Bossed in Translation

Iridescent and beautiful, with an eye for the smallest detail, Your Name is justifiably the best-known anime movie of the decade1. It takes place in a world of fated meetings, time travel and body-switching magic, but it never loses sight of the commonplace, humdrum stuff of life. It’s been translated into English, Korean, Hindi, Spanish and a number of other languages, but there’s one scene in particular that gives translators endless trouble. Here’s the moment, all eighteen seconds of it:

There’s a lot to unpack here. Firstly, Japanese has multiple different words for ‘I’, and they are weakly or strongly gendered, meaning that some (‘watashi‘) are just a little more likely to be used by women, while others (‘boku‘) are much more likely to be used by men. The words also have age connotations, so ‘atashi‘ is far more likely to be used by young women, particularly teenagers, rather than older ones. The words also have associated levels of politeness; ‘watakushi‘ is a rather stiff, formal way of saying I, as well as a typically feminine one. ‘Boku‘ is more casual, but tends to imply that the speaker is junior to the other in the conversation, and can be seen as humble. I’ve also heard it used by older men speaking to somebody with greater expertise on a topic. Finally, ‘ore‘ comes across as a bit more assertive and laddish; you often hear it when young men are chatting to their mates. There are still more, but generally, I haven’t heard them in common usage.

So when Mitsuha (a teenage girl) inhabits Taki’s body, his friends are a little surprised to hear him/her use ‘watashi‘, but even more surprised when she reflexively corrects it to the formal ‘watakushi‘. ‘Boku‘ still won’t cut it, as it’s too self-effacing and clearly Taki isn’t that kinda guy. Only ‘ore‘ conveys a sufficient sense of teen male swagger.

christmas trees.jpg

Without ‘Me’

Then again, I’m reminded of a true story told to me by a friend I used to work with. His family loves Christmas with an abiding passion. As a result, his family has fourteen and a half Christmas trees2 during the festive season. Baubles abound. There are trees gracing the lounge, sitting in the dining room, haunting the bedrooms and stalking the corridors. So which tree are the presents under? ‘None of them!’

With such a wealth of first person pronouns, which first person pronoun should you employ for the job at hand? Well, often, none of them. Take a simple sentence:

八時に、は晩ご飯を食べた。/ hachi-ji ni, watashi wa bangohan wo tabeta.

Literally, this sentence means, ‘at eight o’clock, I ate dinner’. But if it’s obvious that you’re talking about yourself, you can drop the ‘watashi wa‘ altogether, and say simply say ‘hachi-ji ni, bangohan wo tabeta‘, or ‘eight o’clock at, dinner ate.’ You can also drop other pronouns when it’s clear who you’re talking about3:

もし彼女たちはプールで泳ぎたいたら、彼女たちはお金が必要です/ moshi kanojotachi wa puuru de oyogitaitara, kanojotachi wa okane ga hitsuyou desu.

This sentence means ‘If they (female) want to swim at the pool, they will need money.’ But in reality, you would always drop the second ‘they’, and sometimes the first one too, depending on the flow of the conversation. So your sentence would become ‘moshi puuru de oyogitaitara, okane ga hitsuyou desu’. If (they) want to swim at the pool, money will be needed. It’s actually considered rude to use pronouns excessively in Japanese, and particularly the second person. Nearly all of the words for ‘you’ can be rude or derogatory if used in the wrong situation. In Japanese, relationships define language, more than in English.

L-Plates and Grammar Cheats

I want to emphasise that I am absolutely not a master of Japanese. My language is clunky and basic, although I lived in the country for sixteen months. Part of that is my own damn fault. I never studied enough, because I always wanted to be outside exploring instead of inside in front of a book. I wasn’t confident enough in speaking to people in my earlier months, although a bit of Dutch courage helped. But there are some factors which help to make Japanese particularly daunting for an outsider.

calligraphy 2First of all is the grammar, which is tough to get your head around. Japanese doesn’t use conjunctions or prepositions as much as English, but instead it has a network of tricksy little words called grammar particles, about fifteen common ones, which explain how words relate to each other in a sentence. That wa in ‘watashi wa‘ is a topic marker, showing the topic of the sentence. Wo marks the subject of an action, like the bangohan/dinner which is being eaten. De shows the location of an action, no makes one thing the property of another, while ni can refer to the location of an object or person, or the time of an action.

