In my last post, I made the foolish mistake of typing my own thoughts instead of copy/pasting Rubin’s, so I’m gonna go back to letting him write my posts for me with this really funny passage:
As usual, official policies of the United States toward Japan are totally misdirected. Instead of pressuring the Japanese into lowering trade barriers or taking a greater share of the responsibility for their own defense, we should be urging them to bring their verbs from the ends of their sentences into second place, right after their subjects, where they belong. Unless we accomplish this, the rest of our foreign policy is so much tofu.
If you think you have trouble with Japanese verbs being withheld from you until you get through all the intervening time expressions and modifying clauses and whatever else the writer decides to put in your way, don’t worry: the Japanese have the same problem themselves. They know their language works backwards, but they persist in keeping it that way as a matter of national pride.
Of course, some writers, such as Kabuki playwrights, have capitalized on the perverse placement of the verb at the end. The theater is charged with suspense as the retainer, center stage, slowly, tantalizingly intones the lines, “As to the question…of whether or not this severed head…is the head of my liege lord, the mighty general Kajimura Saburō Mitsumaru…known throughout the land for his brilliant military exploits…beloved by the people of his domain for his benevolence towards even the lowliest farmer…I can say, here and now, without a single doubt clouding my mind… that although the throngs gathered here before us may wish the truth to be otherwise…and the happiness of his entire family hangs in the balance…this my master’s head…is… NOT!” (p. 102)
Another thing Japanese is famous for is having the verb at the end of the sentence. This can produce some annoying problems when translating, such as the one Rubin so humorously put forth above. However, in this chapter, he notes how the Japanese hate this bullshit too, and thus have “signal words” to put at the beginning of a sentence to telegraph what’s coming, such as moshi to precipitate a conditional or maru de to precipitate a simile.
Ultimately, he only makes mention of these crutches for understanding and gives no further treatment to instances where the crutches are not there—after all, this isn’t a book about translation. As usual, we’re on our own to figure out what to do when a character holds the verb tantalizingly outside our reach.
But this next thing is what I really want to talk about in this post:
I often warn my literature students, especially those whose language skills have reached the stage where they can handle new texts with some degree of independence, that, as they read, they should try to maintain a distinction between literary pleasure afforded by the work itself and what might be called “linguistic pleasure” stimulated by the sheer satisfaction of making their way successfully through an orthographical garden, the gathering of whose fruits is only becoming possible for them after years of disciplined study. For the fact is that Japanese, especially for those of us who have learned to read it after childhood, never loses its exotic appeal; each page turned reveals to the eye a new spectacle of outlandish squiggles that momentarily takes the breath away. And written in those squiggles or spoken by the people who were raised in the language are equally outlandish syntactic structures—not only passives but causatives and passive-causatives and te-forms with oku’s attached or morau’s and itadaku’s and zu’s that make our minds work in ways that can never be conveyed to those who do not know the language. There is a thrill in realizing that you can process this stuff with your very own brain. I have long been convinced that, as we speak—but especially as we read this foreign tongue—just beneath the threshold of consciousness, a voice continually shouts, “Look, Mom, I’m reading Japanese!” (p. 106)
This is something big we really need to be conscious of. Too many times, Japanese speakers will lord their ability over English speakers, saying, “Look what I can do! It’s all so profound and literary! The grass is so much greener on this side of the fence!” But Japanese is just a language. Let me tell you a secret: some of the prose in the untranslated VNs I read is ass. It could be uncreative with its vocabulary or pointlessly wordy, explaining the same damn thing three times in a row—or even picking apart the meaning of what someone just said, as if the reader can’t understand spoken Japanese. Heck, as much as I like the Tsuriotsu series, I’ve often caught it reusing the same sentence structure many times in a row, and not in a way that feels intentional or creates any sort of interesting effect (yes, even considering Japanese’s heightened tolerance for repetition, which I’ll cover in a future post). And if you compare the prose of Eustia to that of Senmomo, the difference is night and day: Eustia’s prose is very matter-of-fact and utilitarian, while Senmomo’s tries to be more flowery and evocative.
Many times, I see people blowing Japanese prose out of proportion, saying how impervious it is to translation into our plebeian gaijin language… until exactly that happens, and suddenly the naysayers clam up as we go on with our lives. Let me make this clear: Japanese isn’t “better” than English; it’s just different. As such, it’s ridiculous to look down on someone just because they can’t speak Japanese or harass them to learn it so they can read the “better” version of a game. As Rubin said, Japanese makes your brain work in ways that can’t be explained to people who don’t know the language. That doesn’t mean concepts are incapable of being explained in other ways. I’m sure I don’t have to name names here; you know who you are. Cut that shit out. Next time you’re about to give a TED talk on grorious Nipponese prose that could never be rendered in English (or alternatively, was absolutely butchered in English), ask yourself if you’re not actually saying, “Look, Mom, I’m reading Japanese!”
Indeed, it’s like these people are patting themselves on the back for understanding this beautiful yet bullshit language. Heck, maybe I’ve come across that way before. If I ever act like I’m better than you because I understand Japanese and you don’t in a discussion that doesn’t require knowledge of the language, do me a favor and call me out on that shit. I try my best to never unduly put Japanese on a pedestal over English, but sometimes I might express myself poorly, so don’t be afraid to tell me I’m being a dick.
Though again, just like with the vagueness thing, Rubin says the Japanese themselves are partially at fault too:
And, having struggled year after year to learn the thousands of characters needed to read and write modern literate Japanese, her readers respond with a thrill of satisfaction, and perhaps with their own subliminal shouts: “I understand what this beautiful, brainy woman is telling me! Look, Okaasan, I’m reading Japanese!” (p. 107)
And of course, this is not to say that you should always tune people out when they talk about good Japanese prose. Sometimes they’re right. The differences between the two languages do make each of them better equipped for certain purposes, after all. Judge for yourself how seriously you should take them based on their history and your perception of their knowledge of Japanese, as well as their attitude toward it.
You know what? Let’s lighten the mood a little with more of the haha funny man:
Now, wouldn’t it be nice if we could say that one type of “to be” in Japanese is aru and the other is orohonpo: no one would ever get them mixed up. Unfortunately, one is aru and the other one often takes the form de aru, the written equivalent of the spoken da or desu… By the way, orohonpo is a real word in the Saga dialect, and it means “I’m not too crazy about it,” which is probably how most students feel about having to keep track of aru and de aru. (pp. 108, 110)
Hee hee! Translator funny!
The rest of Rubin’s book is largely serious grammar explanations, along with one very long section where he dissects some long Japanese sentences one word at a time to create an in-depth understanding of their grammar. If you want to see that, read the book yourself. It’s certainly worth your time.
This is a bit of a shorter post than usual, but I’ll call it here. Next time is going to be the long-awaited listicle (oh god why isn’t Word giving that a red underline) of words that are a pain in the ass to translate. Lonesome and I have been looking forward to this one.