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Thoughts on Japan

Kingaku kara no omoi - 金額からの思い

Thoughts on Japan from the National Institute of Japanese Studies. University of Sheffield

July 07, 2010

Idolatrous Cannibals in Golden Palaces (Part Two)

Carrying on from last week, in order to get information, or data for research, the best sources in my view are going to be straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, and in the language of the nation’s people, particularly when it’s as geographically and culturally distant from our own as Japan is.

‘Ah,’ says the sceptic, ‘But I’m only interested in statistics – you don’t need language for that! Or I can just work through an interpreter, or read books written in English. Why do I need to learn the language?’

Well, say you are interested in statistics, and are looking for some Japanese data, it’s not very helpful to know that 飯田市 has 225 外国人登録者 who are 就学者 divided into 167 公立学校 and 14 外国人学校, with other numbers in two other categories. You will understand the numbers, of course, but they won’t mean anything unless you can read the accompanying text to know what they refer to. (In case you’re curious, the figures above say that Iida City has 225 registered (school age) foreigners, of whom 167 are attending ordinary Japanese public schools and 14 schools for foreigners.) Admittedly, if you are in possession of a very large research grant, you can hire a Japanese research assistant to deal with the figures for you, but most people aren’t – if you want to get the data, you have to read it for yourself in Japanese.

The same is true of working through an interpreter – it’s just not an option in many circumstances. Even in the world of business, where interpreters are a way of life in interaction between international companies, who’s going to get further when all other things are equal: the person the Japanese can talk to and contact directly if there’s a problem or issue, or the one they have to wait and arrange translation and interpretation for? The one who shows they understand the Japanese expectations of a business relationship, with all the emphasis placed on long-term commitments and reliability that implies, or the one who makes no allowances for the fact that they are not dealing with people from their own country? I know which I would choose, if the situation were reversed.

Finally, what about just reading about Japan in English? Well, there’s no denying you can get a great deal of information this way, but – and this is a big but – you are then at the mercy of the accuracy and reliability of the writers you are reading. I have already described how one of the problems with English language scholarship on Japan in the 1970s and early 80s was an uncritical acceptance of many nihonjinron ideas and theories, resulting in work which gave a distorted picture of what Japanese society and language was really like, particularly when influential nihonjinron texts like Doi’s Amae no kōzō 甘えの構造 (‘The Anatomy of Dependence’) were translated into English and treated as genuine depictions of Japanese reality. Even today, long past nihonjiron’s heyday, nihonjinron writers still pop up and are allowed to make statements having little basis in fact in otherwise trustworthy venues. For example, Tsunoda Tadanobu, who I have mentioned before, was recently in The Japan Times saying:

Japanese communication is more of an exchange of feelings than of information. Our conversation is more like animal sounds, like two birds singing to each other. Ours is not as logical a language as others. (27/6/2006)

There are so many things wrong with this statement, it’s difficult to know where to begin, but suffice it to say, in my experience, when I’m speaking Japanese, or listening to Japanese people speak the language to each other, I’m not particularly aware of squawking out sounds, or of a lack of ability to hold complex, well-argued discussions – although the nature and structure of that argument might be different.

To take more literary example of why Japanese language is important, let’s think of Kawabata Yasunari 川端康成: he was awarded the 1968 Nobel Prize for Literature ‘for his narrative mastery, which with great sensibility expresses the essence of the Japanese mind’. I have no doubt of Kawabata’s worth as a prize winner, but the fact is that the committee had to read his work in translation, and simply because of the very Japanese-ness of his writing, the English versions are often a very different animal from the original. For example, Edward Seidensticker begins his 1957 translation of Kawabata’s masterwork, Yukiguni 雪国 (1935-37) with the following sentence:

The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country.

This, in fact, bears remarkably little resemblance to the Japanese original. In fact, none of the elements I’ve boldfaced in the English, above, appear in the Japanese. This is partly for grammatical reasons – Japanese doesn’t have articles, for example, so there is no equivalent for the – but much more important are Seidensticker’s decisions as a translator: what to include, what to omit, and what to insert. The original text starts:

kokkyō no nagai toneru wo nukeru to yukiguni deatta
国境の長いトネルを抜けると雪国であった。

The Japanese sentence consists of two clauses (Seidensticker’s English has just one), neither of which has a subject (Seidensticker inserts the train); the original gives the location of the tunnel – the border between provinces (kokkyō 国境) – (Seidensticker omits this); with the particle to と after the verb in the first clause in the original, there’s a sense of immediacy (‘as soon as’), and change from one thing to another – (again Seidensticker omits this); and finally, the second clause in the original, yukiguni deatta 雪国であった is a copula structure (‘was [the] snow country’), focussing on the result of the change suggested before (Seidensticker makes this a location the train enters). As you can see, there’s quite a difference between the two.

If I were asked to translate the sentence, my version would probably be:

As soon as they emerged from the long, border tunnel, they were in snow country.

But even this involves a conscious change to the text – the introduction of the subject they – which foreshadows the involvement of the protagonists for the English reader, something which is left ambiguous in the original. My version is closer to the Japanese, but it’s still not the same, and the only way to get the full sense is to read it in the original, and for that you need the language.

Or, let’s think about military history: in the introduction to his Japanese Army Operations in the South Pacific Area: New Britain and Papua Campaigns, 1942-43 (2007, Australian War Memorial), which is a translation of an excerpt of the official Japanese military history of the war (Senshi Sōsho 戦史叢書), historian and translator Steve Bullard discusses some of the issues which make the text difficult to translate, for example the use of ideologically loaded euphemisms such as gyokusai 玉砕, ‘shattered jewels’, used when soldiers fought to the death rather than surrender, or the fact that equivalents to ‘withdraw’ or ‘defeat’ simply weren’t part of the Imperial Japanese Army’s vocabulary, and so the most you will get mentioned in despatches and orders from the time is tenshin 転進, ‘alternate advance’ and any move to a defensive position is always framed as a preparation for a future offensive. Interpreting the true state of affairs behind documents such as these, then, requires not only linguistic skills, but also a knowledge of the culture and rhetoric of the Imperial Army, and this can only be gained once you have Japanese language under your belt.

Next week: what if you’re just interested in fun, Japanese things?



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