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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Japanese has made me write dumb.

I was really interested in this interview I read with Jay Rubin, who handles a lot of the Murakami-to-English translation. Particularly this excerpt:

Q: Murakami sometimes directly incorporates English phrases into his novel. Does that fit well in your translation? For example, in “Nejimaki-dori Kuronikuru” (The Wind-up Bird Chronicle), he used the phrase, “Kojinteki ni toranaide kure,” which is obviously from “Don’t take it personally.”
A: The problem is to translate it “back” into English that is as unusual as the Japanese, but often I lazily go for the “original” English expression. This way, the batakusasa (Western air) of Murakami’s style is lost. Sorry.
Having had to deal with the whole "just because you can say it in Japanese doesn't make it something that a Japanese person would say" thing on a daily basis for years... I thought it was pretty cool to see someone articulate it with such a great example. A literary one, no less.

So let's get this out of the way: I am not Japanese. Most of what I have to say in this post could be explained away by saying "You just don't understand how to make a sentence like a real Japanese person does."

Fair enough.

Right then.

The number one problem I have in co-authoring an all Japanese blog with my Japanese wife is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the exact same problem I had co-teaching English with Japanese teachers. They spend all their time addressing the slowest person in the room.

I have an easier time accepting this in the classroom (especially the public one). Sure it ensures that your smart kids only learn as much as the dumb ones, and often turns them off of school altogether. But yeah, everyone has the right to be in school, and 子供1人も置いて行かれないように, and all that.

But when I'm writing my blog, for my imagined audience, who are all as smart as, if not smarter than you, dear reader, I like to think that I'm allowed to set the bar.

Most of the time, when Yuri reads a blog post I've published, and suggests a change here or there, I capitulate. She is the Japanese person, after all.

But a handful of times, I've raised objections. Often I don't want to change something that I wrote deliberately for effect (humorous or otherwise)... and yesterday's blog was just a train-wreck of differing opinions. Here are some examples:

In a post all about going to see what is billed as THE WORLD'S GREATEST sun set ("evening sun" is in the title, and mentioned once again before the sentence in question), I wrote 「落ちる前に 奇麗なレストランを探し、そこでゆっくり見よう。」 "Before it goes down, let's find a nice restaurant and watch it at our leisure."

Now you see why I stopped posting English translations with every post. It sounds pretty vapid in English.

But the point here was, Yuri thought the sentence would be easier to understand if I said explicitly, "Before the SUN goes down." Okay... fair enough. But is it really necessary?

When I wrote about buying two Heinekens, ハイネケン2本、I was advised to say Heineken beers, because some people might not know about Heineken. I think it's safe to assume most of my audience knowns beer. Or that the Japanese audience for a world travel blog knows about Heineken. And even if they don't, they know we bought two bottles of something with dinner, and they won't really be missing out on that much information if that's as far as they get.

The Heineken info was part of an explanation that, as we awaited this beautiful sunset and had dinner, we started to feel less enthused about it. I wrote "As we ate, though, our tension started to drop."

My editor said: "Why?"

For me, when I want to find out the reason behind something written on the page... I keep reading. But, and this isn't just Yuri's opinion, Japanese writing doesn't really make you look that far ahead to get answers. Some might argue it's built into the sentence structure. Get the Where-What-How-Why-Who out in front, before you even get to your verb.

And then finally, I compared this top ranking sunset, which we didn't even end up staying for, with another one that we had watched from a beach days before. The latter was much more... us. It was quiet, we didn't have to put up with an enormous crowd, we didn't have to pay anything to sit on the sand. I wrote "I bet (The beach we watched from) isn't listed anywhere on any kind of ranking. But it was nice (literally: good)."

I'm not winning any awards for prose anytime soon, but sometimes I like saying "It was nice." I like the understatement, the smallness of it... because it matches the mood, the calm, and the much smaller scale (in terms of world-fame, not sun-size) of the viewing experience that we preferred.

But a Japanese person would understand it better if it said "But it was amazingly, superlatively, lovely."

Fine... but that's not HOW I wanted to say it.

This post is hard for me to make, cause it feels a little like a laundry list of complaints about my wife's writing style. But it's not. I've had corrections from professional editors, teachers, translating clients that all speak to the same three issues:

1) Japanese prefers all the information as soon as possible, and outside of a mystery novel, it's wise not to expect people to just keep reading to get the answers.

