JOK Notebook

Ain't No Use to Sit and Wonder Why

As kanji learners, we go to a great deal of trouble to recognize each character in a sentence, grasp which ones go together as words, figure out all the readings, and settle on the appropriate definitions. After one has done so much work, it comes as a shock to hear that one should just ignore particular words and not include them in translations. 

I come across that situation all the time—lately more than ever. Take, for instance, these sentences from the newly released essay 1861 on 愉 (pleasant; joyful; pleased; enjoyable), both of which include 愉快 (ゆかい: pleasantness):

Mayuko is good company.

付き合う (つきあう: to keep company with); 娘 (こ: young woman)

He is a delightful guy.

人* (ひと: person)

On seeing these, I was full of questions. Should we reflect 娘 in the English translation of the first sentence? Isn't the second sentence redundant, given the two instances of 人? The answers came back as no and no. Actually, we did end up modifying the second sentence translation, which was originally "He is delightful." We wanted the Japanese and English to converge a bit, even though "He is delightful" would be more natural in English, just as the Japanese feel more comfortable restating 人.

Clearly, the Japanese tend to use nouns toward these ends of such sentences, whereas English speakers prefer adjectives. Why does this pattern exist?

Why indeed? This is one of those questions that may have no good answers. My proofreader took a stab at the issue, explaining that the Japanese noun toward the end implies the speaker's feelings about that person and puts more of a spotlight on him or her. The part about the implied feelings seems deeply meaningful to Japanese people, as is often the case with such situations, and it's all too nebulous for me to grasp.

He also noted that English speakers don't seem to want to mention whatever is obvious (such as that Mayuko is a young woman or that "He" is a guy). Very true, but wouldn't anyone from any culture want to avoid stating the obvious? The question, it seems to me, is why the Japanese feel the need to anchor such sentences with nouns.

The Japanese response to this might be, "Why do you need to question this kind of thing? It is the way it is. 仕方が無い (しかたがない: It can't be helped). Go worry about something else!

That's all I have to work with for now, so I'll content myself with presenting another example, again from essay 1861. This one features 愉しい (たのしい: enjoyable) in a book title:

I’m Having Fun Even Though I’m Not Popular with Women

モテない (unpopular with the opposite sex); 人生 (じんせい: life)

Note that 人生 doesn't make it into the English version. That is, the author is having an enjoyable life, but English speakers prefer to say that he's having fun.

While we're at it, I'll share three more translation tips from my proofreaders. 

Tip 1: Don't Worry About 等

Check out this sentence from essay 1081 on 穫 (to harvest, reap):

We strictly check to make sure there are no pesticides, preservatives, (artificial) coloring, etc. (in our products).

農薬 (のうやく: agricultural chemicals; pesticide); 等 (など: etc.); 使用状況 (しようじょうきょう: usage); 防腐剤 (ぼうふざい: preservatives); 着色料 (ちゃくしょくりょう: (food) coloring); 使う (つかう: to use); 厳しい (きびしい: strict)

To me, the 等 (など: etc.) seems strangely placed, coming just three characters into the sentence. Usually, "etc." or the Japanese equivalent goes at the end of a series of things.

"Don’t get caught up by the use of 等," said my proofreader. "It is used quite often in Japanese sentences but not much in English. It doesn't mean anything in most cases. If it has to be translated, I recommend using 'including' or 'such as.'"

Tip 2: Even Triple Redundancy May Be Okay If All Parts Contribute!

This sentence from essay 1685 on 杯 (saké cup; cupfuls) struck me as triply redundant. It features 精一杯 (せいいっぱい: to do one's best):

to control one’s swing to the best of one’s ability, barely resulting in a hit

振る (ふる: to swing); 何とか (なんとか: somehow); ボール (ball); 当てる (あてる: to hit); 打つ (うつ: to hit)

In 当ててヒットを打つ, no fewer than three words convey the idea of a hit! To my amazement, this doesn’t sound redundant to a Japanese ear because each part serves a different purpose:

• The 当てる means バットをボールに当てる (to hit a ball with a bat). We don’t know where the ball goes after it leaves the bat; it could turn out to be a foul ball.

• The ヒット is a noun meaning “a base hit.” That is, the batter connects with the ball and makes it safely to first base.

• Because ヒット is a noun, the sentence needs a verb at the end―namely, 打つ.

Thus, 当ててヒットを打つ (to hit a ball and get on base) sounds fine to a Japanese person.

Tip 3: Japanese Uses More Double Negatives Than English

The forthcoming essay 1380 on 遵 (to obey) contains this sample sentence for the word 不遵守  (ふじゅんしゅ: noncompliance):

Noncompliance with the deadline set in this contract will not be permitted.

契約書 (けいやくしょ: contract); 定める (さだめる: to establish); 期限 (きげん: deadline); 許容 (きょよう: permission)

My proofreader says that this sentence is characteristically Japanese in presenting a double negative, one that consists of the keyword and the negative verb. English speakers would be more likely to say, "You must comply with the deadline set in this contract."

Again, I wonder why. And then a double negative comes to mind from the lyric "It ain't no use to sit and wonder why, babe!"

Here's a sneak preview of the new essay:

Have a 愉しい weekend!


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