Some of my best conversations happen in Starbucks over a skim latte. This week my friend and I were chatting about movies. She’s Korean, this close friend of mine, but she came to Japan as an expat with her family when she was a teenager, and between that and college at Boston University, the result is that she is perfectly trilingual between Korean, Japanese and English. She has a lot of Chinese ability too, but she plays it down as a fourth language. My interest in words and language often mesh with her ability to see language from a different perspective than I do and this day was no different.
Recently my friend had seen “Les Miserables” in the theater. I had never thought about it before, but being trilingual has a distinct effect on her movie-going experience. She’s fluent in English so she saw the film in English, but the Japanese subtitles that were inevitably present captured more of her attention than she would have liked. Then she was thinking of her Mother in Seoul, who would have also seen the film in English, but with Korean subtitles. In the Korean language, there is no “Z” sound. This had an interesting effect on one particular scene in the movie. The innkeeper and his wife are looking to get as much money out of Valjean as they can when he comes to take Cosette from them, but the innkeeper can’t even remember the girl’s name and bumbles around saying Colette, Courgette, and other things, and finally the wife reminds him of “Cosette.” My friend was wondering how the Korean translator would have expressed “Cojette” since there is no Z sound in Korean and it would have made no difference in writing between Cosette and Cojette when the innkeeper calls the girl “Cojette”. She speculates that perhaps that particular joke is lost on Korean viewers since they can’t properly see or read the name Cosette as it is meant to be heard or read anyway. What she is pointing out is that a lot of nuance and puns are lost in translation and that language plays a role in the formation and context in which we see a film.
My friend thinks that the problems are actually bigger when a foreign film is translated into English, particularly from Korean or Japanese. Japanese has a lot of sensitive feminine speech, the nuance of which can’t be translated into English at all because it has to do more with the way the speaker feels when using those particular words. If the character didn’t feel a certain way, she wouldn’t use those particular phrases. Another example my friend gives is when a child is speaking to a grandparent on-screen. There are certain ways of addressing grandparents that a Japanese child would use that have no direct translation into English. One example is the word “you” – a child would never ask directly if “you wanted something” when speaking to a respected elder. “You” can be a very harsh, direct word that a child would not use. But there is no other way to translate that into English – English doesn’t have a nuanced way of speaking relationally the way more formal languages such as Japanese do. The translators do the best they can when writing the subtitles to capture the real meanings of the ideas and thoughts presented, but they have limited structures of language in which to work. It’s not so much words exactly as it is deferential structures of speaking.
My friend looks at the subtitles of a film with the curiosity of someone interested in language. She admits that sometimes when a touching or thoughtful scene is on the screen, she looks down on purpose to see how it’s translated, no matter in which language she is seeing the film. She also admits that sometimes she misses a moment of the action if she’s examining subtitles, particularly if it’s non-verbal on-screen. She laughingly says it’s the price she pays for learning and interest.
I am now resolved to see more films with my friend, and of course, to have more lattes together.
Bailey and his dad in a rare moment of sitting still before a soccer game.
A few weeks ago I was at my son’s soccer tournament and he allowed a goal (he’s a goalie). From our side of the crowd, after the initial letdown, a shout went up: “Do Mai!”
Confused, I turned to my friend next to me, who is Japanese, but grew up mostly in the U.S. Without me asking, she knew exactly what I wanted to know. She explained that it really is a form of English that the crowd shouts – it’s pronounced “DOH – MY” and it is a shortened and Japanese style way of saying “DON’T MIND”. Yep, that’s right. They didn’t want my son to fret about the goal he allowed, so the common yell is “Do Mai!” Any time someone misses a goal or basket or hit in any game, or allows a goal, basket or hit, that is what the crowd shouts at their team. Basically they’re saying “don’t worry about it – you’ll do better next time.” It’s meant as form of support and solidarity with the players.
I hunted around and found a whole long list of these types of words, which I know I’ve mentioned before here. Here’s the site I found, called “TELFtastic“. Have fun with it!
But trust me, this is not the last time I’m mentioning this. As a writer and language aficionado, I find the whole phenomenon of mixing Japanese and English to be fascinating. Enjoy!
This is one of the most interesting photos from our recent sojourn in Hawaii over the holidays. It is my two kids, ages 12 and 9, as they enter the submarine “USS Bowfin” which is parked next to the visitors’ center at Pearl Harbor, and available to tour along with the USS Arizona Memorial and the Battleship Missouri. When Marc and I were first in Hawaii over thirteen years ago, the Arizona was the only thing to see, so we were glad to be back and see the additional ships. Showing it to the kids was just magnificent. When you don’t live in America, there is little reason to be patriotic as an American. This visit connected the kids to a very important time in their country’s history and it was tangible and real for them.
