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Everyday Japanese


Teru-Teru Bozu [Shine-Shine Apprentice Monk] are made by kids to express the desire for clear and dry weather

Name any movie that won the Best Picture prize at the Academy Awards over the past twenty years and I have not seen it. Why? Because as is often said, watching films requires the suspension of disbelief, and I am simply incapable of doing that. That makes virtually every movie of little interest to me.

Think of the typical action picture. Cars go racing down busy streets, making crazy turns and dodging dozens of cars by inches along the way. Has the reader ever seen that in real life? Or here is another ridiculous scene that has been filmed hundreds, if not thousands of times. A car is stolen from a parking lot and goes careening through the gated entrance that is chained shut and padlocked. But no matter; the gates go flying open as the car escapes with barely a scratch. If that was as easy to do as represented, it is a sure bet that thieves would be doing it every day.

And yet, here in Tokyo I have been watching these kinds of films with relish. The reason is simple. On television, the movies are both close-captioned and shown with a dual sound track. So I can switch the audio to the original English and have Japanese subtitles on the screen at the same time. The contrasts are fascinating between how the films are produced for mass audiences in Japan and the rest of the world.

Take the film, "Fast and Furious." This has become a tremendous franchise that has been released several times in sequels, but I never saw any of them. However, the first one in the series aired a couple of weeks ago here. The title, "Fast and Furious," would mean nothing to the Japanese, and so it was changed to "Wild Ride." (That has been changed again: Sequels will be released under the title, "Wild Speed.") The film was still nonsensical, but it was really fun seeing how the translation of the script was done.

To tell the truth, I cannot remember a thing about the movie, even the laughable parts that I enjoyed. That is another reason why I do not go to see a film when it first comes out. It would just be a waste of money. I get caught up figuring out how the technical aspects were done, like the directing or the cinematography, because the story is so boring to me. So I completely overlook the plot points. As a result, I can hardly remember anything about it. Consequently, the following parts of scripts are only plausible dialogue recreations.

If an actor says, "Piece of cake," a perfectly fluent translation would be "He no kappa" ("As easy as breaking wind," — although the Japanese is cruder than that). However, instead of that, the Japanese subtitle would be, "Kantan da yo," "Easy, I tell you." A Chinese friend of mine says that the same thing is done in films in Chinese. Apparently the original dialogue is often poetic and contains allusions to Chinese classics, so if the movie has an overlord ordering his troops to attack the enemy, "And slice them down like blades of grass," the dubbed version would turn into, "Kill them!"

In Tom Cruise’s, "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol," at the end of the film (I am not giving away anything here) he says, "Two for one." Again, a perfectly fluent version would be, "Isseki, nicho," ("Two birds with one stone"). But instead, the mundane, "Ichi de ni," was given. I suppose that I am nitpicking here, since the words were exactly identical, but remember that this was the climax of the movie, when in the background a huge plot point was being laid. It called for more dramatic words.

Getting back to everyday Japanese, I have found that today the language is packed with foreign words that have simply been given renderings in Japanese pronunciation. Like "kurasuta–" ("cluster," referring to groups of people that "cluster together" in communities; this is a new word that has entered the language due to the spreading of Coronavirus infections). Japanese society is starting to adopt many English words as it gropes toward a more global awareness.

At the same time, the younger generation is having more of an impact. "Baito" and "maji" are two examples. Japanese has always tended to shorten words to make them more compact, especially in the case of often used colloquial terms. However, here the process has been taken to the limit.

"Baito" (pronounced "by-toe") is the shortened form of "arubaito," or "part-time work." It comes from the German word, "arbeit," meaning "work." But it brings back unpleasant memories of Auswitz, which had the words "Arbeit Mach Frei" ["Work Makes One Free"] over the gates of the entrance to the death camp. Perhaps the word has been truncated in order to become disassociated with that horrible history, but that seems unlikely.

"Maji" comes from "majime," or "serious." This is very commonly used. Someone will say something that seems incredible, so the reaction is typically, "Maji?" or "Are you serious?" or "Really?"

"Yabai" is another contemporary slang term. It is harder to explain this one, since it can be used in a variety of contexts. It basically means, "dangerous." However, in an everyday setting it could mean, "I’m in trouble," or "That was a close one." If a student is in danger of been caught doing something against the rules, another student might say, "Yabai," as a warning. Again, this is a slang term not used in proper Japanese. It is not found in most Japanese dictionaries. But it is constantly heard in high schools, etc., and is a mainstay of manga (Japanese comic books).

According to Steven Pinker in "The Language Instinct," the average person has a vocabulary of between 40,000 and 60,000 words. My vocabulary in Japanese is a little over 40,000 words. That might seem like a lot, but living in Tokyo for the past four months has made it clear to me how much I need to do to improve to perfect it. The problem is that as I have gotten older, the drive to learn new words has faded in me. If someone learning a language memorizes ten new words a day, that is just 3,650 a year. So learning the 10,000 to 15,000 words to be completely fluent would take an enormous effort. And as I have gotten older, my life has gotten more complicated, so retaining the concentration needed for the effort is a daunting prospect.

Nonetheless, I have decided to get back into professionally translating. At least that way I will be paid for working toward the goal. That provides an added incentive.

And living in Japan helps as well. Learning that many new words requires constant exposure to them. It is not enough to just memorize words, they have to be used in different contexts and creatively. By living in a foreign culture, encounters with various strata of that society gives multiple perspectives about its language. All professions have their own special terms unique to them. Being aware of these things gives one’s Japanese a well-rounded character.

The goal of mastering Japanese completely is an admirable one, but I have never met anyone who has achieved this, despite working in industries that put me into contact with hundreds of Japanese professionals. (I was active in both the international aircraft and Japanese cuisine industries.)

The only person that I ever met who came close to mastering both Japanese and English was a woman who was born in Tokyo, and spent three years in Florida with her family when her father was posted there as a representative of a trading company. She was there from the ages of 13 through 15. That is a critical period of life during which to acquire language skills.

The woman, whom I will call "Hanako," was matriculated at Sophia University in Tokyo after graduating from high school. Sophia University is a famous Catholic institution (Hanako’s religion) that offers specialized courses for those aiming for a career in translation. Hanako had been planning for a long time to work as a translator.

While in college, Hanako wrote articles in "The Japan Times," a newspaper published in English in Tokyo. She even interviewed Michael Redmond for the paper. Then she got work through a translation agency at Jones Day, a renowned international law firm. That is where I met her.

We worked on a lawsuit where the plaintiff, a Japanese investment group, was suing an American construction company over a Maui hotel/marina development project that went bankrupt due to a downturn in the economy. There were five translators doing the work, but I was the only man. And the only one born in America.

The work was scheduled to require six weeks to complete, but I hate wasting time and working as a team, we finished in three weeks. Jones Day requested that I remain as a staff translator, but I despise working with lawyers and refused. However, Hanako continued doing legal translation from that time on. She had told me one day that she wanted to become a lawyer herself.

That never happened. It is not so easy studying for the bar and passing. Instead, Hanako devoted herself to courtroom work, traveling the world to translate at depositions and during trials. She has had a successful career, which included becoming an officer of the American Translators Association.

But here is the point: Hanako took the test twice to become a certified US Court Translator and failed both times. If someone as talented as Hanako, who had spent significant time studying in both Japan and the United States, could not qualify as a court translator, that says something about the complexity of the everyday Japanese language that is spoken in that setting.

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