How to Seinfeld

I’m in The Japan Times with a look at how “Seinfeld” is being translated into Japanese: “These senbei are making me thirsty? How ‘Seinfeld’ sounds in Japanese.

“Seinfeld” was added to Netflix last October, and my editor noticed Japanese comments about using the show as English study, now that they’d finished bingeing “Friends.” He was curious to see how it was being translated, so I took a look earlier this year. The piece just went up with some updates thanks to the JT.

I found what I basically expected to find: The dubbed translation is far superior. The voice acting is pretty incredible, actually. I recommend checking out the “these pretzels are making me thirsty” line from “The Alternate Side” (S03E11) to see how well it works.

I didn’t have space for this in the article, but I found a few mistakes in the translation.

In “The Puffy Shirt” (S05E02), George has moved back in with his parents, and they’re treating him like royalty after his recent hand modeling success. His mother offers him jello, and his father makes a critical comment. Here’s what the English looks like:

FRANK: Why’d you put the bananas in there?!
ESTELLE: George likes the bananas!
FRANK: So let him have bananas on the side!

The dubbed version gets the ensuing conversation correct:

なんでバナナ入れたんだ? (Nande banana ireta nda?, Why’d you put the bananas in there?)
ジョージはバナナが好きなのよ! (Jōji wa banana ga suki nano yo!, George likes the bananas!)
バナナは別にしよう! (Banana wa betsu ni shiyō!, Put the bananas on the side!)

The subtitled version, however, somehow has his father asking for the bananas to be added in:

バナナも入れろ (Banana mo irero, Put in the bananas, too)
ジョージの好物よ! (Jōji no koobutsu yo!, George loves bananas!)
食わせてやれ! (Kuwasete yare!, Feed him the bananas!)

Seems like the subtitler got mixed up in all the yelling.

And in “The Yada Yada” (S08E19), I found a nearly impossible to translate joke. Tim the dentist has converted to Judaism and starts telling Jewish jokes. This line isn’t a joke, but it’s tough to put into Japanese:

English: Give me a schtickle of flouride.
Sub: ユダヤ教徒用のフッ素をくれ (Yudaya kyōto yō no fusso o kure, Give me the flouride for Jews)
Dub: フッ素を少し頂戴 (Fusso o sukoshi chōdai, Give me a bit of flouride)

I can’t tell exactly, but I think the dubbed version might give the 少し a skosh more shh on the front of the word to try and capture the sense of the Yiddish, but it’s really difficult to tell. The subtitle goes with a frankly terrible translation – “Give me the flouride for Jews”? It seems like the translator does recognize schtickle as a Yiddish word, but what a terrible decision. There must be some other approach that would work.

Later in the episode, Kramer calls Seinfeld an “anti-dentite.” Here’s how it gets translated:

English: You’re an anti-dentite
Sub: お前はアンチ歯科医 (Omae wa anchi shikai, You’re anti-dentist)
Dub: お前は歯医者差別主義だ (Omae wa haisha sabetsu shugi, You discriminate against dentists)

There are problems with both of these translations. The sub captures the “feel” of the English, but the dub better expresses the discriminatory aspect present with the antisemite connotation. Some of this is just going to get lost, unfortunately, like with the schtickle line. I think the dub is more successful in the end, but that could be because you get all the emphasis in the verbal jousting between the characters.

I can’t imagine anyone doing a full rewatch with the dubbed version in Japanese, but if you’re interested in watching some high-level voice acting, it’s not a bad exercise. For the life of me, I could not track down who did the voice acting. I’m always curious to know who does the voices because they’re all so prolific that they’ve done many other roles. Anyone know where this information might be hidden?

Best Practices for Watching Japanese TV

I may have developed a dangerous habit over the winter break. I learned about TVer in late November and didn’t really do anything with it until New Year’s rolled around, which is when I got nostalgic for 年末 programming. So I watched a bunch and then decided that watching J-drama was an effective way to study Japanese.

Which is how I ended up with an 8+ hour/week television habit. This is a surprise even to me. I tried watching some J-drama on Netflix last summer, but nothing really hooked me. I think the fact that you only have a week to watch shows on TVer combined with the anticipation of new releases has sharpened my interest.

In addition to the four shows I wrote about in the newsletter this month, I’ve added:

A manga artist still struggling to get established gets wrapped up in a murder mystery when one of her junior high classmates (with whom she recently reunited at their reunion) is pushed from a bridge. She herself also seems to be targeted. Does it have something to do with the time capsule they dug up?

This show is…fine. There’s one very bizarre character who makes the whole thing worth watching. And the scenes from Yamagata stand out and make me a little nostalgic for Tohoku. I could take or leave this show.

A woman is found passed out in the woods wearing a white coat. She turns out to be a medical prodigy, but she remembers nothing about her past. Is someone following her?

