Advertisement

KILLINGS, daily columns and blog —

Column: Books and Writing

On language and culture: a postcard from Japan

Kyoto

I look over the moss-blue waters of the Oi river at Arashiyama in Kyoto, Japan. A mountain of trees tips up behind, mottled in colour with the last of the autumn leaves. It’s not the first time I’ve had the fortune to be at this scenic spot.

Since I was here last I’ve read Pico Iyer’s The Lady and the Monk. Thanks to Iyer I can picture him and his lady Sachiko. I imagine Sachiko in her summer kimono and the two of them floating past me, quietly in love, on a boat in the moonlight. Since I was here last I’ve also studied some Japanese. I can now grasp a little flotsam from the river of words being spoken around me. Language – words – have enriched this visit today.

But that’s not all that’s happened since I was here last. I’ve now come to understand that the very word ‘language’ is entirely insufficient to describe itself. It’s merely a marker, a reference to a loose connection between the ways we each communicate. Sure, ‘green’ might be exchanged for midori in Japanese but other communiqués are more complicated. I now understand the deeper meaning of the phase ‘lost in translation’ and have glimpsed the inherent ties between language and culture. (This will come as no surprise to the bilingual among you.)

The first time I came to Arashiyama I knew two Japanese words. They were okudasai ‘please’ and arigatou gozaimasu ‘thank you’ (words I thought necessary for polite survival). I used them liberally and (I know now) often applied them incorrectly. I’ve studied Japanese since, and although I’m still a beginner I understand enough to know that there are several ways to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ in Japanese. They require you to consider with whom you are conversing, the context in which you are speaking as well as where you are in the transaction. It’s not a matter of interchanging one form of expression for another. There are substantial differences in how each language communicates an idea.

Robert B Kaplan, in his 1960s essay Cultural Thought Patterns in Inter-cultural Education draws a connection between language and rhetoric. He supports his argument with an illustration. There’s a straight line for ‘English’, a zig-zag one for ‘Semitic’, a spiral for ‘Oriental’ and some off kilter lines for ‘Romance’ and ‘Russian’. The illustration might be too simplistic for today’s meta/post modern world (where there are always exceptions and complexities to be noted and clearly many more rhetorical approaches to consider). But I do believe there’s something in Kaplan’s hypothesis. Language can’t be separated from rhetoric and, ‘language in its turn is the effect and the expression of a certain world view that is manifested in the culture.’ I often see this when I tango between Japanese and English.

Just last week I was organising to meet a friend for lunch. ‘Would you like to meet at 12.30 or 1.00pm?’ she asked. ‘Let’s go for 1pm.’ I said, inclined to lunch later. ‘12.30 or 1pm?’ she asked again. In the past this would confuse me – but now I get it. My friend could only meet at 12.30. She simply offered the 1pm slot to be polite. It was my role in turn to pick the right time, for us to reach a ‘consensus’ – to get to it together. Working as a team is very much a part of Japanese culture.

When I lived in Japan my failure to sufficiently parse English and Japanese both literally and rhetorically often sent my Japanese friends into fits of laughter. I’d look up a word in my Japanese-English dictionary then slot it into a sentence structure I knew, only to learn that I was using the Japanese equivalent to ye-olde-English or that I’d picked a word or structure that doesn’t translate into the context I was using. ‘Thanks for everything’ I once tried to write on a card in Japanese to a family who had been very kind to me. Between my poor Japanese and my recipients’ limited English no one could work out what it was I was trying to say (neither the word, nor the sentiment). And it goes both ways. My students would often write odd things in their English diaries. One week they all wrote of ‘breaking’ origami cranes. I needed a bi-lingual friend to explain there are connections between ‘folding’ and ‘breaking’ in Japanese. My students had simply done the same thing as me, picking up their Japanese-English dictionaries on the presumption that language could be swapped word for word. It can’t.

