Translation Don’ts – 〜をはじめ、

In the spirit of avoiding mistranslations, here’s another translation don’t.

〜をはじめ、 is a JLPT Level 2 pattern. Maybe a Level 1 pattern. I can’t remember. Whatever.

Here’s a Japanese example sentence:


Read that and think about it for a second.        Okay?

Please, whatever you do, don’t translate it as “beginning with ~”, in this case “beginning with nihonshu.” Sure, it’s got the 始まる in there, but that’s really not what it means at all. Step away from your previous knowledge of the language, and put the 直訳 down. What you should be paying attention to is when it is used.

I always remember it from the graduation ceremonies at the junior high school. The whole auditorium was full of 200-something first and second year students. The third years parade in, a bunch of important people give speeches, some kids cry, and then they leave. But before all that happens, the big wigs slowly make their way in and sit on the side of the hall. The mayor, the superintendent of education, principals of elementary schools, members of city council. All the important guys. These are the designated “invited guests,” and they get respected. But there are too many to thank personally, so when people give speeches, they thank the invited guests with the phrase 町長をはじめ、. (Notice that I’ve left the comma there.) I’m kicking myself now because I can’t remember the exact phrase, but it’s something like 山口町長をはじめ、招待者の皆様、ありがとうございます。 Something like that. Or maybe there’s a 感謝を申し上げます in there.

Basically it’s saying, “I’d like to thank the mayor and all other invited guests.” (Actually, you can see that exact phrase in action from a congratulatory message to incoming students at a JHS.) Just as the sentence above really means something like, “In Japan, people drink nihonshu as well as other booze from around the world.”

I was thinking about it at work the other day and likened it to a very, very soft もちろん. Of course you’re going to thank the mayor, and of course people drink nihonshu in Japan. It’s just a softening of that italicized emphasis that you get so often with “of course.” But there’s no need to translate that into English.

So get used to it, and learn how to use ~をはじめ、 to shorten long lists of people and things.

号外 – Oops!

    I’ve got another Murakami-related piece online over at Néojaponisme. Just a funny little extract from a Murakami conference. Dimitry Kovalenin clearly hasn’t been to a zoo for a while. Although, in all fairness, spider monkeys don’t live in Russia – too cold, no onsen.
    It is unclear when Kovalenin did his translation of the story, but nowadays there are several things he could have done in terms of fundamental groundwork for the translation, none of which would have taken much time.

Google Images

    A search for くもざる (kumozaru in hiragana) turns up a variety of strange images, including the cover of the collection and a few monkey pictures, but Google also suggests that you might be looking for クモザル (“もしかして:クモザル”). Search for the katakana version and you’ll find nothing but real monkeys.
    Google Images is quick and easy way to research what a word means and implies to people. And it’s good for more than just people, places and animals; a search for 派手, a word that can sometimes be difficult to translate in natural-sounding English, is revealing. An image search will never tell you what a word means, but it can provide you with some usage clues.


    Wikipedia entries are all cross-linked with their foreign counterparts. A list of languages for a given entry is provided in the left sidebar. This makes it an excellent tool for translation research
    Of course, this doesn’t always work. A Wikipedia search for くもざる currently brings up only three results – the Asahiyama Zoo, Murakami Haruki, and Anzai Mizumaru. Even クモザル is a little confusing; it is included within the Japanese entry for Atelidae, “one of the four families of New World monkeys.” But if you browse through that section, クモザル亜科 is listed as one of the species, and there are half a dozen examples of spider monkeys.


    Professor Numano was quick on the draw with his Kōjien citation, so I’m guessing he looked it up in an electronic dictionary. Go ahead, get yours out now. I already checked mine, and it’s nearly identical to the definition that he gave in Japanese. (オマキザル科の哺乳類。数類があり、中米から南米北部の森林に生息。) SPACEALC, a useful online dictionary that often generates a horde of contextual examples, also gives spider monkey as the definition.