This one is middling…but fun enough that I end up watching it while doing kanji practice. Another I may end up skipping depending on how busy I get.

A recent addition to my lineup! Nakagoshi Chikara has just moved to a new apartment complex with his family. He’s a bit OCD and has a good heart, so he has trouble keeping himself out of other people’s business, especially if they need help. What secrets are people in his building keeping?

This show is quirky and fun, although maybe a bit too pure…at times it does feel like it’s being written with social lessons in mind. But I’m more likely to stick with this show than some of the others.

Ninety Nine’s going into their 23rd season of ゴチになります! So of course this one is on the list. I think it’s the only non-drama I’m watching right now. Are there any other variety shows out there worth following?

Alice in Borderland
Ok, this is a Netflix addition, and I’m watching it slowly, but I’m a good chunk in. Imagine a bizarro Japanese version of Squid Game. It’s like that. Not quite as good as Squid Game, but higher production values than any of the shows listed above and relatively interesting.

A couple things I’ve noted after watching 40+ hours of Japanese TV in the past month:

– Subtitles/closed captions are a critical tool, but you need to practice watching with and without subtitles. I noticed a striking difference when I actively use the subtitles and when I have them off. It’s almost like practicing two different skills. Ideally you would not use them, but I think they are such a terrific way to confirm vocabulary and grammar points that you may not be catching all the time. If you’re just reading the subtitles, however, I think part of your listening brain does turn off, to a certain extent. I don’t feel terrible about this because I know a lot of viewers in English-speaking countries use closed captions religiously in their native language because it can be difficult to hear things on TV. But I’d try balancing the two. I keep subtitles on and try to shift between focusing on the audio and then confirming something with the text when I need to.

– Make watching TV an active practice by targeting specific grammar patterns. I was struggling to fine tune some of the conditional grammar patterns (〜たら、〜ば、〜なら) at the end of last quarter, so while watching I kind hunt these sentences down and (when I’m able to) copy them into a document I’m keeping. This gives me the ability to compare usages against a wide spectrum of examples, all of which are from ostensibly natural, native interactions (even if fictional). You could look for specific verbs, intransitive/transitive usages, passive constructions, causative constructions, etc. Go wild. Fine tune this practice to your own needs.

What am I missing? Are there any good shows out there I should be watching?

Final Form

Greetings from August 2020, dear readers. We’re still operating mostly indoors, although we have a bike now and the weather in Chicago has been good, which means that the city is out and about (for better or worse) and there are patios with draft beer and fine food. Winter is within sight, so we’re trying to enjoy the warmth we have left.

But virtual events are still a thing. We’re digital. The memes are flowing, including this gem, which I snipped from Twitter on May 11 (two days before Elon Musk tweeted it):

I know next to nothing about Dragonball, so I got curious about what the original Japanese might be. After some searching, it turns out that the English is completely original to memedom and does not appear in the anime or manga…in that form.

Japanese websites have attributed the line, which popped up in memes in 2012, to the Japanese その変身をあと2回もオレは残している (Sono henshin o ato nikai mo ore wa nokoshite iru, With that transformation, I have two more remaining), which comes from Frieza in this panel:

I can’t seem to track down which manga issue this comes from, but a fan in this forum has posted quotes from episodes that seem to suggest it was translated pretty straightforward in the anime as “And I still have two more transformations remaining!”

To be honest, “This isn’t even my final form” is a pretty good rendering of the Japanese! It feels appropriately dramatic. Maybe something like “There’s more where that came from!” or “You haven’t seen anything yet!” would work as well.

Although, in complete context, “And I still have two more transformations remaining! Do you even understand what that means?” feels spot on.

The forum quotes also suggest that whoever made the meme was basically paraphrasing the actual translation rather than creating something entirely new.

But whoever created that initial meme did tap into something. It’s funny how pieces of language can go viral. It feels so natural, like there’s a momentum waiting to happen that needs only the softest push to set it in motion.

Expressing 自分 with 自分

I was in the Japan Times last week with a close look at some of the Japanese in the Queer Eye episodes on Netflix that were set in Japan: “Being your best self in spoken Japanese with the cast of ‘Queer Eye.’

I wish I’d had a little more space to talk about some other phrases (I took over 1,400 words of notes and the column was only like 750 lol), but I focused in on the prevalence of 自分 (jibun, self/myself) in a lot of phrases. If you can master this word you’ll be able to say a lot about yourself, and you should be using it instead of first-person pronouns quite often.

If you haven’t seen these episodes yet, I would highly recommend doing so!

I haven’t followed their reception too closely, but apparently people have been divided, with some (many?) criticizing the show of appropriation or misunderstanding Japanese culture.

