Feature: KANJI War / Kanji as Cultural Mechanism

Translation Systems as Seen Through Japanese

KATSURA--Considering kanji as a Japanese writing form, one confronts issues of translation. Words coined within Japanese's coexistent writing systems often carry a certain unique kind of abstraction. For example, there are many four-character idioms, technical terms like information processing [information processing], etc. Especially in specialist contexts these kinds of highly abstract kanji combinations tend to stand out.

[One of the features of the Chinese writing system, when compared to Romanized languages, is that the meanings of even unfamiliar words are quite clear--because you have a pictogram to work from. The art, then, of creating meaningful modern kanji representations for words as they enter the modern lexicon is one subtext of these conversations, because so many of the new words are coming from English, and coming without passing through the filter of kanji for a number of reasons. One result is that many new words become either strangely abstract kanji combinations or etymologically lost syllabic signifiers of whatever tongue they entered Japanese from. A further complication to this issue, in Japanese, is that kanji culture requires approval in a way that separates it from the spoken word, in a way that distinguishes Japanese and Korean from Chinese, and this approval process tends towards sophistic obfuscation rather than clarity.--trans.]

SUZUKI-- In medicine you have leukemia [white blood disease=leukemia], in agriculture, you have manure [to feed manure] for fertilization, or pour water [to pour water] for "watering."

KATSURA-- Within Japanese as a written language, the power of abstraction within kanji is especially prevalent in the context of its coexistence with the other writing systems. Recently they have begun teaching computer literacy in the elementary schools, and the idea of making new characters is on the rise. And here what we see is the sudden rise of abstract new idioms, many of them imbued with a potential quite different, in my opinion, from what we've seen come out of Japanese's coexistent writing systems until now.

SUZUKI--Can you offer examples?

KATSURA-- Idioms have typically been noun combinations. One of the new idioms I have taken an interest in is the prevalence among the young to prefix words with sun (cho) as a new adjectival form, meaning "Hyper" or "Super".....

SUZUKI--In linguistic terms, Japanese has traditionally had very few adjectival prefixes. Perhaps pure white ["pure" white] or sun ["terribly" adorable], perhaps a few others... If you think about it, ultra cheap ["ultra" cheap] is a fairly new form of coinage...

KATSURA-- If we start seeing more such coinages, with more idioms like we are used to seeing with noun compounds such as "information processing" and "leukemia," they may have entirely greater potentials for abstraction than current noun compounds. I think that we can also look forward to an even more dramatic rise in abstraction in a written language which is, at the same time, closer to the spoken word, fed by its relation to the potential inherent with the complex of writing systems that are the Japanese language. I see this movement really starting to stand out recently. Even in the halls of Tokyo University (the highest "elite" university in Japan) they have the new t-univer[postgraduate course of interdisciplinary cultural studies] section lately. (Laughs)

SUZUKI--cho used in the sense of going beyond?

KATSURA-- It is a translation of "interdisciplinary" from the English, but with a very new sense of abstraction in their use of kanji.

SUZUKI--If you think about it in simple terms, it is a dormant potential within Japanese finding realization and articulation--something to really be supportive of. Aesthetically and historically, there are those who may take the conservative path and claim these new attempts as "impossible" or "awful to the ear." Theoretically considered, these are things which should have been applicable, yet were somehow absent. And yet, through interference and contact with European languages, new forms of expression within Japanese would have been realized, and that would be a kind of development based on invention.

KATSURA-- I agree. territorial [super territorial] is one example, but translated phrases offer up other linguistic issues which had also been shelved for some time.

SUZUKI--Lately translators have shown intellectual sloth, transliterating when they should be translating, unlike the Meiji period [a little over a century ago, when Japan first opened the doors of its feudal society to the world], when they tried to absorb several hundred years of civilization. The translators back then worked feverishly to see that these new concepts found meaningful Japanese linguistic foundations. They would look back to an English word's Greek or Latin roots, attempting to draw out its meaning and find ways to make it easier to digest for the average Japanese. But nowadays, all we get is transliteration in katakana--for example, ターミナルケア "tahminaru kea" for terminal care. English coined most of its big words from Greek and Latin, as did the wordsmiths of the Meiji period, though they were working from the familiar foundations of classical Chinese. To those today for whom such knowledge of how to make such cultural artifacts has faded, the idea of composing kanji into new idioms only brings a sense of unease. We see a sense of rejection of new words that our forefathers of a century ago could never have imagined.

KATSURA-- And what becomes an issue at this point is the abstractive potential of katakana. [Katakana is the writing system typically identified today with imported vocabulary--trans.] When someone says terminal [terminal care] or communication "komyunikehshon" [communication] to you, there is yet another sense of abstraction at work. The way public figures often use imported words in order to make their statements more ambiguous seems to me to resemble the way katakana is used for technical terms...

