Monday, May 10, 2010

Week 1 Report: Cultural and Grammatical Differences


While we went out with our new Japanese friends, we took the opportunity to speak with them about the use of English in their everyday conversations in Japanese. Dan asked his language partner and his language partner’s friends how often they use English-based words such as kurasu as opposed to jugyou. Resultantly, many Japanese people are not aware that many English inspired katakana words like ‘tenisu’ are in fact near direct transcriptions from Japanese to English. Apparently students who are majoring in English literature/language are the only ones aware of this fact. For example, Dan was often asked by a few Japanese students who were not majoring in English whether or not some familiar Japanese words in fact originated from English. They also are the kind of people who would normally use these English inspired words in their everyday speech. One of the reasons for this is that they see the connection between using these English-based katakana words and, at the same time, they are effectively practicing their English language skills. It also seemed that some Japanese people we met jokingly accused their friends that were majoring in English of pretentiousness because of their constant use of these relatively foreign words.

We think that young Japanese people refrain from using katakana-based words that have traditional Japanese counterparts not because they care about preserving Japanese tradition, instead, it is simply a matter of convenience and underexposure to such English-based words. Also lack of katakana usage might be a result from the fear of their friends misunderstanding or not knowing the meaning of such words. In general, it is safer to use an old, but widely-known, word in comparison to a relatively new and unknown one. In fact, it seems that Japanese people with less formal education, such as shop attendants or kitchen staff, are less likely to know any English words at all, even lacking the knowledge of many English-based katakana words. Clearly it would be highly inconvenient for university students who are aware of such words to use them in an everyday setting if they are to communicate effectively with regular Japanese people.

In addition, the use of English words without prepositions is viewed as being cool because of its simplicity among Japanese youth. For example:

In this picture, the sign says “Enjoy beautiful life” in English while the Japanese reads: 「うつくしく輝く楽しい人生を!」Literally it offering a “happy, beautiful, and socially rich life.” It is a clever usage of the double meanings of the words うつくしく, 輝く, and楽しい. It is easy to see how these lush, overly descriptive Japanese words could lose their meaning when translated into English. “Enjoy beautiful life” is an almost painful abbreviation of the Japanese phrase. When Dan asked his Japanese conversation partner けいた what he thought of the poor English translation, he said that short English phrases, devoid of unnecessary grammar particles, is “the coolest.” He also said that if the sign had been corrected to say “Enjoy a beautiful life” or “Have a beautiful life” it would lose much of its appeal as an advertisement. In addition, these shortened, much simpler English phrases have the appeal to attract foreigners or anyone who is familiar with the English language. Thus although native English speakers may laugh at such blunt grammar mistakes, they do not realize the deep meanings carried by its Japanese translation, namely informing the reader that their beauty school is offering you a rich, fulfilling and “beautiful” life.


This is simply a blatant grammar mistake that is most likely supposed to say: “Please ask for permission before taking pictures.” We found it inside a small toy shop on one of the top floors of an Akihabara department building. This suggests that our theory of smaller shops having more Engrish may be correct.

The Engrish on this menu is simply the result of a direct and literal Japanese to English translation. In the first sentence: “Please choose the commodity in the menu seat”, the final word “seat” should be “sheet” as the Japanese above states. Also, the correct translation of this sentence would be “Please choose the commodity FROM the menu.” Although the word “commodity” is rarely seen in English-speaking restaraunts, this is a literal translation of the Japanese word 商品which is an extremely polite word for the items on a menu. Also, in Japanese one would usually choose items “from within the menu” (この中から) which explains the mistranslation of メニューで into “choose the commodity IN the menu” when it clearly should be “from the menu.” Additionally, the sentence: “Please buy the meal ticket by the ticket vending machine in the inside of a store when the menu is decided” would be properly interpreted as: “Please buy a meal ticket from the ticket vending machine inside the store when you have decided on a menu item.” The phrase “by the ticket machine” is an English grammar mistake resulting from the Japanese particle にてand its meaning of “location”. This exceedingly polite particle has simply been recklessly translated into a sentence that seems to say that you can buy a ticket from a place “by” the vending machine, and not from the vending machine itself. This is simply a misunderstanding by the author of this sign of how the particle にてtranslates into English. The final sentence, “Our shop cannot use the credit card” simply states that the shop cannot accept credit cards. This is most likely from an awkward translation of 利用meaning “use,” which could have been more eloquently translated into “accept.”

- Daniel and Carolynn

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