Over the last year and a half inI have been reminded again and again, by both my blunders in Japanese and my students' in English, that language usage can be a tricky thing.
When you look up sumimasen in a dictionary, you're given "excuse me" as the translation. And "thank you" when you look up arigatou gozaimasu and "I'm sorry" for gomennesai. However, that does not mean that you are now ready to insert them into conversation. Not by a long shot! Sumimasen seems to be rarely used in formal/business settings to mean "excuse me." The more apologetic and polite gomennasai is more appropriate. Situations that warrant a quick sumimasen in my office--passing next to or overtaking someone in the hallways, for example--wouldn't need the English equivalent back home.
And "thank you?" Well, it has it's place I'm sure. But in daily interactions I use sumimasen and gomennasai just as often. For example, if I'm still at my desk instead of helping with lunch preparations when I'm given my lunch tray, it's most appropriate to say "excuse me" not "thank you" since it lets the listener know I appreciate their effort and am about to join in as well. And then if someone goes out of their way especially, like bringing presents from a trip, a hearty gomennasai will almost always be paired with the most polite thank you, domo arigatou gozaimasu.
Cultural understanding goes a long way to aid dictionary translations, or mistranslations. A few months ago one of the teachers I am paired with was telling me a story about why she was so flustered. She pointed to the hallway we were walking through and said, "I coach this road." She is an incredible teacher and super friendly but, obviously, her English vocabulary is somewhat limited. However, I had been at the school long enough to know there are teacher-led student teams that clean certain areas of the school after lunch. And I knew the schedule enough to know that we'd just finished this cleaning time. Understanding the culture, and not the words, what was what facilitated our successful communication.
Unfortunately, such was not the case when it came to the scooping out of night soil. My newest Japanese word: kumitori. It is the "scooping out of night soil." Apparently, my toilet is not connected to a treatment plant or communal but is kinda like an outhouse. One that gets scooped out from time to time. But of course I have to give the go-ahead before these kinds of things happen to my house and so it falls on the English teachers at school to explain the scooping out of night soil to me.
"Your toilet tank needs to be emptied." "Your sewage system is bad. You need a new one." "Can you empty your toilet tank tomorrow?" Oh damn, I thought. I really don't understand anything you're saying. The dictionary entry of kumitori as "scooping out night soil" wasn't much clearer so I couldn't blame my teachers for the confusion.
Eventually, I came to know that the kumitori company was coming to empty my septic tank in preparation for the reconstruction of my entire sewage system. This took place over a weekend. The preparations were the weekend before. Unfortunately these were unannounced, giving both me and the workers a bit of a shock. Especially the woman who woke me up at 9:00am on a Saturday to bang around my house and remind me that they'd be doing the construction next weekend. Yes, I thought, next weekend! When I'm not here. Not this weekend...at nine in the morning! Too bad the majority of my Japanese is rather formal and polite and so I was unable to convey such sentiments.