Up the hill from the river at Arashiyama I take a few moments to work out what’s happening on a bag being carried by a girl nearby. Follow love and it will flee thee it reads. ‘Huh?’ I think. ‘That’s a kind of miserable take on love…’ Then I read on, Flee love and it will follow thee. What an odd perspective. Eventually I realise that it’s a classic case of lost in pronunciation. Follow love and it will free thee, is what was intended. Pronunciation, now there’s a whole other possibility for confusion (too much for this post). And context too… in Japanese the same word (omoshiroi) means both funny and interesting. I was surprised how often I failed to communicate which one I intended. Omoshiroi ne?

In one passage of The Lady and the Monk Iyer is at Pub Africa in Kyoto – a ‘social club for the foreign dispossessed.’ He finds himself caught in the ‘usual litanies of [foreigner] talk.’ ‘You know the Japanese word for ‘different’ is the same as their word for ‘wrong’?’ Iyer hears someone say. ‘Does that mean that the Japanese are wrong?’ Iyer wonders, ‘Just because they’re different?’

In my first Japanese class I learned how to bow and introduce myself. In my second Japanese class I learned how to ask about something and how to answer, ‘Yes, that’s right.’ Hai so desu Or, ‘No, that’s wrong.’ Iie chigaimasu.

Until I lived in Japan these were meanings I held to be true, to be translatable. But later I learned that I was wrong, or more specifically that I was different.

Pepi Ronalds is a Killings columnist. She has been published in MeanjinOpen ManifestoA List Apart and more. Her blog, Future of Long Form, was an Emerging Blog for the 2012 Melbourne Writers Festival. She’s on Twitter and Facebook, and has a website.

Her essay A Public Engagement: The Art of Controversy appears in Issue 15 of Kill Your Darlings

ACO logo




Frances Abbott

David Donaldson

Why #whitehousegate matters

A few days after the release of the budget, in which the Coalition government announced it was spreading the burden by increasing university fees, cutting school funding, and cutting welfare for young people comes a story that confirms what many already suspect to be the nature of opportunity: it’s much easier to come by if you’re born into privilege. Read more »

money

David Donaldson

When does lobbying become corruption?

Whether it’s Clive Palmer buying his way into parliament, the recent, varied ICAC revelations of dodgy fundraising in the NSW Liberal party, or the refusal or inability of successive governments to effectively tackle powerful corporate interests in industries like gambling, mining, media, and junk food, there is a feeling among many Australians that democracy is up for sale. Read more »

cluster munition

David Donaldson

How to make treaties and influence people

In an era when Russia can annex Ukrainian territory, when the Refugee Convention is regularly flouted, and when nobody seems to be able to do anything to stop the carnage in Syria, it can be tempting to ask: what can international law actually achieve? Read more »

5114f311-dd9c-442a-b8c8-b73183e80da3-460x276

Veronica Sullivan

Sympathy for the devil: Helen Garner on This House of Grief

Helen Garner’s desire to identify and dissect the worst of human nature has always provoked passionate debate and, often, criticism. This same urge drives her new book, This House of Grief. Read more »

1397733525000-TheOppositeOfLoneliness-600

Carody Culver

A published afterlife: Marina Keegan’s The Opposite of Loneliness

Marina Keegan looked set for literary stardom. For an aspiring writer, her credentials were so perfect they could have been lifted straight from fiction. Read more »

warning

SA Jones

‘Weather is never just weather’: Sophie Cunningham’s Warning: The Story of Cyclone Tracy

We’ve had national disasters in the forty years since Cyclone Tracy, but Tracy’s iconic status in the national consciousness endures. Read more »

1398878478_lea-michele-brunette-ambition-zoom

Julia Tulloh

How to be beautiful, according to Lea Michele

Lea Michele’s new book, Brunette Ambition, is what you might expect from a fairly young television and musical theatre star. Read more »

Mariah Carey

Julia Tulloh

Is she Mariah, the ‘elusive’ chanteuse?

