From the Foreign to the Familiar: Found in Translation
[box]From the Foreign to Familiar will address the complexities of being a foreigner in Japan and the importance of learning through observation and engagement. This column will debunk the unique customs that are often deemed weird or strange by Westerners, and provide insight into deeper meanings and definitions of intimacy, family and community in Japanese culture.[/box]
When I moved to Japan one month after graduating from college with a degree in Japanese, I didn’t really know how to speak the language very well. This was back before the internet and in the town where I went to school there were few chances to converse with native speakers, so I had very little real experience in the spoken language outside of the classroom and listening to cassette tapes two hours a week in the language lab.
Once I got to Japan, it became clear very quickly that what it took to get good grades in school had little in common with what I needed to know in the real world. I could read the signs in the train station,but anything beyond a simple conversation confounded me. My halting attempts at speaking Japanese were almost inevitably met with a reply in slightly less halting English. It just seemed easier to make do with someone else’s poor English than forge ahead with my own poor Japanese.
I worked hard to improve my Japanese skills and over time I repeatedly came across words or concepts that I had come to understand, but couldn’t really render into English smoothly or succinctly. I came to realize that cultural fluency involves more than just vocabulary and grammar and that the real knowing of another language and culture isn’t something that is accurately measured in any kind of traditional examination or test.
Japanese is considered a difficult language to learn. The grammar is very different from most other languages. There are three (or four, depending on whether or not you count the alphabet) writing systems to learn and one of those has about 2,000 characters you need to know for adult literacy. There are myriad levels of politeness that shift depending on context. And even if you could find a one to one correspondence in words, the way people express themselves in Japanese is so different from the way most Westerners converse that you would find yourself communicating less effectively than you might expect you would.
I’ve chosen some Japanese words that I have found useful, delightful or just plain difficult to render in clear and succinct English. At home we use some of these words regularly even when we’re speaking English because they convey exactly what we mean in a quick, convenient way.
Yoroshiku is one of the most basic and most often used words in Japanese. It’s also one of the hardest to explain in English. It has a flavor of asking for someone’s favor or good graces in either a general long-term way or for a specific task. It is also used to send your regards to someone via another person. We rarely in English come straight out and say “Please be good to me,” or “Please take care of me and treat me well,” but that acknowledgement of and request for another’s favor is a core component of social interaction in Japan. In a culture that stresses interdependence, it is necessary to have a way to explicitly acknowledge the interconnectedness of individuals and to remind people that you are counting on them and requesting their favor. You might expect it to somehow sound pushy, but it doesn’t. It’s just part of common politeness.
Natsukashii is an adjective that describes the fond feeling you get when something reminds you of someone or something you enjoyed in the past. It often gets translated as “nostalgic”, but for me natsukashii is something you remember with a smile, while nostalgic sounds like a harkening back to the old days, not necessarily my own. I think the term nostalgia is more often used for broader cultural phenomena while natsukashii is always personal. I don’t think I’d ever say “Wow. That makes me feel nostalgic,” but if a friend mentions a fun time we had together in the past or if I see a photo of my daughter in her school uniform on her first day of school, I would certainly say “Natsukashii.” There is a certain strain of sentimentality in Japanese culture that is quite sweet. Natsukashii is a part of that.
As a translator, the term monozukuri always causes me problems. It literally means “the making of things” but it encompasses aspects of craftsmanship, meticulousness, pride in the production process and an affinity for the creation of goods that are carefully considered and of the highest possible quality. Monozukuri also contains a sense of pride in a job well done and an affinity for vocation akin to a calling. It’s not just folks making things for a pay check. It’s people engaging in work that gives their working lives meaning.
The English translations of meiwaku are usually rendered as “annoyance,” “disturbance” or “a bother.” All of these sounds trifling in English, but in Japan meiwaku is a big deal. I believe in Japan the Golden Rule that children are taught is not “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” but “meiwaku o kakenai” “don’t cause trouble for other people.” People raised in Japanese culture are ingrained with a sensitivity to how their words and actions affect others. In some situations this inhibits spontaneity, but it’s really nice to live in a culture where people instinctively have a high level of consideration for others.
The Japanese language has some great adjectives and sawayaka is one of those. Dictionaries will tell you it means “refreshing” but sawayaka doesn’t really mean quenching, novel or out of the ordinary. It feels clean, fresh, clear and bright and often is used to described wholesome, healthy and eager young people or products that impart a feeling that is crisp and fresh like a white canvas sail unfurling in the breeze of a bright blue summer sky. I think the sound of it combined with the meaning make it a very attractive word.
At the end of a busy day I often get a text from my daughter asking what’s for dinner. As often as not I don’t have any definitive answer, just some vague ideas about what’s in the fridge. “Oh, that’s okay. We can just do tekitô,” is usually how she replies. A dictionary will tell you tekitô means suitable, appropriate, adequate or sufficient, but in common conversational usage it means something like “make do” or even “wing it.” Japanese culture has an affinity for precision and a focus on detail, so doing things tekitô is not considered in a particularly positive light in formal situation, but in situations involving friends or family it’s a handy way to say you’ll take care or something (including yourself) and they don’t need to worry about the details of how you’ll get it done.
Language shapes our realities and our realities are dictated by the perceptions shaped and shared within our cultures. This is why I am fascinated with words that are hard to translate. When you learn a different language and culture, you discover ways to verbalize concepts that don’t exist independently in your native culture and this helps you see the world in a new light. Sometimes this phenomenon opens you up to new ways of thinking and other times it feels like you have found a kindred spirit when that thing you have always felt without a way to describe it is finally given a name.
Less than a week after landing in Tokyo I moved to Kyoto, where I discovered they speak a dialect that, at the time, seemed like it had nothing in common with the Japanese I had studied for four years of college. For example, instead of arigato they said ookini and the polite suffix -san was now -han. Verbs conjugated differently and I started to feel like someone was playing a really bad joke on me since this language sounded nothing like what I thought Japanese was supposed to be. With time and effort I learned both standard Japanese and the local dialect as well and along the way began the process of creating my own new identity in a foreign language and culture.