Watchdogs and Shrooms

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In spite of the prolonged New Year's holidays in Japan, which basically lasted from December 27 to January 4, a lot of people have already noticed a few major developments here... Both The Red Star of Cadiz and The Edogawa Rampo Reader are out, and are listed on Amazon.us now. It will take a little more time for the information to propagate throughout various catalogs, but they are in print and available.

Also, the winner of the 2008 Kurodahan Press Translation Prize has been decided: Nancy H. Ross, a resident of Hiroshima prefecture.


Humor of all sorts is difficult to translate, for a number of reasons. Not only do different cultures have different ideas about what's funny, but a lot of the funniness depends on cultural referents common to the people involved.

It's pretty obvious that an English speaker won't get a joke based on, for example, a recent Japanese TV show, political figure, commercial or something else that only exists in Japan and in Japanese. I mean, how many people outside the US would understand calling an energetic tyke "Dennis?"

One thing that is almost impossible to translate into another language (not just between English and Japanese) is wordplay. This is very common in recent English literature, and indeed in almost everything. It has sort of become the fashion in the last few decades, with magazine article titles, book chapter titles, book titles and whatnot all trying their darndest to be funny or have a double meaning, and characters in novels dropping puns left and right. Strangely enough, few people seem to realize just how hard they are to translate.

Ever been to a foreign movie and noticed that the people listening to the soundtrack laugh at different times than the people reading the subtitles? Sometimes it's because the funny part of the situation is presented a few seconds later in a subtitle, but more usually it happens because the funny part of the original script just can't be done easily in English. And can't be done at all in only the few words available in a subtitle.

It happens in product names, too. If a product name is interesting in some way, it is not only easier to remember, it is more likely to get some free PR from word-of-mouth advertising (strange turn of phrase, word-of-mouth... is this somehow different from saying "spoken," one wonders?). This applies to both English and Japanese, and I wouldn't be especially surprised to discover that it applied to just about every language.

I recently ran across two good examples in Japanese: DoCoMoダケ (DoCoMo dake) and 番犬 (ban-ken, but the Japanese Romanize it as bank-ken). They are both worth taking a closer look at.

The first, DoCoMo dake, is a pun involving Japanese only. NTT DoCoMo, of course, is the name of the largest Japanese mobile telephone operator, and the firm developed this ad concept to play on a range of features and functions unique to DoCoMo. In Japanese, "dake" can be used to mean "only," so "DoCoMoダケ" can be instantly understood as "Only from DoCoMo." That's pretty clearly a good advertising statement, especially if true. But "dake" is also the word for "mushroom" (茸, たけ), converted from "take" to "dake" when used as part of compound (as in 榎だけ, enokidake). That gets us to "DoCoMo mushrooms," which really doesn't mean anything at all until you see that DoCoMo has made this family of cutesy mushrooms into a major ad theme, complete with mascot dolls, stickers, TV spots and a whole family of shroom users to identify with. Now anyone walking around with a little mushroom doll is automatically advertising "Only from DoCoMo" to everyone they meet.
That's darn fine advertising, in my humble opinion. As a translator, however, I really haven't the faintest idea of how to translate it well. Wisely (again, IMHO), the NTT DoCoMo English website makes no mention of the little characters that I can find.

The other example I mentioned was 番犬, which should be Romanized as banken, but is deliberately Romanized here as bank-ken. This is another very well thought-out example, and not terribly translatable. In Japanese a watchdog is called a 番犬 (banken), which is a real Japanese word recognized by everyone. As with the English word, it is usually used for a dog who protects something, but it can be used with respect to a protective person, for example.

They've played with it here to play up the bank's interest in preventing theft, especially through scams of one sort of another. There are all sorts of scams running, and most of them are based on incredible gullibility on the part of the victims. This website, run by the Japanese Bankers Association, is warning people about these scams and other dangers, and uses the watchdog image to signify something — I assume they want to say they will protect your money, although pretty obviously they aren't doing a very good job of it. And as you've already noticed, they modified the Romanization from ban-ken to bank-ken which is a nice play on words, and works fine in Japanese as well because essentially all Japanese recognize the meaning of the English word "bank." As with DoCoMoダケ, though, it isn't very clear how to go about translating it into English...

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