Foreign Lands–Foreign Words

It is always great, fantastic even to see stories set in non-English speaking countries. And even more so if one or more of the main characters is from that country. But it does then call into question how to use the language of this new setting. Do you use it at all?

The answer to that question isn’t simple.

For my stories set in Japan, unless stated otherwise, all characters should be assumed to be speaking Japanese and understand each other. This means I don’t need to put words into Japanese for the sake of looking clever.  I treat the work as though it was written in Japanese to start off with and then ask myself If this was being translated into English, how would it be written?  So unless the words being spoken directly between characters are something one character might not know, English is used.

So what about when the main Character doesn’t understand?

At those times I will use Japanese, with a translation provided – the reader still needs to understand it. And this can be where things get tricky, especially if you as the writer do not speak/have any understanding of the language (by understanding I don’t mean fluent, but at least grasp the basic grammar structures). GOOGLE TRANSLATE is not your friend. If you don’t understand the basics of the language you will not pick up when Google Translate or any translation program makes mistakes, and they do. Even when you do have some familiarity with a language but aren’t fluent, it can still be treacherous task to do, incorporating the language into your story, but more because you are aware of the complexities of the language and trying to get the right words. If you don’t speak the language or have any familiarity with it find some one who does…. or you’ll make an embarrassing mistake.

Mistakes like…. (For Japanese)

Not understanding how to describe the location of a person relative to you:

  • Kono hito (This person) – refers to someone next you.
  • Sono hito (That person) – refers to someone nearby, like on the other side of a table etc
  • Ano hito (That person over there) – refers to someone who isn’t close to you at all, like across the room, down the bar.

Not understanding the complexities of verbs. You can’t simply pick up a dictionary and use the direct translation of an English word and expect it to hold true in the target language. For example, a common way of picking up someone in a bar is to buy them a drink, so how does this work if we wanted to put it into Japanese.

In English we can say:

  • That person’s drinks are on me.
  • I’ll pay for whatever they’re drinking.
  • I want to buy them a drink.
  • Their drink is my treat.

Now, if we plugged these into Google Translate we would get….

  • Sono hito no nomimono wa watashi no monodesu.
  • Watashi wa karera ga nonde iru mono o shiharaudeshou.
  • Watashi wa sorera ni nomimono o kaitai.
  • Karera no nomimono wa watashi no chiryōdesu.

Are any of these close to what we wanted? Yes and No.  The third one is okay, it means the same in both languages. The others are missing or using the wrong verbs. 

In the first one the end of the sentence means ‘thing’ and there is no mentioning of buying, but ‘nomimono’ does mean ‘a drink’. It actually states  That person’s drink is mine.  

In the second one it does translate literally into the English sentence, but the meaning in Japanese would be different as the verb ‘shiharau’ while it means pay, it means to payout/reimburse someone one, not to pay for them.

The last one translates as Their drink are my treatments.  With treatments referring to medical treatment.

Of course if you plugged those sentences into Google, you’ll go but my answers are different?  More than likely because to get the correct translations – Japanese into English – I firstly entered it in using a Japanese Keyboard, and then used my dictionary to double check the exact verb meanings.

And then there is colloquialisms and dialectal differences………

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