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In their April 9 article, “With the world looking in, Japan needs to speak out,” Kumi Sato and Michael J. Alfant write that the “inherent vagueness of Japanese creates many challenges in translation.” While structural differences between Japanese and English certainly do make translation challenging, the idea that any language is inherently vague has no scientific basis.

Japanese culture is certainly indirect, and this results in the Japanese language often being used in an indirect way, but Japanese, or any language, is capable of clear (or vague) expression of human thought.

To quote Jay Rubin, professor of Japanese at Harvard University and a noted translator: “The Japanese language can express anything it needs to, but Japanese social norms often require people to express themselves indirectly or incompletely.”

With that in mind, it’s also worth noting that the English language is also quite frequently used in a vague way by politicians in English-speaking countries, and if Japanese officials become more fluent in English, they will presumably do the same.

If Sato and Alfant are concerned about real difficulties that structural differences between language pose for translation, they may also want to consider that most of the world’s people consume news in their own native languages, not English, and statements in English can also pose difficulties for translations to other languages. Japanese is not unique in this way.

While having more English-speaking government spokes-people would certainly help Japan communicate with the world, in the long run, having spokespeople who are able to communicate in a variety of major languages would be even more effective. It would certainly help with communicating information to foreign disaster victims here in Japan, many of whom are not from English-speaking countries, and often speak less English than they do Japanese.

The opinions expressed in this letter to the editor are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of The Japan Times.

matthew ward

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