Friday, January 13, 2012

Words Mistranslated

Friday afternoon, I listen to an American haiku and say to a poet friend of mine,
“In Japan, we call that a senryu, not haiku.”
“After I finish reading this book,” she says lifting a book, “I’ll give it to you.  Tell me what you think?”  The title of the book was something like “How to Write a Haiku.”
“Haiku must include a season,” I say although I’m not an expert, “Takahama Kyosi wrote a very good book on haiku.  He elevated the traditional art.  I don’t know why some people don’t honor that.”  Some Japanese also call senryu, haiku.
“Is it translated?” she says.
“I don’t know, but it should be.”

Earlier in the morning, on the same Friday, I wrote a quick Japanese note and left a bag of kumquat at the door of my Taiwanese friend’s house.  She and her daughter’s family together had treated me a Chinese dinner last Christmas.  It was a feast.  I wish I had something better than kumquat.  Many thoughts passed through my mind.  A lot happened to the family last year.  I hopped on my bike and delivered the bag thinking whether I should have added the comparable “too” word in Japanese to the sentence, “Please give this to your daughter.”
              Tuesday, over a phone, the Taiwanese friend says,
“My daughter happened to look at your note and spotted a Chinese character.  Daughter in Japanese kanji is mother in Chinese character.”
“What?” I say.
“What you wrote was mother in Chinese.”
“Wow!” I say, and we burst into laughter. 
I think many Chinese characters were mistranslated into the Japanese language and also many were created separately in Japan.  Some of those Japanese created kanji were exported back to China.  So it’s hard to tell what happened to each word or character.   But here are a few samples.  Run (走る) in Japanese means walk in Chinese.  Japanese “letters 手紙” is toilet papers in Chinese.  Like the toilet-papers example, some are disastrous but hilarious.  

Today is Wednesday.  This afternoon, I asked another friend of mine while grocery shopping if there were English words that came from her mother tongue that have different meaning.  She said no.  “But,” she said later, “At our last year festival, someone was complaining that a banner on a festival car displayed a wrong English word.”
“What was the word?”I say.
“I don’t remember the word, but the word isn’t important.  What they said was important.  Why should we complain?  This is the US, not our home country.” 
I don’t agree or disagree.  Most of us would let it go even if we agreed with complainers.  Besides, the word, complainers, is judgmental.  There is no harm in discussing about words.  It’s actually more desirable to argue about words than fighting in war.  We should iron out all the words, so we will be too tired to fight.

One word I haven’t given up is the ceremony of “tea ceremony.”  I dislike it because the traditional Japanese art is not ceremony.  I’ve explained this many times.  In fact, every chance I get I would explain which I am doing it now.  That Japanese traditional art is ocha.  Can you say it, Ocha?  Yes, it is ocha.

Next is “Pint.”  It’s a bit different, but for the theme of different meaning, it is the same.  I follow the blog by a Canadian blogger.  North of 49.  From her recent blog, I’ve learned from one of the comments that American pint and British pint are different.  Have you known that?  I didn’t know.  This reminded me of the complaints we used to receive when I had worked for a small Japanese trading company in Los Angeles in 70s. 
The complaints were related to the measurement for making rice using Panasonic rice cookers.  Our manager put a small ad in Sunset magazine.  The problem came from the fact that the Japanese measuring cup is smaller than the American cup.  At first, we were confused of those complaints, but we became used to it.  Now I think about it, the customers must have been really confused by that, but they, too, got used to it, I guess.  The product became a hit.

Oh, about ocha, I wrote essays, short stories, and a play.  I’ve blogged about it time to time, and I even wrote a first draft of a screen play about it.  Since 1996 after my mother died, I’ve been trying to complete my memoir about her, and her life was all about ocha. She was an Ocha teacher.  You are right.  The art looks ceremonious in communal events, and most people only see the art in such events.  I’m not against communal events for their cost effectiveness and democratic way, but experienced ocha practitioners prefer a small intimate party among themselves. And I’m certain they have no such ceremony idea in their heads, otherwise it would ruin their art.

Next word is very serious.  The word is “holocaust.”  Last month, I bought a book titled “The Arabs and the Holocaust” by Gilbert Achcar to learn more about Middle East.  In the page 6 of the introduction, there was fascinating discussion on the word.  
“It is derived from a Greek word, holokaustos, which means “entirely consumed by fire.”  More precisely, it comes from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (Leviticus 1:3) and has entered the Western language by way of Church Latin.  The word refers to the ancient Israelites’s practice of burning sacrificed animals as an expiatory offering.”   
              I don’t think the first group of people who started to use the word “holocaust” as the way we are using today knew the last sentence.  What do you think?  The book goes into more detail about the word and other words such as Shoah and Nakba.  I read that the people who speak the Hebrew use “Shoah” instead.  Also Nakba is an Arabic word.  The title of the chapter is “Introduction: Words Laden with Pain.”  

