Challenges of Translation: Japanese Part 2
In this series of discussions, we are examining some of the more difficult challenges faced by professionals in the translation industry, especially with the Japanese-to-English and English-to-Japanese language pair.
In Part 1, we covered the topic of idioms, or, sayings and phrases that have a different meaning beyond what the words themselves convey. IF you would like to read that article first, you can fnd a link to it here.
In Part 2, we are going to look at another tricky aspect of language, and not just Japanese and English, though we are focusing on Japanese partially because of the very tricky system Japan uses of three different writing systems all used in conjunction. If you are unfamiliar with the three Japanese writing systems of hiragana, katakana and kanji, you can click here for an article that will give you a more detailed examination. The subject for this article is homophones, homographs and homonyms. It is not unusual for casual observers of language to mix these three up, so let’s start off with a brief description of each.
Homophones are words that have a different spelling but are pronounced the same. In English, for example, you have words like reed and read. A reed is tall, slender plant and to read is what you are doing right now. “I want to read that book that is all about reeds growing in the marsh.” Another example would be sell and cell. To sell is the act of trading a good for money and a cell could be either a place where you keep a prisoner or a unit of a biological organism, as in a skin cell. “I want to sell my crummy microscope and purchase one that will allow me to look at the frog cells better. I have to buy it because if I stole it, I would be arrested and placed in a cell.” Japanese is filled with these same types of examples, made more difficult due to the three different writing systems. That last pair of words, sell and cell, is an introduction to the 2ndchallenge on this list, the homograph.
Homographs are words that are spelled exactly the same, and may or may not be pronounced the same, but have different meaning. So, in the example above, we see the word cell. They are pronounced the same, spelled the same, but have different meanings. Another example of this would be the words number and number. Wait, those aren’t the same word? Well, yes and no. This is another of those situations where context matters. As we discussed in Part 1 of this series, which you can read here, in Japanese, just as in English, the context of the sentence matters.
If you “Pick a number between one and ten” we can see the word is pronounced number with two syllables and emphasis placed on the “b” as the start of the second syllable. In the sentence “It is so cold out here, I don’t think my ears could get any number” we are now dealing with an entirely different word. The context of the sentence, talking about how cold it is, denotes that the word here is pronounced as number, meaning more numb. Still two syllables, but the b is silent and is not pronounced.
Finally this brings us to homonyms which are words that have the same spelling and same pronunciation but have completely different meanings. As we saw in the example above, the words cell and cell are both homographs and homonyms. “A pair of friends went to the fair to find a pear at a fair price”. This sentence contains a pair of words (see what we did there?) that are a homonym/homophone/homograph all in one. The words pair and pear are spelled differently but pronounced the same, making them a homophone. But the words fair and fair are homophones (one means a festival and the other means reasonable) as well as a homograph (spelled the same and pronounced the same) and a homonym, as they have two different meanings but are spelled and pronounced the same. See, it’s totally easy. Except, well, it’s not.
English is considered by many people to be one of the more difficult languages to learn with so much borrowed from other languages and all these crazy rules. What other language does that sound like to you? Japanese perhaps? A complex writing system? Check. Lots of borrowed words and rules? Check. But, just like in English, Japanese can be learned and understood starting with a basic understanding of the rules. There are too many to list in one article, but here is an example so you can see what we are talking about. In Japanese せいさく can be written two different ways, depending on the context and what the intended meaning is. Written as 制作 it translates to mean “artistic work” and written as 製作 it translates to mean “product or production”. So depending on the context, it can be written one of the two different ways and the meaning of the word obviously changes in the sentence.
彼は日本のアニメ制作者です Written this way, the sentence translates “He is a Japanese anime producer”
私の会社はコイルを製作しています Written this way, the translation is “My company manufactures (produces) coils.
Essentially, both words can mean to produce or a product but can be spelled two different ways. This is just one of many, many examples in Japanese of the existence of homophones, homonyms and homographs. Unfortunately, there is no hard and fast rule about these, like you have in English with the “i before e except after c” rule (which is hallarious because there seems to be almost as many words that violate that rule than actually follow it), but the more you read, the more you encounter unfamiliar or “kind of familiar but it seems slightly off” words. I would never lie to you! And now I must go lie down (see, there it is again, they are everywhere).