NEW YORK – When U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms baffled journalists by proclaiming the “floccinaucinihilipilification” of an international nuclear test ban treaty in the late 1990s, Matthew Fargo instantly figured out what he meant.
The 29-letter word, which loosely means rendering something meaningless, comprises four Latin words — flocci (floccus), nauci (worthless), nihil (nil), and pili (fur) plus the compound suffix “fication.”
“How pompous of him! When you’re interested in language, you can really get angry at a time like this,” Fargo, 27, says in his Manhattan home.
Fargo is not only extremely well-versed in English. He is also an expert on classical and modern Japanese.
He particularly likes the postwar “buraiha” school of Japanese writers known for their playful humor. He says the stereotype of Japanese as a serious people is a myth and that they are in fact “hilarious.”
Born in 1979 in Oregon, Fargo grew up in a family obsessed with language that habitually reveled in etymology jokes.
For example, when the Fargos would have an avocado salad, the father would point out that the word “avocado” originates from the Aztec “ahucatl,” meaning testicles, and his mother would happily tell everyone the word “salad” comes from salt and hence they were eating “salted testicles.”
While growing up, Fargo picked up some Japanese from exchange students but was not able to speak or read the language.
His Japanese epiphany came in the summer after he graduated from high school, when he read a partial English translation of Genichiro Takahashi’s novel, “Niji No Kanata Ni” (“Over the Rainbow”), whose world of playful language mesmerized him.
Fargo spent that entire summer reading the Japanese version of Takahashi’s debut novel, “Sayonara Gyangu-tachi” (“Sayonara, Gangsters”), on his own. He went on to major in English and Japanese at Willamette University in Salem, Ore., and graduated in 2001 at the top of his class in both.
After graduation, he went to Japan to teach English, but he was also discovered by publisher Media Factory Inc., which asked him to write his first Japanese book after he translated 150 classical Japanese poems into limericks in two days for a video game project.
In the book, “Kuso Eigo Dokuhon” (“The Dream English Reader”), Fargo provides his English translation proposals for science fiction and “manga” (comic) terminology, with detailed explanations in Japanese.
For example, to translate the ninja technique “bunshin no jutsu,” Fargo proposes the word “doppelganging” instead of the conventional “cloning” or “replicating” to better convey the nuance that a ninja distracts his enemy by creating shadowy copies.
And for the Space Battleship Yamato’s ultimate weapon, “hado-ho,” Fargo proposes the term “Undulation Cannon” to give it an authentic sci-fi feel, instead of the widely used “Wave Motion Gun,” which is almost a literal translation of the Japanese.
His latest book, “Dirty Japanese,” similarly attempts the translation of the seemingly untranslatable. It is all about words found nowhere in the dictionary but heard in actual conversations in all sorts of informal settings in Japan.
For example, Fargo explains that young Japanese partygoers often call vomiting “reversing.” When someone says “Ribasu (reverse) suru made nomu de,” it means “I’m gonna drink till it comes back up,” he writes.
The pocket-size book is also rich in cultural observations of contemporary Japan. For example, in defining “Akiba kei,” Fargo writes, “Akiba refers to Akihabara, the electronics-anime mecca of Tokyo (and the world at large).
“So basically akiba kei means the kind of people that hang out in Akihabara. This includes folks who like to dress up as their favorite ‘anime’ characters (“cosplay”), computer enthusiasts, hard-core gamers and the just plain socially awkward. Sometimes referred to as ‘A-Boys’ — a pun on the term B-Boys.”
“Japan is often seen as a rigid society, where social pressures deny people their full range of expression. This is not true. What is acceptable to say depends on who’s around,” Fargo says.
Asked about the enormous gap between spoken and written Japanese, Fargo cites historical factors, including the use of imported Chinese characters and less than successful attempts to unify the written and spoken language after the 1868 Meiji Restoration.
The Japanese language is “open to homonyms and puns,” he says. “Japanese people love words, so they always play with them and make new words. I really like this a lot.”
Fargo says he loves buraiha school writers such as Ango Sakaguchi and Sakunosuke Oda. He also admires Wajiro Kon (1888-1973) who meticulously studied popular culture and coined the term “modernology” as opposed to “archaeology.”
“I think Japanese people have a wonderful sense of humor, so I don’t know why people think Japanese people are serious. I think Japanese people are hilarious. They’re making me laugh more than anybody,” Fargo says.