Let’s talk about Japanese terminology. In Japanese, the personal pronoun 私 (watashi, I) becomes 私たち (watashitachi, we) thanks to the suffix たち (tachi, mark of the plural). The linguistic phenomenon of adding suffixes and particles so as to adjust words to the structural needs of a language is called agglutination and, more specifically, it belongs to the broader sphere of morphology.
Moving up one level towards syntax, we then realize that the word order in Japanese is subject-object-verb. These two features alone should suffice to give an idea of the complexity linguists and other practitioners face when they set out to translate a text from or into Japanese. Every aspect of the language needs detailed care: from the quest for a meaningful rendering to providing the correct segmentation and choosing the right register for the intended readership.
If we focus, in particular, on terminology management, an intriguing grammatical aspect comes into play that cannot be overlooked: nouns have no grammatical gender or number in Japanese. A few years ago, a Japanese colleague pointed out how a seemingly irreproachable, ISO-compliant termbase designed with extreme care presented, in fact, aspects of redundancy and even uselessness when analyzed from his perspective. The termbase designers had diligently chosen all the grammatical categories: feminine, masculine, singular, plural and had duly applied them to source and target languages alike, basically adding sets of categories that did not have a reason to exist in some languages. As terminologists, we should routinely include the target language customization in the list of elements to be checked when we perform the health analysis of existing termbases. Not only that, we should also take into account the needs of the various target languages when creating new termbases, and even add those criteria to our best practices. Needless to say, in the discovery steps we will need to keep in mind the corresponding functionality, or lack thereof, of the terminology management tool.
If we then consider preparing a text for translation, we need to remember that Japanese has a system of characters that, when typed, have the same width — even the period. This needs to be kept in mind for space-constrained text such as software strings. For sure, developers need to know and use good internationalization practices when they compose their strings. Translators and localizers, on their end, need to uncheck the “Automatically add empty space after a period” option when working with a Japanese text. Similarly, the use of placeholders that may work well in the source language may very quickly create untranslatable chunks of text in the target languages. Japanese is no exception. Think for example of dates. The following is a short explanation taken from Wikipedia: “The most commonly used date format in Japan is: year month day (weekday), with the Japanese characters meaning “year,” “month” and “day” inserted after the numerals. Example: 2008年12月31日 (水) for Wednesday, December 31, 2008. In addition to the Gregorian calendar, the Japanese Imperial calendar is also used, which bases the year count on the current era, which in turn is based on the current emperor.
Moving up another step to the level of semantics, we will then notice that many concepts are unique to Japanese. How to render them correctly in another language is an endeavor that requires moving away from a literal translation approach in favor of a semantic method capable of capturing the essence of a text. Of all the culture-bound terms the English language has borrowed from Japanese: anime, manga, tsunami, emoji, and others, two recently stood out: hikikomori and ikigai. These are the two concepts I am adding today to the sociology and anthropology domain of our ideal termbase. They remind us of how translation happens at the crossroads between language and culture, but whereas languages have the tools to forge new words and incorporate new concepts in a world that runs fast, culture is slower in adjusting to change, especially when change impacts deeply rooted values such as, for example, moving from a group-oriented society to a more individualistic world.
Hikikomori or 引きこもり refers to “reclusive adolescents or adults who withdraw from social life, often seeking extreme degrees of isolation and confinement.” The phenomenon exploded around the year 2000 and at present hikikomori is a word that almost every Japanese person knows. Hikikomori are present around the world, and Japan itself counts more than 540,000. Literally, the word means “to pull inward” and it applies mainly to people aged between 15 and 39 who have decided to drop out of school and completely withdraw from society. Frequently, technology plays a major role in their lives as they spend most of their time in their bedrooms playing video-games, reading manga, looking at anime, sometimes immerged in virtual reality and often inverting the day and night cycle.
Ikigai, 生き甲斐, on the other end, is defined as “the source of value in one’s life.” Professor Sue Shinomiya of Portland State University explains that one of the longest living populations resides in a certain area of Okinawa, Japan. When these elderly people were asked what they did to live well, the idea of ikigai, of finding a purpose in life and in the community, came across. Strictly related to the idea of ikigai is also the idea of wa, 平和, the search for peace and harmony. In a holistic perception of the world, harmony is key and the way wa reflects in our domain is that a translation, to be complete, also needs to be presented well: the right fonts and layout are, often, not a secondary choice.
Moving up one last level, we find the context, the situation in which our translation is expected to operate and the audience it is expected to reach. The situational context determines the level of politeness, if any, to be used in the translation.
MultiLingual’s latest issue, on Asia, just went live. In my regular column there, I often look at terminology, technology and educational advances in the translation and localization world. Here, in this online-exclusive column, we can actually have a clear idea of how our domain is in fact indissolubly, deeply intertwined with culture.