Crying Uncle


Before I start lecturing again, I just thought I'd mention that finally, after far too long, The Red Star of Cadiz was sent to the printers last week. With any luck (translation: if we don't discover that we really screwed up somewhere) it will be available via Amazon and US/UK book wholesalers before the end of the year. Having read it and reread it about fifty times over the last few years, I still have to say it is a heck of a fun book.

OK, down to business. Last week I mentioned Umberto Eco's Mouse or Rat? Translation as Negotiation and that I wanted to discuss why Japanese has two different ways to write uncle (and aunt, for that matter, not to be sexist). To simplify things, though, it's a lot easier to just talk about one, and I've arbitrarily chosen uncle.

I really like this example, because it is handy for explaining two very distinct, but two very important facets of Japanese culture that require careful consideration in translation. Briefly, they are that the Japanese assign much more importance to relative age than many Western cultures (especially the American culture I grew up in), and that the Japanese language is based on written expression, unlike English which is based on verbal expression.

There is only one way to say uncle in Japan, namely oji, but there are two ways to write it: 叔父 and 伯父. Why two? Because Japan has a long tradition of showing respect to elders, and traditionally the relative ages of people has played a very important role in determining how to address them. Of all those levels of politeness that Japanese is noted for, many of them originally dealt with relative age. 伯父 is used to refer to the older brother of a parent, and 叔父 to the younger brother. Likewise, the word for aunt (おば) has two ways to write it, younger sister of a parent (叔母) and older sister (伯母). This has little importance in daily life, but the point is that it did, once, and the relative ages (societal positions) were crucial in knowing your own place in society, and what degree of politeness you should be using when addressing the other person.

There are often cases where a common English phrase is used to mislead the reader, such as having the reader (or a character, of course) expect a doctor or a detective, and then find that a woman is waiting. "I'm looking for Dr. Smith" or "I was told Detective Brown was expecting me," they say, and of course the woman says she is the person they're looking for. There are even cases where a bit of misleading English is used to hide the killer in a murder mystery, for example.

As you can see in the above diagram, the English word "uncle" includes both Japanese words. It would be equivalent to the Japanese written with hiragana, as おじ (or more probably, おじさん). Both are conveniently vague as to just what they are referring to, which could be useful if you were writing, for example, a whodunit.
But what if a Japanese author specifically uses one or the other kanji for uncle instead?

In English we can specify the side of the family an uncle is on, saying "paternal" or "maternal," and the Japanese can specify the same thing by using "hahagata 母方" (for maternal) or "chichigata 父方" (for paternal). OK, so both cultures recognize the need to specify which side of the family someone is on. That makes sense, as both cultures have a tradition of a woman switching from one family to another when marrying.

If a Japanese text uses one of these two Japanese kanji for "uncle," though, the translator has a choice: either spell it out in text somewhere, mentioning that the uncle in question is the older or younger brother of someone, or skip it and just say uncle. Of course, it would also be possible for the Japanese to specify that the uncle is the older brother of a parent, without mentioning which parent, which would make for some really chewy English if translated...

Next time I'll take a closer look at the second point I mentioned, that the Japanese language is based on written, rather than spoken, expression.


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