Leaving the serious word and going back to ocha again, did someone say, “What’s ocha?”  Thank you for asking.  O is honorific, cha means tea.  Tea in many languages is cha or close to that.  A British writer just told me that in Cockney London, people say a cup of cha.  They probably don’t know how aristocratic their word has become.  So please remember it. 
              One more thing.  We put “o” on many words to show our honor and appreciation to the word and the receiver of the word.  We most often refer to the art, “ocha,” in our conversation.  Sado and chanoyu are also used to describe ocha, but they are used mainly in writing.  So please learn this word, Ocha, ocha. Ocha!  You don’t need to ask anymore question.  Just say Ocha!

I think many words in the dictionary are mistranslated at first, and we hardly take time thinking and researching their meaning.  We just use it.  For ease of communication, we need words, and as soon as they spread, the majority wins.  And once it goes into a dictionary, it’s hard to fight back. Just to promote one word, ocha, I feel like an activist.


Rebb said...


I enjoyed your thought provoking blog very much.

It would have been fascinating to see how the process of creating the written part of The Japanese language looked. I remember when we talked briefly about it in your blog a long time ago. I was reading a small book that I no longer have--wish I kept it--anyway, in it I had learned how the Japanese didn't always have a written language and they borrowed much of it from the Chinese. So to watch that process would be fascinating. How would they decide to keep some words the same and change others I wonder. And as you point out some words go back so it changes again.

The example in your story gave me a chuckle with the mother/daughter mixup.

Translation is tricky. Hot Dog is one that makes me laugh. I don't know if there is a word in Spanish for it but a literal translation would be perro caliente. To me that sounds ridiculous in a funny way.

keiko amano said...


Maybe I tend to focus on odd things, and they are probably minority. But I'm not here to teach the basic of culture, history, and so on. I'm not interested in doing that.

I'm sure nowadays there are many good textbooks and courses available. I don't know what book you have read, but most of old books on Japan I have looked at were pretty bad. I'm sorry to say. If you or anyone reading this are interested in the Japanese language, history, and so on, probably the best place is the textbooks area of the Berkeley (or other University with good Japanese courses) campus bookstore. My daughter took Japanese there. I don't want to offend many authors, but I have to tell truth also.

The difference between British and American English is also very interesting. Hot Dog and Donut are my favorite, and Underground and Fish and Chips also. We have a British writer in our local group, and once in a while, I learn something new. This is not from her, but I learned from somewhere that "pretty good" is not good in British. In the U.S., we often say pretty good to mean really good. It is a compliment. So, if I say to a British person, you are pretty good, then I probably hurt his or her feeling. That's pretty dangerous, I mean very dangerous, isn't it?

Anyway, we never stop learning because it's fun.

Rebb said...

Thank you for the additional information, Keiko.

That’s interesting about “pretty good.” I mostly hear it from my boss and I didn’t know about the British thoughts on it and he is not British, but he says it a lot and when he says it, I can tell it means it was OK, but not great. He usually says it when I ask, “how did you like that restaurant or meal?” It’s also how he says it—slow and without enthusiasm. I think that’s why his way of saying it made me start associating “pretty good” with so-so. He rarely says anything is great.
Haha—pretty dangerous. You make me laugh!

p.s. I like the second photo. It looks like magnolia but I'm probably wrong.

keiko amano said...


I learned from my school in Japan that pretty good is so-so, so your boss must be following a conservative textbook?! But it's true and very interesting that our communication skill needs to be adaptable to each situation and people.

Okay, Rebb, this is a tip to get a raise. Next time you do a darn good job, and he still says pretty good, tell him what you think about his "pretty good" and his lack of enthusiasm. Give him a big smile and ask him to choose between great and so-so. If his answer were so-so, then ask how you can improve to get "great." If you do this now on and make sure you collect many greats, then you can ask for a raise. What do you think?

keiko amano said...

Oh, the flower is magnolia. You're right about that. I can see through my garden window from my desk. It's been raining and I'm happy about it becuase I haven't water much since I came back.

Rebb said...

Keiko, adaptable. Yes, I agree. What's interesting too as I ponder the pretty good thing is I've caught myself saying it and it's almost as though that extra word pretty gives pause for how I really feel. Maybe good and other things; could be better maybe.

Great tip, Keiko. You gave me another laugh. :)

I like magnolias. There blooms don't seem to last long. Long enough to catch their beauty. I'm glad it's raining for you too. We've needed it.