That being said, every single sign at Pearl Harbor is in Japanese as well as in English. That is by no means a phenomenon limited to the touristy areas. All over Honolulu signs, menus, products – all Japanese. This one struck me particularly because I do not know a lot of Kanji symbols – but I do know the one for “enter” and that’s it right there. Because we live in Japan, we didn’t notice for a little while that what we were seeing was not usual for a small, American city, but it is. There’s not another American city, I would bet, with more signs in Japanese than Honolulu. Even some menus were printed in Japanese as well as in English. The guidebook to our hotel was in both languages. One waiter told us that no one could get a job in Honolulu in the restaurant or tourist industries without knowing – or being willing to learn – some basic Japanese.
Just a quick aside: there is an Ugg store right on the main strip in Waikiki. Why, might you ask, do Hawaiians need Australian sheepskin boots? It’s not the Hawaiians who need Uggs; it’s the Japanese. To a man, every single patron in the shop was Japanese. AND, there was a line out the door to enter the shop (I assume so there was not a fire-code violation) comprised of all Japanese shoppers. Ugg boots are not for wear in Hawaii where the temperature hovers between 77-82 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. Ugg boots are for Japanese tourists to buy less expensively than in Tokyo and wear when at home. This speaks to the buying power of the Japanese tourists and the volume of them vacationing in Hawaii.
So there are the kids, entering a wholly-American experience of a war sub, with Japanese signage. I think it actually made them comfortable as the meshing of their bi-cultural lives. Certainly it was interesting for all of us to encounter a place loaded with Japanese people and Japanese signage, where WE are the natives.
I’m very lucky to have friends who can instruct me on common usage of Japanese. This week’s entry is particularly relevant to those of us who are turning or have recently turned 40, so enjoy!
Everyone knows that in English, especially in the U.S., we say that forty is the new thirty. Well, in Japan as well, it’s in vogue to be forty years old. In fact there’s a whole context to turning forty. People who are in and around forty years old are, “ARA4″
Ara4 is the Japanese way of shortening “around forty.” It’s a pretty typical mixture of Japanese and English expression to create a short term that’s rife with meaning. People who are ara4 are at or near the pinnacle of their careers. They are able to take advantage of the height of fashion. They have money and are not afraid to use it. They not only have the money to be comfortable, but they have the background, experience and intelligence to use it well.
What gives me a giggle is that it’s a progressive usage. A few years ago, the term that was popular in Japan was “ara-sa” which is short for “around thirty.” Don’t forget, the Japanese have trouble with the “th” digraph in English, so “thirty” in English is pronounced “sah-tee.” Hence, ara-sa. It was cool to be thirty or thereabouts.
Don’t forget that in Japanese society, everything new is great. New cars, new fashion, new everything. So it stands to reason that society values youth. Slowly, that’s changing. I understand that it’s a bit of a contradiction in Japanese society. Age is revered and respected, but youth is valued and relevant. The young are taught to respect and learn from their elders but to move forward with progress – at least in most respects. It’s another one of those quirks of society.
Now, however, perhaps things are changing a little bit. It’s not only youth that is valued so highly – the forty-year-old set is not yet over-the-hill apparently.
For me, on the cusp of my fortieth birthday, I love this idea. I plan to be in vogue and ara-4 for a few years.
image courtesy of ebookreader123.com
Everyone knows that the younger generation talks differently from the one before, however, it just seems more extreme here in Japan right now. It’s almost like the sixties were in America – never trust anyone over thirty. In Japan, the people under thirty seem to want nothing to do with the people who are over forty. The youngsters have even invented a term to describe how out-of-touch they think the old-sters can be.
In Japanese, the term is Kuuki Yomenai.
Literally translated (thank you, Saori) it means “cannot read the air” – kuuki meaning air, yomenai meaning cannot read. Basically, they mean clueless.
Here’s where it gets interesting, though: in Japanese, many things are shortened, word-wise. A department store is a depato; a supermarket is a suupa; and a personal computer is a passocon. There tends to be an infusion of English, as you can see. In this case, though, it’s more than an infusion. The Japanese kids actually say that someone is KY. In Japanese, it would be Oto-san ni KY dessu – translated as, “my mother is KY – clueless.” The letters K and Y, though they do not exist in any sense in the Japanese alphabet, have come into use when referring to someone who isn’t with-it. The sentence is only half in actual Japanese!
So let’s not get started on the connotation of KY to an American. I know we’ve all see the late-night commercials about using KY to deepen her sexual pleasure, but these implications are lost on the Japanese – nonexistent.
Language is one of the biggest barriers separating the older generation from the younger, and the chasm is only going to deepen. Going forward in Japan, it’s going to be interesting to see how decisions are made with regards to language and its growth – language is a living thing and the lexicon constantly grows. If Japanese want to stay in the global game here, then the people have to work together, not allow polarizations between generations. The future depends on it.
As for me, I hope to remain in-the-know as long as possible; I don’t want to become KY myself!