Friday, 14 June 2013

Japanese Foot-Warmers, Rice Cakes and Excessive Translation




“How do you say ‘mochi’ in English?” a student asked me. “You can just say ‘mochi’,” I said, “there’s no English word for ‘mochi’ so we can use Japanese, just like sushi.” The JTE rushed over to intercept the conversation. “’Mochi’ in English is ‘rice cake’!” she insisted emphatically.
After class, I argued the point. “Rice cake” in English usually means a cracker-type thing made out of puffed rice. I googled the word and showed her the image results. No, she said, those are “big rice-crackers (sembei).” I suggested that in English speaking cultures mochi does not exist natively, therefore we use the country-of-origin word (just like paella, sushi and gateau). She pulled out a dictionary. Under “mochi” it said “rice cake”. I queried the purpose of language: “rice cake won’t communicate the meaning of mochi to any English speaker who doesn’t have an interest in Japanese food already. If it doesn’t communicate the same meaning between two people what point does a word have?!” She was unmoved. The students spent the week carefully writing about pounding rice cakes.
The same thing happened at a different school with a different JTE. Shiitake in English, she taught them, was “Japanese mushroom”. I asked what matsutake, enoki or shimeji were in English then. “Japanese mushroom” she insisted. Helpful. She then taught that kabosu (a citrus fruit that resembles a lime) was a “Japanese lemon”. She could at least have gone with “Japanese lime”! I think I contributed to regional tensions when I argued against “Japanese fork” for chopsticks and “Japanese tea” for green tea on the basis that neither are actually Japanese in origin nor predominantly associated with Japan in the rest of the world.
A third JTE taught the students that “kotatsu” (a table with a heating element underneath and a quilt on top, or traditionally a sunken seating space with a heater and quilt) was “Japanese foot warmer” in English. That isn’t even close to being an English word, it’s a full blown description of the item and a shoddy one at that (how did a table you put more than half your body under morph into a lowly ‘foot warmer’??)!
The obsession with finding an “English word” for everything that exists in Japan, or finding something vaguely similar and whacking “Japanese” in front (who the hell came up with “Japanese pizza” for okonomiyaki? Someone who had never seen or eaten either?), drives me crazy.
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14 comments:

  1. I've also heard that okonomiyaki were referred to as "Japanese pancakes". Quick! Get the maple syrup.

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    1. Delicious! And takoyaki must be a Japanese doughnut...

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  2. And this is one of the reasons I'm so very glad I teach solo now. While I can understand the urge to find a nice short English phrase that conveys the basics of untranslatable Japanese words, I also find many of the translations head bangingly bad. I always tell my college students that onigiri is fine, because it's usually not in the shape of a ball. That one is a good one to illustrate to them the strangeness of some of the translations. They all know the word "ball" and also that a triangular onigiri looks nothing like a ball.

    That being said, I think the urge to find a "translation" stems from the fear of having to explain, possibly without visuals, what the heck okonomiyaki is.

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    1. I'd never really thought about that before, but "rice ball" actually does make very little sense 0.o

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  3. Wow! What nerve to argue with you about your native language. I haven't experienced in Okinawa, but that's probably related to the people I am teaching with or it could be a Ryukyu cultural thing (Japanese isn't the original indigenous language here). I would be really exasperated if my JTEs did this.

    Incidentally, we just taught the students that Karaoke is called Karaoke in English, albeit with a different pronunciation. My JTEs were happy to talk about how The English language is incorporating Japanese words.

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    1. It may also just be a JHS versus SHS thing. The English ability of the SHS JTEs I have met is worlds above even by best JHS JTE's.

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  4. You have crap JTEs, not to put too fine a point on it. Most of the ones I work with completely get that it's fine to call mochi mochi. I've developed a few little warning flags over the years and if a JTE (or indeed anyone) insists there must be a direct one-to-one translation for any word, let alone nouns, it throws up a big red one as it suggests they know nothing about how language really works.

    For the rest of the year insist Karaoke is called 'empty orchestra singing', karate is 'empty hand Japanese fighting' and sumo is 'fat Japanese fighting'. That'll see you right.

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    1. I have been pretty lucky actually, I've mostly worked with the better JTEs my city has to offer. I've lucked out with a couple though to be sure. The rice-cake incident occurred with a really good JTE, she just couldn't question the dictionary.

      But yes, I look forward to discussing some fat Japanese fighting ;)

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  5. Wow that brings me back to ALTdom ... the worst was when a teacher would ask me to correct students' sentences on the blackboard, and then he would correct mine. It was then I learned that a textbook perhaps was a greater resource for Japanese students than a real life fire breathing gaijin.

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    1. Wow... that must have taken a lot of zen breathing to put up with (-_-;

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  6. Japanese pizzas have hot dogs on them and come from saizeriya... can't you use the katakana equivalences to explain why we use the japanese names? Such as shampoo, pizza, etc...

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    1. Aren't you on your honey moon?! :P

      I don't know what the heart of the issue is. They know that sushi and ninja are English words, but they still want to translate manga into comics... maybe it's just a hang-up from the era the JTEs did their training in?

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    2. Honeymoon isn't until September =P

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    3. Ha! We had ours three months before we got married (well technically we tried to elope but apparently the legalities are pretty complicated so we gave up and came home). Well, when you finally go, have a good one <3

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