SUZUKI--There may be points of coincidence, but I think that they are generally quite different. When forging kanji for technical terms, such as leukemia [leukemia--white-blood illness], there is room to apprehend the fact that this disease affects the white blood cells. With terminal "tahminaru kea" [terminal care], even if they happen to know what "terminal care" is, the average Japanese probably has no idea what "terminal" means, or even "care"--I'm sure that the actual percentage of people using that phrase with knowledge of what they're saying is extremely low. It's like seeing a sign for a "foot manicure." (Laughs) Native English speakers know that mani=hand, and pedi=foot and so use pedicure, while in Japan, amongst the flood of rushed imports, things don't go quite as smoothly. This is a direct result of too many imported words which were merely transliterated. Because the constituent elements were not understood, the entire things can only be memorized by rote. That's a lot of strain on our memories. Everyone speaks with the intension of being international by using English, when in fact they're merely reinforcing a new sense of isolationism and ignorance, and placing needless burden on the internationalization of their language. They themselves probably believe that because this is the era of internationalization, that they ought to prioritize English words over kanji words.

I guess that we should feel fortunate that leukemia has yet to be turned into ruhki "ruhkimia" in Japan yet. As I explained a moment ago, in Japanese, leukemia gives a chance for the layman to make some sense out of what they're faced with, whereas even in English speaking countries, the uneducated are not always able to differentiate where they ought to go in a hospital, for instance. On one door, for child care, "pediatrics" is written, while on another, for treatment of women's reproductive organs, "gynecology" is written. To a person with a rudimentary knowledge of Greek, "gyne" means woman, but for the majority, who are not schooled in the classical languages, it is an issue of rote retention and experience. This is an irrefutable basis for the intellectual gap between the common and the intellectual in England. And if we, in Japan continue to just adopt English words in their transliterated form, we will be unwittingly adopting the intellectual hierarchy that we find in the English language. In postwar Japan, we've finally realized a level of intellectual parity, to then lose it, in the name of "internationalism" bearing disparity that in fact is the opposite of providing the intended national language that all can understand.

When things can be called by a limited number of proper nouns I'm sure that rote memorization is more effective, but when those numbers increase, you need to give meaning to the constituent parts for the mnemonic faculties to function. In short, you need knowledge of the relations between objects of which you speak. And the transliterative culture that has been increasing in Japan is obstructing our potential for this.

KATSURA-- You're certainly right when it comes to katakana, but for translated technical terms, the example I always give is photo, the Japanese translation for "photograph."

SUZUKI-- The two-character idiom, to "reflect truth."

KATSURA-- The English word's origins describe a "graphical description by light." But the Japanese word has created an entirely other context.

SUZUKI-- And you're right that in cases like photo [photograph], the original English is not reflected in the transliteration. The same can be said of air [airplane] and many others. The Meiji Era translations can be classed into two types. One, that coined Japanese like car for automobile--technically flawless, component-to-component renditions in Japanese of the original word. leukemia [leukemia] falls into this category. The other type of translation focused not on the root word, but on the phenomenon that it expressed, the qualities and functions of the subject, and how to express this in kanji. photo [photograph] is one such example. These two types are the literal and so-called "free" translations. A look into the merits or demerits of these two approaches offers up some interesting issues.

KATSURA-- Not only a rational basis, but perhaps even an emotional one. Let me offer an example. I'm teaching at an arts university, where part of my job is to describe "photography" in understanding media. There are a lot of students studying photography at this university, and while none of them are unaware of the English word "photography," when you explain to them that the word's linguistic origins are "graphical description by light" there is always a sense of awe and renewed appreciation for photography that fills the room. I, on the other hand, am always left feeling awkward. On one hand, holding forth about linguistic roots in foreign languages is something that seems really too pedantic, embarrassing really, but because I feel that kanji idiom photo actually hides the essence of the medium, there I am, carrying on each school term about English and Latin roots, feeling embarrassed. (Laughs) Just as the example of the idiom photo suggests, including the structure of media, the kanji idiomatically assigned by the "free-style" translation can create analogic semantics rife with confusing messages...

SUZUKI--I guess that I'm a conservative while at the same moment a revolutionary, because I just don't believe that all things need to be expressed in kanji. One example would be that I consider that a word like tanpaku (tanpakushitsu), which means proteins, or albumen, should be changed to ranpaku (ranpakushitsu), which is not currently the Japanese word for proteins in general. My reasoning is that the kanji for proteins is used only once in our language, for proteins, while the kanji for egg white, which is more visually familiar, and therefore more "intuitive," means effectively the same thing. Such kanji, which are only used in such specialized situations only serve to make the language needlessly sophistic, and should be eliminated. I believe that we should choose, instead, to provide fewer linguistic elements (kanji) with greater emphasis on the potential for complexity of recombination. One look at ranpaku (ranpakushitsu) offers a light of meaning in recognition, while tanpaku (tanpakushitsu) is simply one more kanji which, if remembered, offers recognition. In this sense, I am not always a proponent of preserving our heritage of kanji too reverently. I would prefer to prioritize functionality. We ought to first consider what is most effective, and discard that which is an impediment to understanding.

Backleft rightNext