Monday, November 22, 2010

Lost In Translation

Grammatically, nothing wrong with it. But...gee.

I arrived at an epiphany when we were scrutinizing some samples of Engrish in Tokyo.

For all their inventiveness and cutting-edge technology, we often chuckle at how the Japanese mangle the English language, or playfully mint English words into local coinage ( terebi for TV, sarariman for salaryman, and so on).

But then I got to thinking : no, this is a very proud race. A race that prides itself on its competitiveness and its excellence. A race so insular I once read it doesn't consider itself Asian but rather, Japanese.

Japanese. Not Asian. Japanese.

I've often wondered why Japan never became an ASEAN member. Sure, it's technically located in East Asia, not SEA, but still. And even though Japan - like its on-again off-again rival Korea - is now part of ASEAN + 3, you still need a visa to visit the Land of the Rising Sun, when all you need for an ASEAN member nation is a plane ticket.

Anyway, while the locals were unfailingly polite and well-mannered, I couldn't help but detect a whiff of the indomitable pride beneath all that customary bowing. It was intangible but definitely there.

Image from here.

And then, like most epiphanies, it just hit me.

Japan is one of the most educated countries in the world.  states that

"Japan has one of the world's best-educated populations, with 100% enrollment in compulsory grades and zero illiteracy. While not compulsory, high school (koukou) enrollment is over 96% nationwide and nearly 100% in the cities."

Why, then, does it seem impossible for them to master English when the third-world citizens of the Sick Man of Asia proudly bandy it about as their unofficial second language ?

Could it be - paradoxically enough - a matter of...pride?

As fiercely nationalistic as the French, I surmised that the Japanese may well mangle English - akin to the way the French resist speaking it - on purpose.

Like the indignant LOLcat above, who knows for certain that the Japanese grasp of the language cannot be impeccable? Our certified-English speaking tour guide certainly exhibited an impressive command of it, as did a young waitress at a local ramen house. What more the others who work in occupations loftier than showing giddy tourists around the block or taking noodle orders?

If you didn't snore all throughout History class, you'd know the Japanese were roundly humiliated - and deservedly so - after World War II. Losing the war, getting to be Ground Zero for the world's first atomic bomb, and having those damn Yankees take custody of the country must've almost driven the entire nation into committing seppuku.

Image from here.

But they, like us, are also a resilient lot, and it is a testament to how oddly the world turns that the nation brought to its knees by the World's Policeman would, within decades, rise from the ashes and surpass its erstwhile custodian in wealth and renown.

Pity America's Little Brown Brother who got raped, pillaged, and burned during the war didn't fare half as well, but I digress. All I'll say about that for now is that Quezon got his bloody wish.

Anyway, it's a matter of some pride for us that Pinoys seem to easily master any foreign language - particularly if it is the language of a country in which we serve. And therein lies the rub.


Our Middle East OFWs master Arabic. The japayukis mast- well, they are conversant in Nihongo. And CSRs polish their English and their accents. All this attention to foreign languages is done not out of some aspiration to the diplomatic corps nor for mere personal enhancement but rather, out of plain and simple necessity.

For most of us, learning another language is not a luxury.

It is a need.

Image from here.

Consider, then, why a wealthy, dominant, and formerly-colonizing nation would find any need to properly learn the language of another that it does not consider its peer?

The French, again, make no pretensions about their disdain for anything American, and this contempt I put to the test once in Paris. I wagered to my ex-bff, who was my traveling companion at the time, that we would find more hospitality - already a scarce resource in France - if we spoke to the locals in any European language first before lapsing into English. Our initial "Excuse me, sir? Ma'am?" were almost always met with indifference and deafness. But even a simple "Perdon, senor? Un momento, por favor?" got us more solicitious and helpful responses, even after we transitioned to English after the initial encounters.

If the French turn a deaf ear to English out of sheer Gallic spite and take great pains to preserve the "purity" of the French language, by contrast the Japanese delight in appropriating English words. But maybe - just maybe - they take precious few pains in mastering the language and instead, disembowel it for their own amusement.

Image from here.

In English As A Decorative Language , professor John Dougill posits that "the widespread use of English in Japan is an indication of the country's desire to internationalize and of its fascination with the world of the gaijin (literally, 'outsider' or 'alien'), particularly America."  He then goes on to state that although "Compared to the Chinese characters used for everyday purposes, the romaji (Roman alphabet) of English seems smart, sophisticated, and modern",  he maintains that "the total lack of concern for the communicative aspect of the language adds strength to the theory...that though the Japanese are fascinated by foreign languages and people, they are not really interested in getting to know either too closely."

In short, maybe they're just having fun with it.

Or poking fun at it, like some weird, exotic animal in a zoo.

And in the same manner that making ching-chong gibberish sounds makes a not-so-subtle mockery of Chinese, perhaps Engrish is the sly, subtle, and "polite" way the Japanese mock their former adversary.

In which case, gaijin who poke fun at the Japanese and their oh-so-funny Engrish don't realize one thing.

The joke could be on them.


  1. First great post. Second, English is actually one of our official languages (we have two, the other one is Filipino). Filipino is our national language. There's a difference in "official" language, and "national" language.

    Wala lang. I'm a geek. Trivia brought to you by the Constitution of the Republic of the Philippines.

  2. @ Fickle Cattle : Ah, sou desu ka?

    Thanks for that piece of info. You learn something new every day.



  3. ah, i still vividly remember at how the french's faces turned sour once they heard my faintly american-tinged english.

    i promptly shifted to my barok french :P

  4. @ Ternie : Did you mean baroque French? :P

    Bon, I rest my case.

  5. 'The joke could be on them.'

    If that's the case, then at least one gaijin, realized it. :3

  6. i stopped smirking at countries who sound differently when they speak in english. they too find us funny when we do it.

  7. @ Sean : Haha. Yeah, di ba?

    @ engel : While I groan at political-correctness, I must admit that as I grow older, I try to be more culturally-sensitive, too. One of the nicer benefits of getting to see other places is that not only do you expand your horizons, you get to place your own cultural biases in perspective.

    @ Spiral Prince : Hehehehe funny when you think about it, no?

  8. nung nagtatrabaho ako sa Japan, bago pumasok sa eh makikita mo lang ang napakalaking tarp na nagsusumigaw ng PLEASE REMOVE YOUR SHOESESES!!!

    omushiroi desu ne?

  9. @ Yj : Hai, totemo.

    So, you used to work in Japan! Now I'm curious.

  10. Yj was an Okama before.

    hihihi, joke lang YJ! labyu! :)