Two weeks ago, Mariah Carey launched her fourteenth studio album, Me. I am Mariah…The Elusive Chanteuse. Yes, that’s the real name, and it’s hilarious not only because the title is so long and happily shameless but because Mariah has long styled herself as one of the least elusive pop stars in the pop music galaxy. Read more »

Douglass books

Julia Tulloh

High fantasy writers who aren’t George RR Martin, and who are also women

‘Tolkien is the greatest burden the modern fantasy author must labour under and eventually escape from if they are to succeed.’ So wrote Australian high fantasy writer, Sara Douglass, a decade and a half ago. Replace Tolkien with George RR Martin, and one might say the same principle applies today. Read more »

wetlands_poster

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Lucky Dip Diving: an approach to film festivals

I wanted to let go of the grasping desire to watch everything and be part of every conversation. But with the Melbourne International Film Festival in full swing, anxieties arise again. Read more »

Happy Christmas

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Joe Swanberg’s Real Women

In Happy Christmas, the female characters are a pleasure to watch, largely because they’re so familiar in life and so rarely depicted on screen. Read more »

Gabrielle

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Beyond tics, limps and prosthetics

Think of a disability – mental or physical – and there’s sure to be a film that features it. What about giving big roles to actors who actually live with the disability they’re depicting? Now that would be authentic. Read more »

hbo-silicon-valley

Connor Tomas O'Brien

Silicon Valley will eat itself

  At a certain point in the lifespan of any subculture, fiction and reality start to blur. Members of the subculture begin to model their character and appearance on the idealised representations of themselves they read about or see on screen, and the loop continues until nobody … Read more »

inbox

Connor Tomas O'Brien

Death to the Inbox

The primary source of our ‘email problem’ seems to lie in our belief that email is a vastly richer and more capable medium than it is. Read more »

5881861191_90de8b5bc9

Connor Tomas O'Brien

Making trolls eat their words

If we’re not conscious of a troll’s desired response, we risk inadvertently encouraging further trolling by allowing ourselves to be played. Read more »

detail

Danielle Binks

Fan-Girling Over Super Heroines

The testosterone-fuelled BIFF! BANG! KAPOW! of classic comics can seem uninviting, filled with spandex-clad men and swooning damsels who hold limited appeal outside the stereotypical 18-35 year-old male demographic. But things are changing in the world of comics. Read more »

9780143305323

Danielle Binks

Australia Needs Diverse Books

The ‘We Need Diverse Books’ team is made up of authors, editors and publishers from North America, but the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag and campaign has reverberated in youth literature communities worldwide. Read more »

tumblr_inline_n6wz16ohb91r8e10g

Danielle Binks

YA is the New Black

Apparently those of us who do read and enjoy youth literature should be ‘embarrassed’. At least that’s what Ruth Graham said in her recent clickbait article for Slate, ‘Against YA’. Read more »

Jabberwocky1

Chad Parkhill

The carnival is over

Jabberwocky, scheduled to take place last weekend, was the kind of festival that wasn’t supposed to fail. Read more »

Robin Thicke

Chad Parkhill

Why has Robin Thicke’s Paula flopped?

What, exactly, has caused Paula to sell so poorly that it has already positioned itself as this year’s most memorable flop? Read more »

splash

Chad Parkhill

Queering the Power: The Soft Pink Truth’s Why Do the Heathen Rage?

The Soft Pink Truth’s new album ‘Why Do the Heathen Rage’ demonstrates that despite their superficial differences, dance music and black metal have a lot in common. Read more »

2014-07-03-theleftovers

Stephanie Van Schilt

TV pilots: The good, the bad and The Leftovers

With the wealth of shows on offer, committing to a new TV series can feel like a big deal. It’s often during a pilot episode that audiences determine whether the program is appealing enough to stick with for the long haul. Read more »

Alg-90210-jpg

Stephanie Van Schilt

Sick-Person TV

The only upside to getting sick was the many afternoons I spent curled up on the couch at home, watching daytime TV. I inhaled the drama of pre-recorded episodes of Beverley Hills 90210 while playing with my Brandon and Dylan sticker collection (interspersed with sporadic vomiting). Read more »

The_Million_Dollar_Drop_logo

Nicholas J Johnson

Highbrow vs Lowbrow: Nicholas J Johnson defends Lowbrow TV

I can’t stop looking at Eddie McGuire’s smug, stupid face. It’s not my fault. It’s just I’ve never been this close to the man before, and it’s not until now that I’ve realised how oddly smooth and tanned his skin is. As if someone has stretched the orange bladder from a football over a slab of marble. Read more »