When you lay it all out neatly like this, it sounds elegant and well-defined, but language is used by humans and humans are messy. In reality, sometimes grammar particles hang out at the ends of phrases together in ways I don’t understand: ‘no ni’ or ‘na no‘, which I have seen a dozen competing explanations for4. People use them differently depending on whether they’re being formal or informal, and (surprise surprise), sentence-ending particles also change with your age and gender. Using ‘no‘ as a question marker is common for kids at the theme park or women at a coffee shop, but wouldn’t fly for women in a work meeting or men having a dispute. When people are speaking, they sometimes drop grammar markers they don’t desperately need, so ‘watashi wa eiga wo mita’- I (subject) film (object) watched- becomes just ‘eiga mita‘ (watch film).

Then there’s the writing system, which by general consensus is the most complex in the world.


Character Studies

Chinese culture first hit Japan like the light of the full moon- dazzling, but indirect. It was reflected by the Three Kingdoms of Korea, which had imported Buddhism, writing5 and new styles of art from their powerful neighbour. In 552, a Korean mission brought Buddhism to Japan, where the heads of the Soga clan enthusiastically adopted it. Within sixty years, Buddhism was widespread, at least around the capital and in the western regions where contact with Korea was easy. The religion developed in its own ways in Japan, creating Zen and other native offshoots, but its universalist message and general tolerance of other faiths6 made it an easy import.

calligraphy 3.jpgThe same wasn’t true of Chinese style writing. Chinese characters are logograms; each of them represents a unit of meaning. For example, 水 (shuǐ) is the character which represents water, (hēi) is the character which represents the colour black, and 吃 (chī) represents the verb ‘to eat’. Each of these characters represents a meaning, and each of them has a one-syllable reading with one of four tones: high flat, mid-rising, falling, falling-then-rising. You can join characters together to build multisyllabic words, such as 墨水 (hēishuǐ). What’s ‘black-water’, you ask? Well, that would be ink.

In order to be able to read Chinese, you need to know the reading and tone of each character- there are some minor shortcuts, but no magic tricks. This system works well for Chinese because Chinese words aren’t inflected: the endings of the words don’t change depending on the tense of an action, or the person doing the action.

calligraphy 1But Japanese has many concepts which are represented by words of more than one syllable. For example the word for water is mizu, and the word for river is kawa. These can’t be broken down into one-syllable sub-units with specific meanings; it just doesn’t work. So instead, the character 水 represents the two syllable word mizu in Japanese… except when it doesn’t. For example, in the Chinese loanword 水道 (suidō), meaning water supply, you read the character a bit like the old Chinese character. Shuǐ becomes sui. Each character, or kanji, typically has a Chinese-style reading, which you normally find in compound-kanji words, and a Japanese-style reading, which you usually find when the character is on its own or surrounded by hiragana7.

Her Versification was Still Tentative

‘But what the hell are hiragana?’ I can already hear you cursing. Well, hiragana are Japan’s neatish solution to two problems- inflected verbs and the lack of punctuation. They were invented in the rarefied atmos of the Heian court, where stereotypical ladies with painted faces wrote purple prose behind shuttered screens, and boredom was undoubtedly once more a factor in human history. Lady Murasaki Shikibu, arguably the world’s first novelist writing in the years around 1000 AD, penned her stories of nervous court women and secret princes in a mixture of kanji and proto-hiragana.

The first problem solved by hiragana was the problem of inflection. For example, the verb to eat- in Chinese it’s generally 吃 (chī). However, in Japanese the verb can be ‘taberu‘ (to eat- informal), ‘tabemasu‘ (to eat- polite), ‘tabeteiru‘ (to be eating), ‘tabeta‘ (to have eaten’, ‘taberareru’ (to be able to eat), and so on. All these different endings don’t really have concrete ‘meanings’, and so you can’t really represent them with kanji. Instead, you use a combination of kanji, which represent the meaning of the word, and hiragana, which represent its inflections.

Hiragana is a syllabic script- each character has no particular meaning, but instead represents a single syllable, and each hiragana character is always read exactly the same.  With one exception, each hiragana represents a consonant followed by a vowel. Thus, ひ represents the syllable ‘hi’, and と represents the syllable ‘to’. Put them together and you have ひと (hito), a word meaning person. You can string together hiragana after a kanji to change the inflection of a verb, as follows: 食べる (to eat) 食べます (to eat- polite), 食べている (to be eating), 食べた (to have eaten), 食べられる (to be able to eat), etc. The root stays the same, but the hiragana change. You also use hiragana to fill in all those awkward little intermediate words, like conjunctions and particles.