    Wikipedia does not list Yoru no kumozaru as having been published in Russian, so perhaps Kovalenin translated it especially for the symposium and dodged a bullet by discovering his mistake quickly. As they say in Japan, even monkeys fall from trees. The translator’s burden is a heavy one – very little of the credit for success and all of the blame for failure. Modern resources and looking up every damn word you are unsure about can help ensure that you don’t win the Miss Translation pageant.

Supporting Beer

Beering in Japan means supporting actual beer – either the small selection of 100% malt commercial brands, most of the local craftbrews, and a good chunk of what gets imported (although some of it – lambics, krieks, other Belgian stuff – gets labeled as 発泡酒, funny enough). I’ve linked Chris Chuwy before, but I met the man recently, bought him a beer (Iwate Kura IPA), and confirmed that he’s nuts…about beer. He’s been updating the boozelist with amazing frequency and listing lots of beer events I otherwise wouldn’t have known about. Definitely bookmark worthy. Buying him beer and spreading the word means he’ll continue to update.


Cool Verb – おののく


If you look at it long enough, it almost doesn’t even look like a word at all. It begins to crawl along the page, chomping on other letters and words and leaving sentences half-erased, おののくughts half-finished おののくing a Ludovician love song.

I learned it at おののくoday, and it means tremble or quiver. It sometimes brings it’s friend 恐れ with it 恐れおののくttached as a caboose, adding a sense of fear and awe.

Cool word.            … おののく

Great Moments in Film Translation – Pulp Fiction


There’s the most famous line from the movie rendered into Japanese subtitles – “I’m going to make dinner of your backside.” Even a generous untranslation only gets “I’m gonna roast your ass.” Although perhaps “料理ing an 後ろ” is as unusual a wording in Japanese as “getting medieval” is in English which I guess is the one of the highlights of Tarantino movies – dialogue that’s close enough to vernacular English to seem real but at the same time funny and edgy enough to be cool and therefore hyperreal.

The dubbing goes in a different direction and is possibly more accurate: (the best I could tell it is,) けつぶけで破って、グチャグチャしてやる。Man, a little help from the audience. Any idea what a けつぶけ is? I get the けつ part, and I get the やぶる part. I also understand that this is what probably results in グチャグチャ of the, I’m assuming, asshole region.

The Road to Meme-dom

Learned a cool word on Mecha-ike a few weeks ago – キレた. You can see the video for yourself here. Watch for a minute or so from the 6:30 mark.

Clearly it’s the past tense of the verb キレる. I’m not sure where it comes from (切る comes to mind) or why it’s half katakana half hiragana, but the meaning is totally clear from the video – it means that someone has just fuggin lost it, gone ballistic, bonkers, completely mad, etc. We had a case of that in the office this week, and immediately this phrase came to mind.

I made a sort of visual mnemonic to help you all remember the meaning:


That is the definitive キレた moment in American cinema.

The Dude Never Dies – The Big Lebowski in Japanese

I wrote for Let’s Go Japan during the summer of 2003. There were five or six of us writing that summer, and we all flew in to Tokyo before heading out in different directions. I went to Kamakura, Yokohama and Nagoya before heading to Shikoku, where I spent most of my two-month itinerary.

At first I was disappointed about being assigned to such a rural place; I’d only been to Japan once before and had only been able to spend a week or so in Tokyo, so I felt like I was missing out. Only later would I know how lucky I was to spend a month traveling around the highly underrated Shikoku, half of that with the refreshing freedom of a car.

While the landscape was breathtaking and the people were friendly, moving from town to town every day or two quickly became lonesome. I called the office a lot, called home a lot, and fortunately a Bulgarian friend in Nagoya hooked me up with some downloads to help me distract myself. He gave me a couple anime series and a movie or two, but I spent most of my time watching The Big Lebowski, which I’d been a fan of since renting it in ’98. Honestly, that summer alone I must’ve watched Lebowski a dozen times at least. I knew all the ins and outs of the film and even felt some 運命ness; there’s a Townes VanZandt version of the song “Dead Flowers” towards the end of the film, and a vinyl record bar I went to in Nagoya played a couple songs from Sticky Fingers.

