Why Direct Translation is Killing Your Japanese
By John Sorenson
There are a lot of pitfalls involved in learning a new language. Learning a massive amount of vocabulary, developing new reading and writing skills, and practicing proper pronunciation are all difficulties that just about everyone is aware of when they begin to tackle a new language. However, there are quite a few aspects of language learning that seem to be underemphasized, leading quite a few beginner and intermediate students to develop undesirable language patterns. One of the most prominent pitfalls for those attempting to learn a second language occurs when the student attempts to directly translate from one language to another.
For those who speak English who are attempting to learn a language outside of the ‘Romance languages’, the direct translation is a much fairly large issue. Japanese is among the hardest languages to learn from English because of how dissimilar they are. From the basic sentence order (English) Subject-Verb-Object (English) Subject-Object-Verb (Japanese), to the vocabulary rooted in entirely different language groups, Romantic and Japonic, the differences in the languages are immense, requiring a complete reconstruction of linguistic understanding from the ground up. But just about anyone who has studied Japanese for more than two months is aware of these issues. Because the majority of learners are aware of this, they can often avoid these pitfalls through consistent study and practice. However, the pitfalls that learners are often unaware of cause some of the biggest problems.
How direct translation kills your Japanese
Forgetting the importance of phrasing:
One of the most common mistakes in learning Japanese is found in phrasing. While most are aware that they can’t just replace words from English with the dictionary equivalent in Japanese, many forget that phrasing doesn’t always communicate either. For instance, one of the mistakes I hear pretty often is when non-native Japanese speakers try to say “the battery died” and say “denchi ga shinda”, directly translated from “dead” and “battery.” While “the battery died” is the most common phrasing in English, native Japanese speakers get pretty confused when they hear “denchi ga shinda”. The phrasing simply doesn’t translate. Rather “denchi ga kireta” is one of the correct ways to phrase “the battery died” in Japanese. This pattern of attempting to translate phrasing from English to Japanese is one of the most fundamental mistakes, and also one of the most pervasive. This can apply to anything from improper verb phrasing, such as forgetting to apply vector verbs such as iku (to go) and kuru (to come) to verbs requiring vectors such as aruku (to walk) and tobu (to fly), to phrasing involving proper particle use, such as knowing when to use particles with similar functions such as de, ni, and wo. Being aware of phrasing issues is half the battle. Learning the proper phrasing and understanding the underlying rules that govern the differences between English and Japanese is the second half. Don’t let improper phrasing due to direct translation kill your Japanese.
Language isn’t just an act of speech, but an act of culture:
Another pitfall that has a major impact on learning Japanese is the misconception that speaking another language only involves knowing the vocabulary and grammar required to say what you want to say and understanding what others are saying. The misconception is that meaning directly translates as long as the words and sentences are grammatically correct. What many often forget is that language is an act of culture. Language isn’t merely an act of uttering words and knowing the rules of speech; it’s a process of conveying meaning across a unique system of cultural values and ideals.
One of the reasons that learning Japanese is so difficult for English speakers is the massive gap between Eastern and Western cultures. Without cultural understanding, the social rules that govern formality in Japanese speech (i.e. when to use desu and masu forms, honorifics, and humilifics) cannot be properly understood and enacted. Without knowing the value system of ‘saving face’ and indirect confrontation, attempts at navigating situations that involve conflicting opinions can result in embarrassment and offense. Even humor varies from culture to culture to a large degree. Language isn’t only about knowing what to say, but how to convey meaning across cultures. This requires a significant amount of cultural understanding that many often ignore or underemphasize in their language studies. Meaning doesn’t directly translate across cultures. Learn the culture in order to truly communicate through the language.
Emotion and body language aren’t universal:
It’s rare to find a class that addresses the performative act of infusing emotion and body language into a foreign language. And while many will argue that a smile is a smile in any language – and the use of similar emojis across the globe may back this up to a certain degree – this only serves to display a superficial understanding of performative culture. Laughter and tears and balled up fists of rage may indeed be easily interpreted without a formal education, but the communication of more subtle emotional and emphatic tones can be quite evasive without close attention.
In English, emotion and emphasis are conveyed by increasing and decreasing the pitch and volume of the speaker’s voice on particular syllables in a given sentence. In Japanese, emotion, and emphasis are generally conveyed through the language itself. Auxiliary verbs such as te-shimau, sentence final particles such as yo, na, and no, and other parts of speech such as adjectives, adverbs, and expressions, represent the primary ways emotion and emphasis are conveyed in Japanese. When non-native Japanese speakers attempt to express emphasis or emotion by varying the volume and pitch of a mora (Japanese equivalent of syllables), not only are they lost in translation, but it gives off the impression that the speaker’s Japanese is unnatural. The pitch variation in Japanese words are standardized (assigned to each mora), so by stressing mora in peculiar ways, the speaker is making linguistic mistakes. Emotion doesn’t directly translate from English to Japanese.
Body language is another issue for Westerners attempting to live and adapt to Japanese culture. There are some ‘do’s and don’ts that most people know after living a short while in Japan. A common ‘do’ is bowing rather than handshaking, a common ‘don’t’ is yawning (even while covering the mouth) when in public. However, more subtle body language problems often go unknown – unless a native Japanese feels comfortable enough to correct the mistake. Leaning back in a chair or slouching in a position that gives off the impression of boredom or restlessness is offensive in Japanese culture (at least, when you’re with people in public). Resting one leg on the other when sitting on a chair gives off the same impression and is disrespectful in Japan. I’ve been told that it gives off an air of overconfidence. Along the same lines, leaning back with your arms folded can give off the same sense of cockiness. While it may not be the most proper body language in the West either, it certainly isn’t as abrasive as it is in Japan. It’s important to remember the differences in body language because it’s not one of the most obvious concerns students have when learning a language.
While learning a foreign language such as Japanese, most students primarily focus on vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation skills – but there is much more to communicating in a foreign language than this. Every student of Japanese should remember that they are learning a language that requires them to understand and adapt to an entirely different culture. Every student needs to remember that most of their prior means of communication won’t directly translate into this new language and culture. So if you are studying Japanese, don’t let your direct translation kill your Japanese! Take the time to learn the culture! Learn the other, more subtle, means of communication! Speak the language and enact the culture!