Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Read or Die

I do try to write other articles besides reviews occasionally, but I always give up halfway through...  Warning: this post might be a bit boring unless you're interested in the link between mystery fiction, Japanese language and translation.

Great books deserve to be read and to be talked about, but obviously, one of the biggest hurdles on the road to world-wide domination of any book is the language hurdle. The fall of the Tower of Babel is basically one of the reasons this blog exists, as I try to promote Japanese mystery fiction in the English-language world, even if the effort is very little. And as I know that learning a language costs a lot of time and effort, you'll usually hear me cry out that book X or Y should be translated, rather than cry out people should just learn Japanese. And yet, I am very well aware that some books I've read in the last few years, some very amazing books even, have very little chance to be ever translated in English. And I'm not talking about the economics of the whole business. Right now, I'm purely talking about the topic from a linguistic point of view.

I've often mentioned on the blog that I absolutely love Japanese sociolinguistics, a field of study that focuses on the relation between society (culture, norms, etc) and language. Words have certain meanings in certain social contexts, and certain social contexts invite for the use of certain words. Sociolinguistics on Japanese is in particular interesting, because Japanese is a so-called 'high-context' culture: speech styles cater to 'in-groups', people in the same 'context'. That means that in high-context cultures, utterances can leave out a lot of linguistic units, as the speaker and the receiver are both active participants in the dialogue, so left-out units are tacitly understood or inferences are drawn. For example, when the speaker is telling a story about his day out, he doesn't need to say that the subject is "I" in every sentence, as the receiver can derive that informatiom from the context. While languages like Japanese and Korean are considered high-context languages, languages like English and Dutch are considered low-context languages: linguistic units are not left out leading to low-context messages (i.e. you do need to mention the subject of every sentence etc).

Of particular interest to me is the concept "role language" in the Japanese language. The authority on Japanese role language, Kinsui, defines it as:

“Role language refers to a certain speech style ( vocabulary, expression, phrasing, intonation et cetera) that makes one think of a stereotype (age, gender, work, class, generation, appearance/features, character et cetera). Or vice versa, the speech style that comes to mind when presented with a stereotype.” (Kinsui 2003, 205)

Easy-to-understand examples are accents and dialects. An English-language speaker with an Italian accent, and you might think of an Italian gang member. In Japanese for example, Kansai dialect might invoke stereotypical images of fast talkers with a sharp sense of comedy, while Kyushu dialect is often associated with manly men being manly. But in Japanese, there are also specific role languages for men, women and even a group like elderly, sholarly men. These speech styles have certain key words, like specific personal pronouns or interational particles, that invoke the stereotype. Often, role language is used in fiction because it invokes stereotypical images. An elderly professor sounds a lot like the role when he uses proper 'old men's language', while a woman sounds a lot more feminine if she uses 'women's language'. Note that in reality, role language is mostly a thing used in fiction. In reality, you'll hear few men constantly use male language, just like that not all people from Kansai are comedians. It's just a stereotypical image, used mostly popular culture. Role language too is strongly connected to context, as a receiver is expected to pick up on the specific keywords of the speech styles and think of the right stereotypes.

So where does this linguistics class bring us? Well, basically, there are a lot of mystery novels that make use of these characteristics of the Japanese language. Obviously, these are most often stories with a narrative trick aimed at the reader. An easy example is the gender-switch. Suppose you come across character X in a story who uses the personal pronoun atashi, leaves out the copula at the end of the sentence and uses the interactional particle wa. These are all elements usually associated with 'female language', so the context invites the reader to think X=female. And here lies the trap, because it is very possible that X is in fact male and the writer only wanted you to think X = female. Note that the author never lies to the reader in this case: it's an assumption made by the reader based on cultural and linguistic assumptions, but the author has done nothing unfair here (as he never stated that X=female). And because Japanese is a high-context language (also because of other characteristics of Japanese), you never ever have to refer to X with a gender-specific word (for example, 'she' or 'her')  throughout a story.

There are of course other tricks possible that make use of the expection of the reader's linguistic assumption. In Japanese, it is common to leave the subject or object of a sentence away for example, if already mentioned earlier in a dialogue, but this too leaves opportunities for the author to play with the reader's expectations. Because of the high-context culture, the reader will always fill in the blanks by himself , but the author can steer that process with certain sociolinguistic misdirections, leading to tricks played at the meta-level. The reader thus has to pay attention not just to the situations described in the story, but even the very words used to describe those situations.

Mystery fiction with narrative tricks can thus be very difficult to translate to English (or other low-context languages), because they function not in the "in-universe" level, but on a linguistic level outside the story. Obviously, this is a case-by-case thing and I am definitely not saying that all stories with narrative tricks are impossible to translate. But sometimes, the incompatability between the source and target language can form a considerable, if not unsurmountable hurdle for these kind of mystery stories. Korean and Japanese in comparison for example are linguistically relatively close to each other (closer to English, anyway), meaning that it's a lot easier to translate these kinds of narrative tricks (in fact, I've seen several Japanese novels with narrative tricks translated to Korean).

In a way, the Japanese mystery story that actually uses the Japanese language as part of its performance might be considered the Japanese story. But because of that, these kind of stories can also prove to be difficult to bring to other lanauges. I for one can name several titles I wish more people had read, but are just difficult to render in languages like English and Dutch.

金水敏 (2003年) 『ヴァーチャル日本語 役割語の謎』 岩波書店


  1. I had read before that Japanese sentences tend to leave a lot of things out. I had read that the interpretation of The Tale of Genji was difficult in the 21st century because Lady Murasaki wrote Japanese in the manner you describe. So leaving out a lot is a problem because it makes interpretation difficult, and that difficulty will increase over time. But it appears to me that Japanese culture as a whole is frugal, and this frugality is also evident in the language.