(Did you know that in the dream sequence when the Dude gets knocked out by Maude’s goons, you can see that Maude was the one who rolled the ball?


So, equipped with a Region 2 DVD player, I’ve taken it upon myself to check out the localization of the movie. A couple weekends ago I watched it – twice. Once with the English language track and Japanese subtitles, and then again with the Japanese dubbing. This may not be a surprise to those familiar with Japan’s movie industry, but the dubbed version was notably better.

Not that the translation of the subtitles was poor. Not being a native speaker, I can’t speak for it completely, but in my biased opinion, it was good and caught a lot of the nuances of the film, even getting laughs out of my Japanese roommates.

But the dubbed translation itself was more accurate and creative. For example, when the Big Lebowski grills the Dude for fucking up the bag drop, the Dude says “We (おれたち) did drop the money,” eliciting a “We?” The subtitles are fairly 文字通り, getting close enough to the Dude’s “royal we” excuse, but the dubbed version goes with some creative Japanese: 「おれっち。言うでしょう?地方なんか行くと。」

The dubbed version does have a major advantage – time. As with subtitles in any language, you have to allow time for the viewer to read and comprehend the line, and when you have a movie with quick dialogue, it’s difficult to capture the feel with subtitles alone. Additionally, the fact that much of the dialogue in this movie is simultaneous makes the subtitles especially ineffective. You can hear the Japanese voices trying to speak over each other in the dubbed version, really helping express Walter’s frustration with Donny.

It also helped that the voice acting was absolutely impeccable; the accuracy with which the voice actors arranged their lines over Jeff Bridges’ and John Goodman’s mouthing was nothing short of incredible, and all of the give and take was more accurately portrayed with the dubbing.

But even the dubbed version misses parts of the critical element that really brings the film together – the role of discourse.

In the very first scene at the grocery store, President Bush on the screen drops the line “This aggression will not stand,” which the Dude later recycles when he confronts the Big Lewbowski. (“I do mind. The Dude minds. This will not stand…ya know. This aggression will not stand, man.”) The dubbed version catches this, reusing 侵攻/侵略 and variations of 許さない, but the subtitled version misses it.

Both miss the Dude’s final line of the movie, “The Dude abides.” This line the Dude recycles from when he was confronted by the Big Lebowksi – “I will not abide another toe.” The subtitled version uses ご免 and the dubbed 許さん for the first scene. In the final scene, the subtitled version has the cowboy say 「元気でな。気をつけて。」to which the Dude responds,

Whereas in the dubbed version the Dude responds with a less intrusively translated 「それがヂュードだし」 to 「気軽にやるんだよ。言うまでもないか。」 Neither relays the idea that the Dude has borrowed terminology yet again.

So what’s the point? The point is that The Big Lebowski is a subtly political film that shows the infectious role of discourse in society and how that discourse is often misrepresentation that leads to innocent victims. Unfortunately, the Japanese subtitles and dubbing don’t fully express this underlying theme of discourse, although I did learn the awesome curse word くそ食らえ.

Cool Kanji – 囮


Learned a cool kanji at work this past week – 囮 (おとり). It means “decoy.” Unfortunately it seems to be used almost exclusively in hiragana. It’s pretty easy to break down – 化, change, inside of a box: just begging for some kind of mnemonic, but I’ll leave that to you.

When I first saw it, I didn’t process it as a kanji right away. For some reason it looked more like a stamp or icon of some sort. Very cool-looking kanji.

Here’s a list of cool uses:

おとり捜査 (そうさ) – a sting
おとり警察官 (けいさつかん) – undercover officer
おとり広告 (こうこく) – bait and switch advertising
おとりがも – decoy duck