Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Monday, April 08, 2013

Literally Speaking...

I admit I've always found it entertaining to watch new arrivals to the Land of the Rising Sun wrestle with the local language.  It's especially amusing when a group of newbies debate the meaning of phrases among themselves.  In my own case, I'd already learned quite a bit of Japanese when I came here, so I was able to avoid some of the usual pitfalls.  Of course, that also put me in the ironic position of having to get it through the rookies' skulls that I really did understand what the words actually meant, and that their highly simplified phrasebooks couldn't always be trusted.

When learning any foreign language, one of the biggest dangers is assuming that the words in a particular phrase mean exactly the same thing as the functional equivalent in English.  This is particularly true when learning the language via the audio-lingual method or simply memorizing situation-based expressions rather than individual words.  Most newbies coming to live and work in Japan follow such an approach because it is quicker, easier, and more seductive.  However, while falling to the Dark Side of Language Learning can help one with basic living needs here in the Land of the Rising Sun, it can potentially lead to problems later.  Allow me to show you some examples:

"Ohayou gozaimasu."  (お早う御座います。)  Usual translation:  "Good morning."  Literal meaning:  "It's so early!" - Most people can probably get along just fine thinking that this expression really does mean, "Good morning," even if it they don't understand why the Japanese expression is normally used only before 10 a.m..  However, they're likely to get confused when they discover that stage performers of any kind in this country, as well as stage or studio crews, ALWAYS greet each other with "Ohayou gozaimasu" when they arrive at their performance/work place, even if it's late at night!  I've also heard construction workers and security guards greet each other the same way.  They are literally acknowledging the fact that they've shown up early for the job.

"Shitsurei shimasu."  (失礼します。)[alt. "Shitsurei shimashita."  (失礼しました。)]  Usual translation:  "Excuse me."  ["I'm sorry."]  Literal meaning:  "I'm rude."  ["I was rude."] - This one really tends to throw unwary Westerners.  The present tense "Shitsurei shimasu" is used by Japanese when they're excusing themselves from a gathering or politely acknowledging that they're entering someone else's space (such as when students enter the teachers' room).  The past tense "Shitsurei shimashita" is normally said after someone has done something that could be considered impolite or bad form (such as when students leave the teachers' room).  However, contrary to popular belief, it is NOT an apology; it is simply an admission of "wrongdoing".  "Shitsurei" is a noun which literally translates as "loss of manners", and "shimasu" is the polite form of a common verb meaning "to do".  Therefore, when someone says, "Shitsurei shimasu," before taking his leave of a meeting, or says, "Shitsurei shimashita," after mispronouncing someone's name, he is saying he understands his actions probably make him look bad, but he is NOT saying he feels bad about it.  Unfortunately, since phrasebooks ALWAYS translate this expression as "Excuse me", it can lead to all kinds of misunderstandings...such as the time when a Japanese teacher said, "Shitsurei ni iwanai yo!" ("Don't say rude things!") to an ex-pat who had made a nasty comment, but the uninformed sod was convinced she was telling him not to apologize!  (In fact, he insisted on it vehemently when I tried to set him straight.)  I don't know how many times I've argued with rookies about the meaning of this expression, but getting them to put away the phrasebook and look at a real dictionary is usually enough.

"Irasshaimase!"  (いらっしゃいませ!)  Usual translation:  "Welcome!"/"May I help you?"  Literal meaning:  "Honor us with your presence!" - It is actually hard to translate this word into English accurately.  In grammatical terms, it is the imperative form of the honorific verb meaning "to be" or "to come/go".  Therefore, it is kind of like, "Come here," but with more honor.  It is usually uttered by workers at any kind of business when a customer comes in.  However, it can also be called to people walking by a business, and that's where confusion sometimes arises.  I've heard a number of ex-pats get flustered when they walked along a sidewalk and waitresses or shop clerks called, "Irasshaimase," (or the more colloquial "Irasshai!") after them.  "Why are they saying, 'Welcome,' when I'm not going in?" they ask.  It's because they are politely telling you to go in; that's why!

"Okaerinasai!"  (お帰りなさい!)  Usual translation:  "Welcome back!"  Literal meaning:  "Come back!" - This is a similar case to "Irasshaimase!" (see above).  It is usually spoken to someone who has just returned, either to his home or to his workplace, etc., after having gone out.  Grammatically speaking, it is the polite imperative form of the verb kaeru (帰る)meaning "to return" with an honorific attached.  Therefore, when spoken, it literally means something like, "Get in here!" only with more honor.  The usual translation can thus lead to confusion if the uninformed is told something like, "Hayaku kaerinasai!" (Come back at once!)

"Tadaima!" (ただいま!)  Usual translation:  "I'm back!"  Literal meaning:  "Just now!" - If the Japanese equivalent of "Welcome back" (above) can be confusing to foreigners, what usually precedes it is even worse.  "Tadaima!" is usually called out by someone when coming in the door after an outing.  Most phrasebooks translate it as, "I'm home!" or, "I'm back!"  That can lead to all kinds of confusion, since the term "tadaima" literally means, "just now," and is used as such in a lot of other situations.  The problem is that this is an example of an abbreviated expression; it used to be something much longer, such as, "Tadaima kaerimashita yo!" ("I've just gotten back!")  The Japanese have long been fond of finding creative ways to get things done with less effort, including communication.  Thus, there are many expressions like this one which don't make much sense by themselves but do if you know the original, full sentence.  Another example of this phenomenon is the common greeting, "Konnichiwa" (今日は), which is usually translated as "Good afternoon" or "Good day" but means simply, "As for today, ..."  Perhaps it used to be, "Konnichiwa ii deshou ne" ("Today's a good day, isn't it?") or, "Konnichiwa dou desu ka?" ("How are things today?") but the Japanese at some point decided to ditch all the value judgment baggage and simply acknowledge that it is, in fact, today.

Isn't language fun?  Sometimes I wonder how we can communicate at all...