Because it is so different

Two translations from Japanese

A tale of two translations.

If I say that I am trying to learn Japanese because it is so difficult to translate, your first thought will likely be that I am trying to challenge myself, or perhaps to impress others with my linguistic genius. Those who have read some of my recent entries will know that there is no such genius: Despite my decent IQ, I have a super hard time with this language. Nor am I primarily doing bodybuilding for the mind. The real reason is Google Translate.

If I want to read something written in Spanish, there is little additional value for me in learning Spanish. The languages are similar enough, and the overlapping body of literature large enough, that Google Translate can give a decent representation of the text.

For the purpose of illustration, I will now take my first paragraph, let Google translate it into Spanish and then translate it back.

If I say I’m trying to learn Japanese because it is very difficult to translate, your first thought will likely be that I’m trying to challenge myself, or perhaps to impress others with my linguistic genius. Those who have read some of my recent posts will know that there is such a genius: Despite my decent IQ, I have a hard time with this great language. Nor am I doing first bodybuilding to mind. The real reason is Google Translate.

Again, this time translating to Japanese and back:

I say because it is very difficult to translate it, and I have been trying to learn the Japanese language, the first thought you, I might to impress others with the genius of linguistics probably I will have been or are trying to challenge yourself that may. Know that the genius there is no such person who have read some of the recent entries of I: in spite of IQ decent, I struggled more than use this language are. I have been bodybuilding for Lord of the mind. The real reason is using Google Translate.

Invoking the Lord of the mind may indeed be a reasonable impulse in this situation. And yet, the translation into Japanese preserves some of the European way of the thinking – I am not actually thinking in Japanese. Text written by native Japanese is even more alien, because your language influences your thoughts. I know this not just from theory; I have grown to become truly bilingual, to the point of thinking to myself in English without noticing until later. Knowing two languages deeply helps me think better in both of them, but the language still subtly influences what and how I think within each.

In my next example, someone who respects the Japanese medieval monk Nichiren has some choice words about how Happy Science represents his teachings:

Although this is the case It’s a religious organization does “science of clothing – can” to preside over the so-and-so Okawa, the methodology of ass in a lion’s skin as seen in is also a provenance that saying “the spirit of Nichiren” Hayate the pretense of what Nichiren says, as if its real, and Nichiren is the thoughtless words have no Maki flyer also Shoen edge.
  It is a fallacy on parade, alongside the names of delusion and nonsense “Ryoma Sakamoto” “Socrates” “Amaterasu” “Christ” “Kukai” after that.

Google is one of the most resourceful organizations in the world, especially in matters related to computing and the Internet. Yet a meaningful translation of a Japanese text for adults is far beyond them. If I want to read anything written in Japanese, I will have to do so in Japanese. Whether this is worth spending years of my life on, I am not sure. That depends on what I will find there, right? But since I have already many interests related to Japan, it seemed like a good idea at the time. Another thousand words and I should be able to read texts written for first-graders, with some effort.

That some mental heavy lifting may also be good for my brain is welcome, but not sufficient to motivate me. Your motivation may vary.

tsumaranai shukudai

Once again I've received a score that boldly depicts the frailty of the human condition.

Once again I’ve received a score that boldly depicts the frailty of the human condition.” I seem to get a lot of that lately.

As I am painfully crawling toward the end of the JLPT N5 course on Memrise, I get the distinct impression that the number of words I retain is slowly sinking from 66% toward 50%. But it is hard to keep track, because the number of words to review each afternoon is now so high, I have to take them in smaller portions.

And then something like this happens. There’s (finally!) a fourth season of Minami-ke, one of my favorite anime, a slice of life story about three school girls (high school, middle school and grade school) and their wacky friends. And as I watch it, I recognize words from the JLPT N5 vocabulary that I know I did not know beforehand, because they seemed absurdly difficult. Like “atatakai” (which does not mean attack but warm), and “shukudai” (which does not mean chocolate day but homework). These are the kind of weird words that I had to repeat numerous times over the course of days before I could remember them.

One of the first and worst was “tsumaranai”, which means boring. Since “-nai” at the end of a word is pretty much always a negation, this means the Japanese has a word for the opposite of boredom, but I have never seen or heard it used. On the other hand, I had not heard “tsumaranai” used either, until today. I guess knowing a word makes it much easier to notice it. Then again, I have to forge on until I stop noticing the words and just notice what is being said. That seems unimaginably distant.

A little progress in Japanese

Screenshot anime Minami-ke (Kana, Chiaki)

I apologize in advance if I make any of my readers look like a slacker, but I am sure you are all eagerly studying something in this fascinating world! Let us do our best today too!

As I have written occasionally this past month, Japanese is a fiendishly difficult language to learn for us Europeans. Not only is almost every word different and the grammar also quite alien (to the point where Google Translate gives mostly gibberish), but the language is written in three different scripts, two of them with several dozen characters and the third with more than a thousand! (Several thousand if you want to read older books, but let’s not go there.) Even Japanese school children, who presumably can speak the language from home, learn only around a hundred characters per year, or so I have read. My Japanese readers should correct me if I am wrong. ^_^

Even with Memrise, the website which combines mnemonics and spaced repetition, I have a hard time remembering more than two out of three words when I revise them. But at least this proportion mostly stays the same, even though I add 15-20 words each day, usually more on the weekends. So the number of words that remain in my head must be increasing, although I am not sure which words I remember and which I forget.

Today, I noticed a couple things. I watched an old anime that I had not seen for years, and I recognized a word in the anime that I had learned from Memrise. Usually it is the other way around, but this is how it should be.  A few days ago I recognized another in a Japanese pop song. So they are not kept in a separate locked room, they are available to my brain. If I keep adding words, they should pop up more often, until I don’t even remember where I learned them the first time.  But for now, I do.

Another thing I noticed today was the hiragana, the most common script, with around 50 characters. Since the JLPT N5 course on Memrise uses mostly hiragana both when it shows the text and when I respond, I keep seeing them all the time. Because of this I no longer think of Hiragana characters as separate data points that I have to memorize. They are becoming a skill. I can read a word I have never seen before and know roughly how it is pronounced. And for the most part I am not in doubt. I don’t have to wonder which sound this character stands for, and then combine the sounds afterwards. I just combine the sounds. This is not quite the case for katakana, the less common script, but it will probably go the same way, only more slowly since I see it less often.

Even so, at this speed it will take months before I can read actual texts in hiragana, even children’s books or comics. I simply don’t have enough vocabulary. But months are a modest price to pay to open the door to one of the world’s greatest cultures. (Not to mention finding out the truth about Ryuho Okawa, the man who wrote 900 books.) Since I yet haven’t been diagnosed with anything terminal except life itself, I intend to forge ahead. Even if it goes slowly, it goes forward. At the least, I feel it is worth a try.