Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Lost in Translation

Janis was going through some old memorabilia and found a lot of stuff we'd completely forgotten about.  One of them was an article that I'd written for my last Navy command's newsletter.  I was stationed at the Naval Security Group Activity in Misawa, Japan, in 1998.  And yes, that was my official photo - don't you just love the Harry Potter glasses?  And that stern look.  What a faker!

Most officers tried to write "inspirational" op-ed pieces that nobody ever read.  I just said to hell with it and wrote about whatever caught my fancy.  This particular piece was about how both the Japanese and Americans butchered each other's languages.  Here 'tis:


One of the neat things about serving overseas is that we get to murder somebody else's language and they, in turn, get to murder ours.  Both sides seem to do a pretty good job of it, much to their mutual amusement.

When I first arrived in Misawa, I was entranced by the names of the cars.  Where else but Japan could you find a real Bongo Wagon?  For those of us of "a certain age" (that means us old folks), bongos conjure up visions of half-trashed VW Vans with flowers painted all over them.  Another great name was the Toyota Super Casual.  Not just regular ol' laid-back casual, mind you; we're talking comatose here!  For me, the overall winner was the Nissan that featured "Viscous LSD".  Where's DEA when you need them?

Car names were only the beginning.  As I wandered around off base, I noticed more and more interesting phrases in the most unlikely places.  T-shirts and the backs of jackets seem to be especially creative.  One individual wore a jacket emblazoned with the proud logo of the Pony Tail Growing-Up Club.  A rakish-looking guy in the Misawa airport had a jacket which proclaimed "Motorcycle racing is a dangerous sport.  Requires great skill and courage.  Every one should enjoy it."  Yep, let's get Grandma out there on a high-powered Kawasaki and let 'er rip!

Sometimes the Japanese don't seem to be 100% sure of what they're selling.  In Yokosuka I ran across a trendy little store called the Boutique Something.  Another time, right near the New Sanno Hotel in Tokyo, I spotted the No Concept Shop.  I've heard of truth in advertising, but this takes honesty to a whole new extreme.

Food items can get very interesting.  You know how sales people will set up a little demo table in a department store and give out free samples?  I stopped at one of these once and the young lady spent five minutes assuring me that her samples of "Calpis" weren't what they sounded like.  And as if getting used to eating raw fish isn't challenging enough, there's a restaurant out in town that features "live curry".  No, thanks; if it ain't dead, I ain't eatin' it.  However, most restaurants here in Japan seem to subscribe to the motto that I saw in one: "We make happy time".  Yes, they do.

As entertaining as their fractured English is to us, our mangled attempts at foreign languages are, by and large, much worse.  I recall, back in my ensign days, sitting under (yes, under) a table in the Yokosuka O'Club joyfully singing along in four-part disharmony a song I later discovered to mean "wait a minute please, please, please, wait a minute please, is that right?"  No wonder the Japanese cleaning ladies (who were trying to get us to leave as it was well past closing time) seemed to think we were nuts.  It sounded a lot better then, after six or eight beers, than it ever has since.  Not that I've gotten any better with age.  Last summer I had to make a short speech in Gonohe and, to show my respects, I tried to give it in Japanese.  Hah!  My speech had only one joke but they started laughing as soon as I opened my mouth.  I'm still not sure if I advanced intercultural relations or gave them a serious setback.

In all these mis-translations of each other's languages, I've noticed some common trends.  Americans are more action-oriented in their phrases ("Just Do It"), while the Japanese are more passive ("Experience your outdoor life").  I guess this goes back to each other's cultures.  Americans will ride a roller coaster until they puke.  Japanese will sit in a Zen rock garden and watch bonsai grow.  Both will go home thinking there's no better way to spend a day.

And for each of them, they're absolutely right.