16 April 2008

Lost In Translation

Now that I'm mostly recovered from my recent ailments, things are going back to the way we were. I must say, I've surely gnawed on greener pastures if getting knocked on one's ass with an illness constitutes a welcome break from reality. I've now reclaimed my perch on the corner of my couch. The one where I sit balled up all day in the fetal position chanting my "om mani padme everything sucks" mantra. Except now that I've been sick, this mantra is staccato'ed with the occasional exclamation, "This place is too clean!" and the increasingly frequent panic attack.

But I look good, or so I've been told, and that's what counts when one is attempting a facade of normalcy. My hair is brushed, my teeth are flossed (holy calamity!) and the kettle is on the boil. One might hardly suspect that the delicate ecosystem which makes up my well being was seemingly trampled on by Godzilla or Mothra. Or, really, by Godzilla since he seems to be more keen on the trampling action.

I know very little about Godzilla (and even less about Mothra). As pop culture icons, I feel that I know them well enough without actually having to sit through a monster movie. I understand certain things about Godzilla just because he exists. The extent of my knowledge can best be summed up in the following list:

1. Perry Mason is in the "original" American version.
2. Godzilla came from the sea.
3. That monster smashed the shit out of Tokyo.

I think the low brow special effects goes without saying--it's sort of a presupposition of the Japanese monster flick.

About 10 years ago, I spent a very long week in Japan. Between the visits to many shrines and a cultural theme park with staged ninja vs. samurai fights, I mostly recall the culinary novelties, superior office supply stores, and a plethora of very blatant perverts. Thanks in part to an embarrassing bout of altitude sickness at a ryokan, it wasn't my most culturally sensitive trip abroad. But as many Americans who have gone before me will tell you, it's difficult not to feel like a water buffalo there, particularly when one has blond hair, blue eyes and an ample bosom.

When I went over there, I knew very few words of Japanese. I came back knowing only one or two additional words. I learned a majority of this from my genius sister, a speaker Japanese (and a couple more languages besides).

I learned most of the phrases I know several years after my return when I rented a room in my sister's house. This was when I was witness to and a participant in many arguments in anywhere between one and five languages. Most of these fights had to do with the air-con (Japanese for air conditioner). Namely, my sister and I occasionally wanted to turn it on and my cheap bastard brother-in-law was neurotic about turning it off, even when it was 98 degrees with 98% humidity. If you have not tried it before, stringing together insults in many different languages is quite satisfying, though it may lack some efficacy with your intended target.

This isn't the first time I'd lived in a multilingual household. Nor was it the first time I'd willfully participated in the linguistic bastardization of each tongue. When I lived in Ireland, my roommates used to say certain things exclusively in Irish. For example, instead of asking "What time is it?" they would ask, "Cen t-am a e?" To make things more confusing, the response was almost aways hybridized, "Ta se half ten."

I asked my roommate Fiona about the bilingual blending phenomenon once. Her response was something akin to, "I dunno, we learn Irish so we can go to university. No other reason for it." This comes from a girl who was studying law. Ireland's constitution is in Irish. Nope, no other reason for learning the language.

Another one of my Irish roommates, Niamh, was more helpful in shedding light on this predicament. As she explained, if everyone knows both languages one might as well default to the one that most pleases a lazy lilting tongue at any given moment. Ironically, I remember returning from Ireland with a greater appreciation for Spanglish.

Returning to my pithy handful of Japanese words, it occurred to me that certain things are completely lost in translation. Being an auditory person, and a native born westerner, I have a particularly difficult time divorcing eastern words with the meaning of their aural western equivalent. The problem with cross-cultural homonyms rests in the fact that the East vs. West meaning is completely different. Here are a few of my favorite examples:

Shizen vs. Scheißen

This first became apparent during a recent walk through my neighborhood. There's an empty lot advertising condos for sale. The property developer boasts an upcoming multi-unit condo complex which will be quite remarkably environmentally friendly. For the time being, the developer is spending a lot more time building their website than making any sort of improvement to the property. From this site, I learned that Shizen is the Japanese term for nature.

Scheißen, of course means shit in German. And it is a pretty accurate description of the state of this empty lot. Besides, one might actually be full of the stuff to conceive of sticking 7 condos, plus underground parking and über-sustainable water storage in that tiny space.

Chicken vs. Chikan

Chicken in English means...

Or sometimes...

And, if we're going to stretch things a little here, it means...

Chikan is a Japanese term for pervert. Or sometimes it means molester. In general, it is used to refer to someone inclined to the lewd and inappropriate. It's a person who would make the English speaking chicken "Bwaaak?" uncomfortably, shifting her beady-eyed gaze askance while hastily making her way to the exit of the coup.

Chikan also means "limpy" which is a descriptive term that does not get used nearly enough in my presence. I cannot say, let alone type the word limpy without feeling the corners of my mouth turn slightly upward. Yes, my humor is juvenile. I blame Mama Crow.

Connemara vs. Kanamara

The Connemara is a region in Ireland known for it's unique landscape. There's sort of a connotation that the region is barren due to the fact that many plants are small in order to withstand the elements. It's beautiful, but windy.

The Japanese Kanamara Matsuri refers to the annual Festival of the Steel Phallus. According to Wikipedia this Shinto fertility festival, "is centered around a local penis-venerating shrine, once popular among prostitutes who wished to pray for protection against sexually transmitted diseases." I am excited by this, if only for the opportunity to post the next picture.

It's so pink!

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