Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Lost in Translation

Cross-cultural communication can be tricky at the best of times. (As someone who teaches English on the planet Nihon, I can say this for a fact.) Subtle differences in culture often manifest themselves in language. That means it can be quite difficult to translate in such a way as to convey the meaning of the original expression while also maintaining its nuance. Context itself can be shifted by cultural influences, meaning a word or phrase translated directly can still wind up meaning something very different.

A very good example of this can be seen by watching a Monty Python video with Japanese subtitles. Frankly speaking, I don't know why they even bothered trying. I mean, call me biased if you will, but baka-aruki sho (馬鹿歩き省) just doesn't have the same ring as "Ministry of Silly Walks".

Which brings me to my main point: Some things just don't translate well because they have no direct equivalent. Even related languages like Czech and Russian have their own unique terms which have no counterpart in the other (like Czech "litost" [the shock at realizing just how awful one's life really is] and Russian "toska" [a deep longing for something not really known], which are mutually untranslatable). Things can get even more complicated with two languages which are completely and utterly different, such as English and Japanese. There are some words in English that don't translate directly into Japanese even though they would seem like a staple of everyday life (such as "bullshit"). The same is true of Japanese; there are some words and phrases which just seem so practical and useful that we have to wonder why there is nothing like them in English. Some examples of the latter include:

Dame - [駄目] Pronounced "dah-may". Perhaps the closest translation in English would be "unacceptable" or "won't do"...or maybe even "sucks". It is an extremely versatile term expressing badness without really meaning "bad" per se. For example, if a Japanese tries to eat something but finds he doesn't like it, he may say, "Kore ha dame da!" (This is unacceptable!) The exact same expression will probably be heard with regard to an unfavorable choice, such as if someone picks up a fruit and finds it bruised, or to something that doesn't work, such as when someone turns on a light only to find it burned out. On the other hand, with regard to a person, saying, "O-mae ha dame da," means something like, "You're hopeless!" Saying that an action or event is "dame" can mean it is forbidden, immoral, or dangerous, such as when a mother yells the word at her child just as it's about to put a slug in its mouth. Perhaps similarly, one of my first experiences here in Japan involved me trying to greet one of my new neighbors only to have him yell, "DAME," and slam his door in my face.

Boke - [ボケ] Pronounced "boh-kay". While not necessarily a part of everyday speech, this word still seems incredibly useful. Its noun form refers to someone who is spaced out or otherwise out of touch with reality. In manzai, or traditional Japanese stand-up comedy, it is the title of the fool's role, as opposed to the straight counterpart (tsukkomi). In society, a boke is someone who is totally out of it, i.e. the type of person who has to be occasionally reminded which way is up. The verb form of the word can appear in expressions like, "Ano hito ha bokete iru," which basically means, "That guy is clueless," or, "Gomen...watashi ga bokete shimatta," which is perhaps best rendered as, "Sorry...I spaced out [and didn't catch what you said]." Interestingly, the word can also pop up in unexpected places such as on the end of jisa-boke [literally "time difference space-out"], which means "jet lag".

O-tsukare-sama / Go-kuro-sama - [お疲れ様 / ご苦労様] I am asked about these expressions far more than any other, usually by students who want to know how to say them to English-speaking pen-pals or exchange students. My response is always, "You can't." There is simply no way to translate these terms into English, at least not directly. "Tsukare" (after the verb/adjective honorific "o") is a verb (which can also function as a noun) that means "to become tired". "Kurou" (after the noun honorific "go") is a noun which means "suffering". The "sama" ending is an honorific title roughly equivalent to English "lord/lady". In other words, "o-tsukare-sama" literally means, "My tired lord," and "go-kurou-sama" means, "My suffering lord". Perhaps now you are thinking, "What...the...f..?" Well, simply speaking, "O-tsukare-sama deshita," ("You were my tired lord") is the proper thing to say to someone who has been working hard. Coworkers always say it to each other just before going home. "Go-kurou-sama deshita," ("You were my suffering lord") is what you should say to someone who has just gone to a lot of trouble for you. Both these expressions are highly polite but are an important part of everyday discourse. There is nothing at all like them in English. Perhaps the most realistic translations I've been able to come up with so far are the comparatively pitiful, "Good job," and, "You poor thing," respectively.

Itadakimasu / Kudasaimasu / Itashimasu - [頂きます/下さいます / 致します] Keigo, or honorific speech, is a complicated but colorful Japanese tradition which is sadly on the decline. Several verbs and even some nouns have an honorific and/or humble form to be used in polite situations. Learning how to use keigo properly can be a headache for Japanese students, let alone foreigners, which is probably why it is fading out in today's convenience-oriented culture. However, there are three important keigo words that continue to be a part of everyday life. "Itadakimasu" (plain form "itadaku") is the humble word used to mean "receive". Actually, it is probably closer in meaning to "partake", since it conveys the idea of receiving a boon from someone higher. It is also what Japanese usually say before eating. At any rate, businesses in particular tend to use the word a lot, such as when saying, "Kongetsu no o-shiharai wo itadakimasu." (lit. "I shall partake of your monthly payment," i.e. "Pay me, damn it!") Kudasaimasu (plain form "kudasau") literally means to give from a higher position to a lower one (i.e. "bestow"?). It is also used in polite situations such as when saying, "Kacho-san ha tokidoki watashitachi ni chonaigasu wo kudasaimasu." ("The boss sometimes bestows intestinal gas upon us.") The shortened form "kudasai" is used like English "please", either by itself when asking for something (e.g. "Sushi, kudasai!") or attached to a verb to make it a polite command (e.g. "Damatte kudasai," lit. "Bestow upon me the honor of shutting your mouth!"). Itashimasu is the humble way to say "do", and it is a favorite for making otherwise ordinary statements seem very self-deprecating (and glorifying to the listener). Take for example the oft-used "onegai" [お願い], which means "request". If a Japanese wants something, s/he may say simply, "Onegai," and it would mean more or less the same thing as, "Please!" Making it, "Onegai shimasu," [shimasu = "do"] would increase the politeness level to, "Would you, please?" However, bumping it up to, "Onegai itashimasu," brings it to the level of, "I'm begging you on my hands and knees!" Japanese are even more fond than foreign learners of their language of griping about keigo. However, as long as brown-nosing continues to help people get ahead, these three words will no doubt continue to be used.

[To be continued...]


  • P/s go ahead, i am reading & learning.

    By Anonymous PinkPanther, at 4:17 PM  

  • Currently there are several young Japanese men - students aged about 19 - staying with various friends in our suburb in Geelong while they do a crash course in English for ONE WEEK ONLY. We met two at a party and three at church. They were actually hosted by Tongan and Fijian families. The boys seemed polite but quite lost with our use of language. Some retreated to their bedrooms to escape talking but one woman insisted he try to converse with her and surely that's what the hospitality was meant to be for.

    By Blogger Peceli and Wendy's Blog, at 2:18 PM  

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