Last week in this column, I addressed the trials and tribulations of bringing up a child to be bilingual — both for parents and children. As anyone who has been down that road knows, it’s what Japanese people would call shinan no waza (an arduous task).
Since writing that piece I have read a new book by Mary Besemeres and Anna Wierzbicka. “Translating Lives” (University of Queensland Press, 2007) is a fascinating study — seen through the personal experiences of 12 bilingual people — of the gains, losses, thrills and heartaches of growing up with two or, in some cases, more languages.
Reading these personal histories, which cover tongues as diverse as Korean, Polish and Portuguese, among others, brought home to me how enriching (and often frustrating) the multilingual experience is. Another language is a complex metaphor that covers all emotions and the modes of communicating them. It is not only that we say things differently in another language; we frequently say different things. In other words, we are different people: We have another self; but that self only expresses itself in another language.
For many years I have written about language acquisition in articles and books. My feeling has always been that because people in all countries run the emotional gamut of human types, anything you can say in one language can be said in another. Of course, nuance differs, and most of the time connotations do not coincide in two languages, even when meaning does. But we are all human, and as such share aspirations, hopes, fears, hates and loves.
However, one of the themes of “Translating Lives” is that each language has its own emotional context. The authors list many examples of when words in one language failed them, and they wished they could substitute words from another and be understood.
Generously sprinkling Japanese
When my wife, four children and I moved back to Sydney in 2001 after many years in Japan, we, like many similar families, found ourselves generously sprinkling Japanese words into our English conversation. This was fine between ourselves, but sometimes it caused embarrassment in the company of others. It can appear pretentious to use foreign words when they are not called for.
“It’s really zannen (too bad),” said my wife, “that ojisan (uncle) couldn’t come tonight.”
“Yeah,” I replied. “Maybe I’ll see him at the daigaku (university) tomorrow.”
I am sure that many of you reading this have been guilty of this sort of . . . well, sort of . . . chanpon (mix-it-in) conversation.
The trouble was that some of our relatives were at our home when we had that conversation — relatives who had not had the privilege of living for decades in Japan. They naturally looked at each other and wondered, “What kind of non-sequitur language is that? Who on Earth are they talking about? That was, of course, maa, muri wa arimasen, which means “it’s understandable” — not in the sense that they understand it, but rather that they can’t be blamed for not understanding it.
Just the other day I was giving an interview in English, talking about the hopelessness of America’s Middle East policy.
“Once you start on that path,” I said . . . and then paused. I was bilingually tongue-tied. The phrase kiri ga nai had been on the tip on my tongue, and immediately I thought to translate it as “there’s no end to it.” But then I thought: Kiri ga nai is just so much more evocative than “there’s no end to it.”
“Uh, so what happens when you start on that path?” the nonplussed young interviewer asked.
“Well, uh,” I said, covering my mouth, “you, uh, there’s no going back.”
Close, but not quite.
And there’s kiri ga nai about this kind of thing in Japanese and English.
I’m not talking about words and expressions lacking equivalents. The point here is that there are equivalents — but they somehow leave something to be desired.
Even such commonplace phrases as ganbatte (good luck; give it your all), tondemonai (ridiculous) and tamaranai (it’s so good — or so bad — that I can’t stand it) are evocative of emotions that simply don’t trip easily off the English-speaking tongue.
And how many times I have stopped short when trying to find English words for senpai (someone senior) or kohai (someone junior)! These terms are not only used in companies, universities and similar institutions, they crop up when you are mentioning, for instance, someone who arrived in Japan earlier than you did — as in “Helmut came to Japan in 1966, a year before me. He’s my senpai.” To make matters worse, if he had come in 1956, he would be my daisenpai. In English we just don’t say this. Komatta mon da na (What a pickle this puts us in!).
The feeling of fatigue
Working in film and theater, I often say otsukaresama! at the end of a long day. How I wish I could say this in English! It’s a combination of “thank you,” “good work” and “see you tomorrow.” But because it encompasses tsukare, which means “tiredness,” it is also a nice way to acknowledge the feeling of fatigue we all feel after a day on the shoot or in rehearsal.
Some time ago a friend, who is a brilliant English-language scholar in Tokyo, asked me how I would translate guchi o kobosu. Certainly this phrase means “to complain,” but a guchi (complaint) is not just a garden-variety complaint. Most of the time it’s a kind of whinge. Fortunately, English has borrowed words from many languages, among them the Yiddish verb “to kvetch.” To me, to kvetch is to kobosu (air) your guchi. We can even get one up on Japanese here. A person who kobosus his guchi is “a kvetch.”
The list of evocative Japanese expressions goes on and on, with words that act as a form of title like ojosan and botchan, meaning “young girl” and “young boy.” But these are not just any young people. The inference for ojosan, for instance, can be (but isn’t always) that she has been well brought up. On the other hand, these terms just might be used out of politeness. Turning ojosan into a diminutive, ojochama, can add subtle nuances of intimacy or cuteness.
All in all, knowing and using more than one language intimately provides the kind of life experience that is hard for monolingual people to savor. Perhaps reading a beautiful poem in your own language affords you similar feelings of warmth, delight and wonder.
To be bilingual is to live within a metaphor and to experience that warmth, delight and wonder every day of your life.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.