Monday, February 16, 2004

Turning Japanese

Ah! the otaku's slippery slope. First you get into the manga, then you start to wonder about all the untranslated sound effects... At this point one starts to run into the, ahem, interesting points about the language. Not to make things too easy for gaijin, there are 3 different writing systems - the angular katakana syllabary (most signs having consonant+following-vowel sounding) for foreign words and non-words, the cursive hiragana syllabary covering the same phonemes (for spelling out the kanji), and the kanji pictographs.

Some sound effects are sufficiently onomatopoeic that they are obvious - the same symbol that is a bit like a 't' or an ε with a ring emitted by whistles and computer hardware is obviously a "peep" sort of sound - and indeed the katakana U+30D4 (ピ) is katakana letter pi (as in pip, not as in π). And the internet is of course so useful - a quick google search turns up useful pages with included wav files for pronunciation.

This gives me enough material to read the Dirty Pair logo (Daa-ti-i Pe-a); check that whistles do make the expected sound, and to tell that characters chuckle in an evil fashion going ha-ha-ha in hiragana. I can even read that the Muji bath salts my wife got the other Christmas are indeed lemongrass (re-mo-n-gu-ra-su), where the 'u' sound is swallowed. As Lee Gold put it when correcting our pronunciation of samurai - "They sound like cows, not cats." and "Japanese vowels are delicious and are to be swallowed." - so, for example, a name may be transliterated Ri-tsu-ko, but pronounced Ritsko. There are obvious limits in transliterating into the kana - as this "your name in kana" site demonstrates, my name comes out as su-te-ii-bu-n - the usual B<->V slippage.

Thus fortified, I look at the title on my new-from-Japan copy of Mamoru Oshii's Avalon - and see that it reads "a - [u with voicing mark (ウ")] - a - ro - n" - the second character is obviously 'V', both by location and formation - but not on any of the kana sheets I'd seen so far. Until I turn to the ever reliable Unicode Consortium katakana code-page which lists it as U+30F4 katakana letter vu. This page also helps out with names that give a better Romanization, where voiced 's' or 't' sounds go more to 'j' rather than 'z' or 'd', or the unvoiced ones are more 'sh' or 'ch' - as does this page, which actually names the Hepburn system as the one which mimics the characteristics of the sounds much better.

As a side effect, I've learned something more about Japanese word-play. They have some that we can mimic - a collection of signs that make no particular meaning read as themselves, that say something meaningful when spoken - the English equivalent might be "come you nigh, Kay shuns" which when spoken sounds like a twangy USAn accent enunciating "communications". But there are deeper levels that are more cultural than purely linguistic.

I'd been aware that one of the further complications of learning Japanese is the use of multiple levels of deference or assertiveness. I hadn't realised that this extends today into there still being forms that are default used my men and others the default used by women. This gives the opportunity for subtly depicting a female character as a bad-ass bitch - or strong and assertive, depending on your pov - by using the masculine form of the language. This also gives rise to the sort of joke that needs footnotes rather than subtitles. It's subtle enough to the English ear that the giveaway in one of the Lord Peter Wimsey stories, when a French female impersonator in drag refers to himself as a ["do you take me for...] "un idiot" rather than "une", is most likely missed until explained at the end. In Japan, we can do almost the opposite - when such a strong female character (let's call her Kei) is accused of being a man in drag, the bald translation of her response "I am a woman!" simply cannot convey the fact that she has just used what is, in effect, a masculine first person form, thus making the accuser's disbelief baffling to the gaijin audience.