I Heard That – 別件


The new guy at work is a loud talker, and he often powwows with the guy in the office next to mine, which has been a huge boon for my I Heard That strategy. It’s difficult to tell exactly what they’re talking about, but I do get the drift of some conversations, and it’s impossible not to take in (at least subconsciously) the rhythm of the language.

I caught a great piece of language the other day. The two of them had been talking about something and then the loud talker said 全然別件なんですが to change the subject.

This is a great little phrase, one that I would categorize as a type of Airbag Phrase. The original Airbag Phrases help cushion requests, but on their most basic level they act as preparatory transitions that help the listener understand what is going to happen next in the conversation. I always feel like a Jedi when I use them: These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.

別件 (べっけん) is a nice compound that follows the Na-nominal + Noun pattern: 別 a separate 件 topic.

Readers should recognize 全然 (ぜんぜん) as an adverb that usually precedes negative adjectives and verbs and implies “not ____ at all” or “completely not ____”: 全然おもしろくない (not interesting at all), 全然おいしくない (not delicious at all), etc.

In casual situations, 全然 gets attached to positive adjectives and verbs to express a good totality: 全然大丈夫 (totally okay), 全然平気 (completely fine), etc. When I was studying abroad, one of my Japanese friends told me that she knew my Japanese was getting good because I used 全然 in this context. It sounds very natural but is relatively casual, so I’d recommend not using it with superiors. Loud talker happens to be the superior to the guy in the office next to mine, so it works out okay, but I doubt that he would use it with his own boss.

In this case 全然 gets attached to 別件 to imply how drastically different the next conversation topic is. I think this is an especially useful phrase for Japanese as a Second Language students; phrases like this will make your speaking seem more natural and less like surrealist poetry, jumping willy nilly from one topic to the next.

2nd JLPP Translation Competition English Quotes

Just a quick post to share some knowledge. I’m working on my translations for the 2nd JLPP Translation Competition. It’s a little late to get started if you haven’t already, but if you’re working on 「昭和が発見したもの」, then this might be useful.

In the essay, there are several quotes from foreign scholars given in Japanese. I think it’s a mistake to try and translate these yourself. The translations really should be provided by the JLPP, in my opinion, because not including them tests your Google skills rather than your translation ability.

At any rate, I believe I’ve managed to track them all down (so far), and I thought I’d share them. Here they are:

Isaiah Berlin: “I have lived through most of the twentieth century without, I must add, suffering personal hardship. I remember it only as the most terrible century in Western history.”

René Dumont: “I see it (the twentieth century) only as a century of massacres and wars.”

William Golding: “the most violent century in human history”

Peter Gay: “It remains one of the achievements of which the dismal twentieth century can rightfully boast: it has raised Mozart’s music—all of it—to the eminence it deserves.”

Hope that helps.

I Heard That – よく出る

yoku deru

Despite the fact that I work at a Japanese office, I use English most of the time. I do the occasional translation, have the occasional conversation in Japanese, and read the occasional Japanese email, but Japanese language ability was not a requirement for my position. That said, I’m being exposed to much more Japanese than I was when I was in New Orleans, and for this I am thankful.

As a Japanese language student not in Japan, you have to be a collector of sorts, and the less frequent your encounters with Japanese are, the more you have to hoard and delight in those encounters. This can be true even if you’re immersed: It’s easy to turn off your Japanese ears if you’re bored or tired or surrounded by people who are insufferable. Maintain vigilance.

On this note, I’ve been trying to do a better job of collecting these little bits of conversation and force them to roll around in my head a bit. I thought I’d try to post some of those here and give the stories behind them in a new series…I need something to get me going, and sadly my next Japan Times piece won’t be online until the first week of August.

The phrase today is よく出る.

Chicago has been great for Japanese encounters outside of work as well. I recently discovered Conversation Exchange and met up with one language partner already and have another in the works. I’ve also volunteered with JETAA at an old folks home with a sizable Japanese-American population.

We read out the bingo numbers (in English—there are non-Japanese as well), and that’s about it, but they appreciate it and are a lot of fun to see every month. We also have very brief conversations in Japanese with some of the folks. For the first half of the year I was going three times a month to help out a volunteer who couldn’t make it, so they really got to know me.

Because they’re all a bit hard of hearing, we use a big speaker and microphone to do the calling, but even then they have trouble. One woman, who goes by Lillian I think, often double checks the numbers with the others at her table, which includes some younger non-Japanese folks.

One week, I called out a number, and she turned to her tablemates and said セブンティ・フォー? They corrected her to 75, and she said, オー、セブンティ・ファイブ。よく出る—Oh, seventy-five. That one comes up a lot.

The phrase made me smile because it perfectly represents how all the residents think about bingo. Some will come exchange their bingo cards between games because they got an unlucky card. Others grumble conspiracy when a certain number happens to pop up multiple times in a single night.

Volunteering has helped me understand the meditative, hypnotic appeal of bingo, but this is the benefit I get. It’s an hour where I can turn off my phone and call numbers, focus on being in the moment, but I’m not sure if it’s the same for the old folks—they are pretty competitive about it. I guess the thrill of winning is also appealing, as is the benefit of community.

It doesn’t feel like any numbers get drawn more frequently than the others, but you never know: We use a tumbler that spins bingo balls, and none of them are perfectly spherical, so in theory some could be shaped in a way that would make them よく出る.