    One of the advantages of English, it seems to me, is that the language is loaded with a lot of redundancy. You have to keep using the word "I," for instance. While it takes more energy to increase the redundancy, it also reduces the complexity of interpretation, making the meaning more plain. As a result, it also makes it easier for English to maintain its meaning over time. Shakespeare is still easy to read, and even Chaucer can be read with a glossary. While the words may be foreign, the intent of these authors is fairly plain.

    So, there is something to be said for linguistic redundancy. You use more words but the effort of interpretation is less. This may represent a net social energy saving over time. Do you know if any scholarly work has been done in this area?

  2. I have also been thinking that human beings, regardless of culture, may only want to spend a certain allotted amount of energy on communication. If this is the case, then if the Japanese wanted to spend more energy to increase the available vocabulary for use in establishing the individual's class or status, they would want to spend less energy on other parts of the communication process, and therefore chop out redundant words where they could as an energy saving.

    1. I think that's an interesting idea you're posing. I don't know any scholarly works on that particular topic, but because the Japanese language is always used in a certain context, I am making the academically-unfounded-guess that the net social energy used easily exceeds that of a low-context utterance. Like you point out, utterances in Japanese in principle are always done in a context of speaker and receiver, (and in some cases, the subject of the conversation) and even the most basic utterances will include linguistic units to establish the social relation between them ("in" or "out" groups). So much is /always/ going on outside the actual spoken words themselves. While I've only done a bit of basic Korean, friends have assured me that using the proper social language with the speaking partner is even more complex, and important there.

    2. So as far as translation from Japanese to English goes, the structure of Japanese gives rise to two problems:
      1. The Japanese emphasis on words relating to social identity and status do not have comparable terms in English, making the transmission of important data to the English speaker difficult. I think this is the point you were making.
      2. The loss of redundant content may obscure the meaning of the text both for the Japanese speaker and the English speaker. For instance, I have a volume of Basho's haiku in translation by Toshiharu Oseko. The poem is three lines long, but the explanatory text can run to one or two pages, and then other translators dispute the meaning with him. This difficulty in the transmission of meaning of three lines is simply not possible in English; or at least I have never seen a case of it.

      So this kind of obscurity may work to the benefit of the detective story author, but does not help the translator.

    3. Well, haiku, or poems in general, can be open for all sorts of interpretations, so I'm not going there ^^'

      The point I was making is that within the Japanese language, 1) role language and 2) conciseness are two elements that are often used in Japanese mystery novels (narrative tricks), which aren't always easy to translate. Both elements make use of (cultural) context and linguistic & cultural expectations made by the receiver. In this case, what data is transferred and what data is being left out on purpose, is just as important.

      In a 'real' conversation, there's usually very little to no confusion about what is meant, but for a detective novel, it's very well possible to play with the words to invoke certain expectations of the reader w/o saying it out loud (thus the author never lies to the reader).

      For example, there's a story where the protaganist used the personal pronoun (1st per. s) boku , which is usually used by men (the stereotype in fiction is a young, reserved, bookish men to be exact). Only halfway through it's revealed "he" is a she, who just likes using that personal pronoun. Up to that point, "she" was never refered to with gender-specific words and her speech style had little markers that suggested she was male, but the actual inference protagonist=male was made by me because of linguistic & cultural expectatons.

      (Nowadays, tomboy characters using the word boku are very popular in fiction though...)

  3. I've slightly thought of this also couple of times before, but in some cases translating to english in a way that the reader has an idea of what they're talking about might practically spoil the trick or the culprit since the translation could mention something that was supposed to be a clue in the sea of red herrings in a way that the original writer hadn't intended.

    1. True. To use the male-person-who-the-reader-mistakes-for-a-woman example above, it's not /completely/ impossible in English, depending on how the exact wording, but avoiding the use of (gender-specific) personal pronouns will probably feel unnatural after a while.

      But of course, language incompatibility will always be a problem, be it on a context-level like in my post, or even at a vocabulary level. An example of an English story that didn't quite make it in Japanese: one of the books in Ellery Queen's Tragedy series has a famous language-specific clue that doesn't really work in Japanese.

  4. Thank you very much for your fascinating insight into the Japanese language. It sounds like there might be some parallel with the (mostly) old-fashioned social indicators of 'U' and 'Non-U' terms, dropping 'h's, comedy dialect spellings and regular use of exclamations like 'lord-luv-a-duck!' as well as group specific slang terms, to place people in English language novels; but on a much greater - or more rigid? - scale.
    It is a shame that so many great book from both sides may never be adequately translated - or at least not without an extra book's worth of annotations and discussion.
    (Just to note, re: the gender-specific pronoun avoidance, one example in English is in the Sarah Caudwell books in which the main character/detective in the stories, Professor Hilary Tamar's, identity as either a man or a woman, is never revealed over the course of four books. The avoidance of gender specific pronouns is noticeable (though not straight away) but not, in my opinion, jarring.

    1. I do really love tricks in mystery fiction that make use of specific characteristics of the language they're written/told in, but yes, that makes them hard to translate to languages with little affinity with the source language. And by the time you have explained it all in notes, it's grown into something much bigger than it perhaps should be, so it's a difficult issue.

      I hadn't heard about the Professor Hilary Tamar series before, thank you. It's not quite the same as the Japanese examples I had mind (where you're basically tricked into assuming a person is of a certain gender through the language used and it is only revealed at the end that the assumptions which were made quite unconsciously were wrong), but it's definitely interesting to see someone trying to work around the problem and I do think I might need to try the books myself to see what techniques are used!