I don’t think I agree with everything they tried to do. The approach to cooking, in particular, fell flat most of the time (the omuraisu was a serious culinary crime!) and didn’t really understand how to be creative in a Japanese kitchen.

But I do think the Fab Five helped in many of the situations. I think one long quote from the mother in episode three really helps provide some perspective.

When asked about the last time she told her daughter Kae that she loves her, the mother responds:

日本にはやっぱりI love you言ったり、ハグしたり、キスしたりという文化がないので、本当はやりたい気持ちものすごくあるんですけど、抑えている (Nihon ni wa yappari “I love you” ittari, hagu shitari, kisu shitari to iu bunka ga nai no de, hontō wa yaritai kimochi monosugoku arun desu kedo, osaete iru, In Japan we don’t really have a culture of saying I love you or hugging and kissing each other, so while I do strongly feel like I want to do and say these things, I suppress those feelings).

It was easy for the Fab Five to provide some openings to these four people precisely because they’re not suppressing those feelings.

There are aspects and expectations of different cultures in the U.S. that also suppress these feelings at times in similar ways, perhaps to different degrees than in Japan, and it can be incredibly liberating to finally realize that you can safely express these feelings without fear of being hurt.

And sometimes it’s not even a cultural issue, I don’t think. Japan does provide avenues for people to express their feelings clearly, so sometimes it’s an individual’s experience. They’ve somehow convinced themselves that they need to live with their feelings kind of shut down. It’s incredible to see what happens when they get a little help becoming more comfortable expressing them.

It definitely got a little dusty in my apartment while I was watching!

Study Japanese with Netflix Closed Captioning

I’m in the Japan Times this week with a look at the Japanese shows on Netflix that have closed captioning: “Watch, read, rewind: using Netflix to boost your Japanese.”

I initially pitched this article late last year and fully intended to get to the shows over the holidays but was swamped with translation work and also found myself lacking the appetite to sit down and watch any kind of TV at all, let alone Japanese shows. Strange feeling. In my defense, I was also trying to spend more time reading books.

I’m sure I’ll feel the need for a break at some point, especially now that I’ve finished the new Murakami novel (more on that soon!). I think I’ll probably attack these shows in the following order (consider these my power rankings):

1. Shinya Shokudō
2. Samurai Gourmet
3. Terrace House
4. Atelier
5. Kuromukuro
6. Spark
7. Sinbad

I haven’t watched a full episode of Samurai Gourmet yet, but I like the style, and Jean Snow has vouched for it. It seems like it could be a slightly different take on material similar to Shinya Shokudō. The others I’m partway through, in various states. I’m almost through with Shinya Shokudō.

Terrace House I’m sure will be awful in a pleasurable way. I’m mostly there to laugh along with the celebrity audience. I don’t know why I’m so low on Spark. It just didn’t grab me. Neither did Atelier, really, but Kuromukuro couldn’t be more formula driven (so far).

And Sinbad is just bad. I wonder why it’s the only anime on Netflix with closed captioning? Anyone know? Maybe it has something to do with the fact that it’s a Netflix original? Oh well.

Obviously I skipped a massive amount of anime content on Netflix that doesn’t have closed captioning. What are your favorites? What should I be watching? I got part way through Attack on Titan and just couldn’t motivate myself to watch much more, but I guess I’ll get to it at some point. Let me know what I’m missing and if I get good comments I’ll update this post and include them below.

罰ゲーム Season

Everyone needs an obsession or two. I don’t know how people get by in life without at least one. Well, that’s not totally true. I’m sure there are some dull folks out there who are content to work, watch prime time TV, have kids, and then raise them to work and watch prime time TV. But I don’t think I could do it.

I really shouldn’t knock prime time TV because one of my obsessions happens to be the Japanese comedy show ガキの使いやあらへんで!! (Gaki no tsukai ya arahende!!) Technically it doesn’t run during “prime time.” It airs Sunday nights during the odd block 22:56-23:26, so it’s more of a late show, but their 絶対に笑ってはいけない罰ゲーム (Zettai ni waratte wa ikenai batsu game) special runs in the primest of Japanese times: New Year’s Eve from 6:30 until (the technically impossible?) 24:30.

My latest Japan Times Bilingual page column “The annual pain and pleasure of punished comedians” (solid headline—props to my JT editor) introduces the batsu game special and why it’s so great. It’s probably underrated compared to Kōhaku, but not by much and definitely not by its main demographic (elementary-school-aged boys).

I have two personal connections that sparked my obsession with the batsu games.

I first visited Japan during the summer of 2002, and I have vague memories of seeing the “Matsumoto Rangers” on a news program during the wee hours of the morning while I was suffering from jet lag. Wikipedia confirms that this did indeed air during that summer, but I think I arrived earlier than July/August, so I’m not sure I was still jetlagged…I might have seen a replay at some point. At any rate, it stood out and was funny, even if I didn’t really understand why it was happening.

