Translating Japanese Culture



     Spring has come! Cherry trees are in full bloom now! Their blossoms are so beautiful outside! But I’m writing now inside…Time flies! This is the final day in March today, but this is my first article this month!

     I’ve been so busy…well…I’ll start with participating in a lecture in the beginning of this month. The title of the lecture was “Translating Japanese Culture into English” and it was held on the 2nd under the auspices of AGGN (Aichi Goodwill Guides Network) in Nisshin, which is a town next to Nagoya. And the lecturer was Mr. Michael Kruse, the teacher at Chukyo University.

     Mr. Kruse gave a lecture to the audiences on some tips on how to explain Japanese things and culture in English by these three steps: 1. General attitude, 2. Usefulness of translation, 3. Problems of translation

1. General Attitude
     The lecture was for English guides essentially, though I’m not a guide. According to Mr. Kruse, you should start with some similarities each other for making the guiding smooth because people tend to open their minds easier when they find something in common than when they find differences.
For example, Christmas in the UK and shogatsu, New Year’s Day in Japan, is different as you know, but there’re many similarities between them. 

     In both events, people celebrate them in winter, decollate something with evergreens such as Christmas trees and Japanese kadomatsu, New Year’s decorative pine branches, and have a feast which can keep for a long time such as mince pies and dried fruits for Christmas and osechi for shogatsu.

     He also explained similarities with ancient tombs as well.

2. Usefulness of Translation
     He used an example as follows:
“What Is Happening Here?
First, bring in the utensils and arrange them carefully on the floor. You should already have soaked, wrung and folded the linen-cloth and placed it in the bowl along with the whisk. Be careful to place the water-jar on the side near the guest if it is summer and on the other side if it is winter…

That’s explanation for Japanese tea ceremony. As you see, translation is often very useful. Most people can understand easily what is happening there when they read it.

3. Problems of Translation
     According to Mr. Kruse, translation is sometimes positively off-putting. For example, shako is “mantis shrimp” (Mantis! Yuck!), konyaku is “devil’s tongue” (What! D..devil’s toungue?!), and hamachi is “yellow-tail” (Yellow tail…what is that?). All of them above are foods. Shako is a kind of shrimp, konyaku is a kind of vegetable, and hamachi is a kind of fish. As general principle, you should translate only when it us useful.
     And you should use some Japanese words as they are when you give directions. For example, you should say “Higashi-ku”, not Higashi-ward. And it sometimes may useful to mix Japanese and English words when you explain buildings or Japanese things such as Horyuji is Horyuji Temple, Kiyomizudera is Kiyomizudera Temple although “ji” and “tera (dera)” mean temple in Japanese because names of temples and the words “ji” or “tera (dera)” are bound strongly in Japanese language. And you do the same way for other words like shitake mushrooms and koi carp and so on. (“Take” means mushroom and “koi” means carp in Japanese.)

     Mr. Kruse also gave the audience some common Japanese words in English as follows.
*Uncountable: (a piece of ) tofu, (a plate of / two pieces of) sushi, (a piece of) tempura, (a bowl of ) soba, ramen and udon.
*Countable: tsunami, kimono, shinkansen, futon
*Countable but plural form is the same as singular one: manga, anime, samurai, netsuke
*Uncountable in the UK, but countable in the US: geisha, haiku

     It’s not easy to explain Japanese things and culture in other language because language itself is a part of culture of the country, I think. So, the lecture was very fruitful.

*photos from wikipedia


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