Am I making it all sound simple, orderly and rational? Don’t believe the lies. For a start, there are over two thousand ‘regular’ kanji! Even an attentive elementary schooler will take six years before becoming properly literate, and younger children write mostly in hiragana. Also, you remember how I said that kanji have a Chinese-style reading, and a Japanese equivalent? Well, if only. Some kanji have two Chinese readings and no Japanese reading. Some have a Chinese-style reading but rarely use it. And then there’s 生 (life, birth), which can be the sei in ‘sensei’ (teacher), the shō in isshō (lifetime), the u in umareru (to be born), the ha in haeru (to grow), the i in ikiru (to live)… the list goes on. I have, in a fit of pique, suggested writing Japanese like this:

生生生生生生生生生生生生生生生生生生生生生生生。[生生生生], 生生生生生生生生生生生。
(Translation: the toboggan had been falling off the cliff for several hours before the man noticed it was on fire. ‘It’s just not my day’, he sighed as he tried fruitlessly to drift back into sleep.)

From Hiroshima Art Gallery. It’s by a Nihonga artist, but I stupidly didn’t record their name.

Sunlit Uplands

Nonetheless, if you’re prepared to persevere, Japanese is a remarkable language, often the most tersely beautiful I’ve encountered. There are words which belong in their own constellation of meaning and melody, like ‘shiraberu‘ (to investigate), ‘maboroshi‘ (illusion), gensō (fantasy) and ‘kage‘ (shadow). Kemuri is smoke, but if the smoke is black it becomes kokuen. 


There are terms to express specifically Japanese concepts and emotional states, like wabi-sabi (literally, something like ‘desolate elegance’), an artistic mode that prizes simplicity and careful imperfection to produce rough but beautiful objects or landscapes. Or Momoyama (peach mountain), its opposite, an art style which is all gold-plating, tigers and grandeur. Natsukashii signifies both nostalgia and fondness for something you’ve come to know well,while a person who ‘has’ kizumari feels constrained and ill at ease. Tsukimi is a moon-viewing party, while kintsugi is the art of repairing cracked things so that the cracks remain visible.

Kanji can be strung together into long compounds which are both descriptive and elegant- for example自動販売機 (jidōhanbaiki) is a self-moving-sell-buy-machine, or a vending machine in the demotic. A 留守 (rusu) is an absence, while a 留守番 (rusuban), or absence-watcher, is better known as a caretaker. A  電話 (denwa), or electric-conversation, is usually called a telephone in English. Put them all together and you get 留守番売機 (rusubandenwa), your electric-conversation-absence-watcher, or more correctly your answering machine.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

I’ve been learning some basic German lately, with half an eye towards living to Berlin someday in the future (especially if Brexit goes south). Learning German is wonderful in its own way, as I can see the roots of the English language and track two languages as they split apart, separated by the North Sea. I’m making quicker progress than was ever feasible in Japanese. However, I’ll always feel a profound connection to Japanese, the first language I ever tried to learn for my own purposes. I’m going to keep learning, and one day, I’ll go back to Japan and speak it again.

じゃあ、 また,


1- The Wind Rises, Miyazaki’s epic about an aviation engineer in 1920s Japan, might be a contender to this title. I should say that for a Nipponophile, I’m not much of an anime nerd.
2- the ‘half’ was sliced through the centre, from top to base, apparently.
3- sometimes, it really isn’t clear who is being discussed, but the pronouns are still dropped. It has been often noted that Japanese speakers are more comfortable with ambiguity in communication than speakers of most other languages.
4- if you want to explain this to me simply, I will be forever in your debt.
5- Korea later developed its own script, called Hangul, which is beloved by linguists.
6- most of the time. Buddhists could be persecutory too- during the Tokugawa Era (1603- 1868) all Japanese people were forced to attend Buddhist temples, and Buddhists seem to have collaborated in the persecution of Christians. The priest Nichiren also taught that there was ‘one correct path’ within Buddhism, although he was exiled to the Izu Peninsula for his troubles.
7- some kanji nearly always use the Japanese reading. For example, the words for body parts


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