In 2006 I traveled down to Kyushu with a couple of JET buddies during the holidays, but I made it back up to Fukushima for New Year’s Eve, and another JET buddy and I spent it in Kitakata eating and drinking and flipping back and forth between the fights and the batsu game. It was the police batsu game, which was the first special to air on New Year’s Eve.

These two connections cemented my obsession, and I’ve since tracked down and watched most of them. A lot of material is available on DVD in Japan. If you live in other regions but are Internet proficient, you should be able to find the other episodes. Many of them are available on the YouTubes these days somehow (and fanboys/girls have even subbed them).

I’ve written previously on the blog here and over at Neojaponisme about the batsu game. Most of the YouTube links are dead on those posts but should be relatively easy to track down. I recommend watching at least the 24時間耐久鬼ごっこ (24-hour Endurance Onigokko) (Youku, Youtube) and the 絶対に笑ってはいけない24時間警察 (You must not laugh 24-hour police) (Youku, Youtube). They are classic classic moments in modern Japanese comedy.

“Going Backwards” Bonus Coverage

I have a new column over at the Japan Times: “Going backward to get ahead with studying Japanese.”

I take an idea that Jay Rubin discusses at length in his book “Making Sense of Japanese: What the Textbooks Don’t Tell You” (which all students of the language need to read) and look at a modern example: グルナイ.

Gurunai is, by far, the best reality food TV ever created, and I’m not sure why it hasn’t been adapted for foreign TV yet. I imagine it would be difficult to match the chemistry between Okamura and Yabe. The show is one of the things I miss the most about living in Japan, but apparently ask and the Internet will provide. I need to check the Tubes more often.

I wanted to include another example of MC Hatori Shin’ichi giving a winning ピタリ償 announcement, but it wouldn’t fit in the column, so I’ll give it to you as bonus coverage here. He drags out the announcement even when the contestants win the prize:

Konkai Gochi-10-hatsu no pitari sho, nanto, pitari sho ga, ichinen ikagetsu buri ni, kyo wa, honto ni, pitari sho ga, decchaimaishita! (Today the very first pitari-sho on Gochi Season 10 has, inconceivably, the pitari-sho has, for the first time in a year and a month, today, for real, the pitari-sho will…be awarded!; 今回、ゴチ10初のピタリ償、何と、ピタリ償が、一年一ヶ月ぶりに、今日は、本当に、ピタリ償が、出っちゃいました!)


Fansub FAIL

I’m cursed for some reason. Whenever I try to watch the movie Paprika, I’m always interrupted. I’ve made it halfway through several times, but inevitably something comes up and I’m forced to pause it, promising to finish at a later time. Last night I only made it 15 minutes in before I realized I would have to bail. That was still enough time to see this fansub failure:

Sure, it’s an accurate translation from a certain point of view – it is what comes out of her mouth (the line in Japanese is 「イッツ・ザ・グレーティスト・ショータイム!」) – but clearly the film is referring to the Ringling Brothers’ famous slogan “The Greatest Show on Earth,” so I think a better translation (that takes into account the philosphy underlying my inequality posts) would be “Time for the Greatest Show on Earth!” Or, if you don’t want to trample on the Ringling Brothers’ intellectual property, “Time for an amazing show!” “It’s the greatest show time” is a failure of English.

I must finish watching this movie soon. I’ve vowed to finish watching it before I see Inception so that I can figure out if it inspired any of the movie. And I should probably see Inception before school starts. So in the next week or two.

That’s What All the Ladies Say

My understanding of だろう and でしょう are tenuous at best. I remember being puzzled by these when I took my first Japanese class – an intensive summer class, which I would not recommend (slow down, everyone, you’re moving too fast).

Two encounters have shaped my understanding of these phrases. Today, encounter one.

I was up in Fukushima, I think during my first year as a JET, watching TV. There was a small variety show where a host was interviewing different celebrities who came out one by one. After the host asked a few questions about the kind of work they did, the audience had to guess the celebrity’s annual income. One of the people on the show was パックン – Patrick Harlan, a Harvard grad who parlayed English teaching into Japanese study into fame as a manzai comedian. I don’t remember exactly what the host said to Pakkun, but he responded with a highly suggestive でしょう, which got a lot of laughs. I immediately noted the tone of his phrasing and added it to my mental catalog of funny phrases to use.

It felt like he was confirming something, just as you would with ですね, but this something was overly obvious and a little silly. A phrase you could substitute it with is the equally laugh-inducing よく言われます – literally, and extremely awkwardly, “That is often said about me.” I guess the English equivalent would be, “That’s what they all say.”

The tone on でしょう here is important – it’s slightly inquisitive with the hint of a smile. Amirite? でしょう?