りかい}できない or わからない).

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  • Thank you, not dictionary-like phrases are what I am interested in. May 22, 2016 at 10:09
  • May I ask what does ピン mean here?
    – kuchitsu
    May 22, 2016 at 10:15
  • @kuchitsu: It's onomatopoeic; in this case the sound of immediacy. (Ref. tangorin.com/…) May 22, 2016 at 18:32
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    Is this colloquial? 'Eludes me' is slightly on the formal end in English.
    – Angelos
    May 23, 2016 at 0:55
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From the 3. of the following definitions of “elude” of Oxford English Dictionary, it’s not unreasonable to interpret “elude” as “fail to be understood” or “not understandable.”:

  1. Escape from or avoid (a danger, enemy, or pursuer), typically in a skillful or cunning way.
  2. (Of an achievement or something desired) fail to be attained by (someone).
  3. (Of an idea or fact) fail to be understood or remembered by (someone), e.g. the logic of this eluded most people.

But if you stick to the nuance that "something that you can't catch / something that tries not to be caught,” “捉えどころがない” and "把握できない” can be alternative possibilities as used in ”彼の文章は捉えどころがない – His writing is elusive, ” and “言葉の意味が把握できない – I can’t catch the meaning of the word.”

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I don't know if they are enough faithful to your nuance but:

  • 要領【ようりょう】を得【え】ない
    You can't get to point from what they say, but often is blaming on poor explanation.

  • 雲【くも】をつかむよう (na-adj.)
    Felt like hard to focus into an image, because of vagueness or unfamiliarity.

  • 晦渋【かいじゅう】 (na-adj.)
    A bookish word that means overly obfuscating.

  • 難解【なんかい】 (na-adj.)
    Another relatively bookish word "incomprehensible."

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You can say:

ちょっとビミョー

ビミョー can actually mean a lot of things such as somewhat awkward, strange. In some dictionaries, ビミョー is defined as "subtle".

However, you can somewhat express 理解できない with nuance of "... eludes me" this way in an informal conversation.

A: 分かった?

B: ちょっとビミョー~

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    「ちょっとビミョーな~」は一文ですか?それとも「~」以下に何か続くということでしょうか。
    – chocolate
    May 24, 2016 at 6:24
  • そうですね。「~」以下に何も無いですが、「な~」以下に何か続くのは相手が待っている感じがあるので、間違いました。編集しました。
    – dariru
    May 26, 2016 at 6:39

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