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関連寄稿 - Jonathan Berry

2015/10/10

English from the perspective of Japanese
and Japanese from the perspective of English
Jonathan Berry

              I have been studying the Japanese language on and off for more than 10 years but have only recently become more serious about mastering the language and working towards a qualification in translation.  Over the years, I have done little bits of translation here and there, predominantly from Japanese to English.  Most of the time, the main challenge that recurred was trying to determine the right verb tense to use and the subject, which is all too often absent in Japanese.  Also, since so many words in Japanese cannot be simply converted to English it's often difficult to decide the most suitable vocabulary.  Whichever word I finally decided upon there was always going to be some discretion and obviously subjectivity.

              I started studying for the literature specialty of Babel's translation degree from April this year. Coming from a background of teaching English to Japanese people I thought it was time to branch out a little.  Easier said than done.  Over the past few months, even with plenty of practice and excellent lecture material and guidance I have realized how remarkably different the languages are, especially when translating from English to Japanese and also how weak my understanding of the Japanese language actually was.

              One of the more obvious differences I have found is the nature of the subject in a sentence.  Where the English language requires the frequent repetition of the subject, Japanese rarely needs it, especially after the first time it is used in a sentence.  When translating, it is difficult to know exactly when and in which manner it can be removed from the sentence while still implying it is there.  It's almost as if it were a ghost that only people with sixth sense can see. 

              Where English focuses on using nouns quite a lot, the Japanese language often uses more of a combination of adverbs and verbs.  For example 'the knowledge of his safe arrival' would be better worded as 'knowing that he arrived safely' in Japanese.  Whereas in English a writer or speaker would say things like 'her efforts', 'his intelligence', or 'their incomprehension' and so on, it cannot be worded the same way in Japanese.  Well, of course it is grammatically possible, but would not sound natural or readable to a native speaker. 

              I have found subtle, or at least apparently subtle differences of word connotations to be one of the most interesting differences between the languages.  In English the word 'coward' for example conjures up ideas of running from danger and being timid and when referring to a dictionary, two Japanese words come up which are slightly different in meaning - either cowardly, as in scared and timidly or cowardly, as in unfair or mean.  Even words which I thought were always simple to translate like 'know' or 'understand' have a vast number of variations in Japanese that I didn't know about until I started studying translation.  It seems to me that Japanese utilizes more of an emotional range of words than the English language does - words related to unspoken feelings, thoughts, people's dispositions and so on.

              I previously mentioned about adverbs, but another thing that I have noticed about them is the vast array of words that can be used in Japanese which really don't have equivalents in English.  Onomatopoeic words such as meow, woof, tick tock or drip drop of course are used in both languages but Japanese has words like 'choko-choko' or 'shan shan' to describe movement, 'za-' to describe a downpour of rain and 'doki-doki' to describe a throbbing heartbeat.  Of course, for the translator, there are plenty of ways to translate such words, for example, with similes or just verbs but that single onomatopoeic word in Japanese keeps the sentence brief and descriptive and packs more a of a 'punch' to it.  John Bester's translation of  'The Tales of Miyazawa Kenji' illustrates this very well.  Trying to keep the translated text to a similar length as the source language is therefore sometimes tricky.

              The nature and variety of the first-person subject is perhaps an obvious point to many, but I didn't know just how many there were until now.  When it's necessary to translate the English word 'I' for example, Japanese has so many words to offer which are bound up with register, age, and relationship between the speakers.  I (as a male) can be 'watashi', 'ore', 'boku', 'watakushi', 'ware' and many more depending on such factors and can also be written in katakana, kanji or hiragana to affect the way it sounds.  In the same manner 'I', when female, can be 'watashi', 'atashi', 'atakushi', 'atai' 'uchi` and more.  English lacks that ability to be so specific without the author actually describing the person speaking or just leaving it up to the reader to imagine the way that person speaks.  As a non-native translator to Japanese it can be a very interesting game of trial and error and conferring with a native speaker of the language is undoubtedly necessary.  Since Japanese is so concerned with the position, degree of respect and age difference between people, the way that person speaks must also be represented in the translation.  A father who speaks abruptly or coarsely would naturally have a more aggressive tone in his language.  In this sense, Japanese seems to have a more emotive characteristic to its language compared to English.

              In English, sentence length is in theory limitless due to the ease in which pausing devices like commas, semi-colons and relative clauses can be used.  In Japanese relative clauses are obviously used but not as frequently as with English and sentence length tends to be shorter in general I have noticed.  Therefore, when translating from English to Japanese it is often necessary to cut sentences up otherwise the sentence becomes kind of confusing.  Where to divide them is of course a challenge and how to make it sound natural to a reader too.

              Loanwords which are represented by katakana are a very unique and convenient feature of Japanese.  When words word like cream, milk, cake, French fries are come across it's very simple to write them in katakana and they are instantly recognizable.  In a similar way, when a name is written in katakana, it is obvious straight away that the person or place is foreign and therefore the reader can automatically picture it without necessarily even knowing where exactly that individual or location is in the world.  The way that katakana imitates foreign sounds too helps to make places sound authentic to the language they came from, for example Paris as 'Pari' or Rome as 'Ro-ma'. 

              The stress on singular and plural forms in English and the relative absence of them in Japanese makes translation easy in some ways.  From English to Japanese, unless it's explicably stated how many of something there are, the word can simply be stated as one thing in Japanese.  When translating from Japanese to English on the otherhand it may be necessary to think about whether it's just one thing or more than one that is being described.  

 
Jonathan Berry
My name is Jonathan Berry.  I'm from England and currently reside in Kagawa prefecture, Japan. 
I currently work as an English instructor and want to become a translator. 
I'm interested in movies, books and cultural differences and studied Human Geography at university. 
Graduating 13 years ago, studying after such a long time will be hard but I'm willing to do my best.