2) Very little is made of the idea of understanding by context, or looking up stuff you don't know. Someone out there is gonna go "Before it goes down? Wait, before WHAT goes down?" Someone won't like that they had to open a new tab and google Heineken.

3) And last but not last... the same need to declare everything the BEST, the MOST... the squealing "Oishii" and "Kawaii"until we all die phenomenon applies to writing too.

Maybe it's really just a cultural difference. But to me, it feels like dumbing down my writing at best... churning out something generic at worst. "We went. It was really beautiful. We ate. It was really delicious."

I find it harder to take pride in my ability to write and to speak in English these days. I used to consider it my strong suit.

I wouldn't trade in my Japanese to go back, of course, but... man. Man.


Derek Blais said...

On the contrary, I feel my English writing has improved from studying, or should I say, "being involved with Japanese—language and people." My writing is clearer than it used to be. Maybe it's because my writing was so terrible before.

BilabialBoxing said...

I try to stay on the descriptive side of linguistics, rather than the prescriptive. Language is so closely tied to culture that most of the time you just have to shrug your shoulders and say, "Fuckin' fine then." However, it bothers me to think that a language like English can seemingly be used however the fuck you want to use it to say whatever the fuck you want, but a language like Japanese seemingly cannot. I suspect English has gotten to be this way in part because so many people speak it in so many different cultures, and so it has so many different faces. Perhaps one of the reasons that Japanese seems so PROscriptive is that it is still pretty much just used by Japanese people to talk about Japanese stuff.

Maybe sometimes you should just say, fuck you guys, and say what you want.

kamo said...

Ah, here we go. My own personal theory is that, for all that 'the moon is so beautiful' nonsense, Japanese people actually hate ambiguity. Or rather they love it, but only within very clearly defined situations and limits. Unambiguous ambiguity then...

You're operating at a much higher level than me, but I've also noticed something of a tendency for people to narrate their lives more in Japan/ese. If you found something surprising you don't just say 'Oh!', you say 'I was surprised.' If you are meeting someone for the first time it's not 'nice to meet you,' it's, 'This is the first time(we are meeting).'

Again though, it could just be that those things are more noticeable with my relatively weak Japanese. You'll have a better idea if there's anything to it or not.

Bobby Judo said...


Yeah, that's where I've ended up, more times than not. If whatever I want to say doesn't sound like something a Japanese person would say, I think I'm at the point where I can decide whether or not it's worth it to say it my way anyway. I'm not a Japanese person, after all, and if my weird sentence helps capture that, all the better.


I remember that post. It's pretty spot on. And yeah, you're right about narrating their lives. One of the biggest things I tease my wife about is that no matter where, or how she fell asleep, the first thing she always says upon waking is "I was asleep." I was raised on a writing mantra of "show-don't-tell," whereas in Japanese, so often, it tends to be "make sure you tell, even though everyone can see it."

On an unrelated note, we watched Norwegian Wood last night, cause Yuri just finished the book and wanted to check it out. There's a character whose backstory is COMPLETELY excised in the film, you just know she's a patient at a mental health resort, been there for 7 years. Toward the end of the book, she sleeps with the protagonist, in what I remember (I read the English version a long time ago) as almost a scene of celebration, in a light-hearted, let's do it kind of way. It's after they've both started to get past their respective hang-ups. I remember it being a happy scene. They laugh and joke a lot. In the movie, it's a very somber and serious moment, driven by mourning. And when it's done the minor character says "Now I feel I've finally recaptured whatever it was I lost 7 years ago."

I was like "Man, am I glad that you said that out loud, to no one in particular, cause otherwise people watching would've had NO CLUE."

I guess my point here is the "make sure you tell" style lets you be lazy and cheap at its worst, and encourages redundancy at its ... other worst.

Amy said...

Just wanted to say thank you for saying something I'd been thinking too but didn't know how to put into words (oh god, it really has been too long).

I can't help but believe that the smart, even smarter than me people, will get what you're saying without all the really's and so's. They will get it and be grateful for your voice, and for giving them the chance to see what you're saying without saying it yourself.

Tori-kun said...

Hey Bobby,

exactly the "I'm not a Japanese, yet I can speak Japanese and talk the way I want and do in my mother tongue"-thingey lead to an ultimate けんか between a good friend and me and made me finally quit learning Japanese.

I'm not sure if I start again; it just pissed me off so much T_T

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