The Mother of Invention

November 11, 2011 at 2:47 am (By Amba)

Operating in the no-man’s-land between languages can challenge you to get inventive. I’ve thus (knowing mostly just karate words in Japanese) had some of my most delicious conversations with English-impaired Japanese friends, and I had one tonight. Trying to explain to a brilliant, gentle philosopher and his (ditto) poet wife the inexaggerable (?) importance of one writer for English, I found myself saying (with lots of help from my hands):  You know when you’re making a pot you put it on a wheel, you make it round, and then you put it in the fire and it gets hard? It was the same with English, and the fire was Shakespeare.


  1. On Shakespeare | Dr. Platypus said,

    […] an apt description of William Shakespeare’s contribution to the English language. If you follow the link, there’s also an interesting story to go with it: You know when […]

  2. wj said,

    It’s a very nice analogy (my late mother-in-law having been a potter, it really resonates).

    But Japanese (unlike most languages, I believe) actually has a rough parallel: Lady Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji. Or dod you toss that at them as well?

  3. amba12 said,

    Interesting! No, nor did they toss it at me; they were telling me about what they regard as the best translator of Shakespeare into Japanese, a 20th-century poet named Junji Kinoshita. Googling him this morning:

    The playwright, critic, and translator, Junji Kinoshita, made a remarkable contribution to Japanese Shakespeare translation. As a playwright himself, he was very sensitive to the dramatic potential of language. Although skeptical of the translatability of Shakespeare, he attempted the “impossible” task and successfully translated fifteen Shakespeare plays, including Hamlet. What he regarded as most crucial in translating Shakespeare was capturing “the energy and undulation of speeches.” Reproducing this in Japanese was much more important to him than intelligibility (Kinoshita 1988, 326). In some cases, Kinoshita argues, a speech’s energy consists in the very unintelligibility; for example, the enraged Laertes’ accusation “That drop of blood that’s calme proclames me Bastard, / Cries cuckold to my father, brands the Harlot / Euen here betweene the chast vnsmirched browe / Of my true mother” (2860-4) loses its original expressive, emotional qualities if translated in a logical and plain way (Kinoshita 1993, 304-13).

    I feel guilty about using the term “English-impaired,” since my Japanese is nonexistent. I am German-impaired — at the level where you can sort of express yourself in the other language, but it’s a creative struggle to convey subtle meanings with a limited vocabulary and there are many times when your mind goes blank. I spent years out there in that space with my best karate teacher — we virtually invented a pidgin of our own — and I had marvelous conversations with another friend who actually had a rather large theoretical English vocabulary but would have to take long pauses to leaf through the dictionary in her head — you could almost hear the pages turning. Helping by guessing, supplying additional words, and coming up with ingeniously concrete ways to communicate complex concepts are all part of the fun. In all cases these were conversations with highly thoughtful people who took what I can only describe as private aesthetic pleasure in insight (private because enjoyed for its own sake, not as part of some ambition; of course a poet and a philosopher might have some ambition, but the other two were a former rock bass guitarist turned wife and mother, and a self-educated karate teacher). The poet I was with last night said that she was “moved” (English word supplied by her husband) by the turning leaves in Central Park, and also by a comment I made about a poem of hers, which is no doubt untranslatable but that they roughly translated as

    the sea cucumber says
    to forgive those
    who have tried to kill you
    is to truly write poems

  4. kngfish said,

    Hmmm…Now may be the time to watch Ran…. Japanese….but King Lear too.

    I’ve always said Reservoir Dogs was Greek tragedy…Pulp Fiction is Shakespearean tragedy….

  5. amba12 said,

    We also got onto Kurosawa last night. I brought up Throne of Blood (Macbeth) which they did not know, and they brought up Ran, which, yes, is based on Lear.

  6. amba12 said,

    By the way, “Ran” is Japanese for “Chaos.”

  7. Charlie Martin said,

    Holy crap.

  8. Charlie Martin said,

    For a good time, watch some of the Zatoichi movies. I remember this great scene where Zatoichi has just dispatched 40 or 50 bad guys. He sheathes his sword, panting, and the Japanese Valley Girl he’s protected looks at him wide-eyed and says, basically,

    “Oh wow, like you’re a gangster aren’t you!?”

    (Anata wa yakuza desu, ne! the Valley Girl part is in the intonation.)

    The subtitle:

    “You’re bad!”

  9. wj said,

    Perhaps we could work up a scale of foreign (or even native!) language ability. A start (with lots of holes in it – and the blanks might have more than one intervening level):
    1) none
    2) absolute minimum – what you need to know to be minimally polite:
    – thank you
    – hello
    It’s positively amazing how much credit an American (and therefore, by definition, totally language-challenged) tourist can get just for those two words! Even if horribly accented.
    4) dare to go out unaccompanied by a native speaker – stuff like “where is the restroom?” and “how do I get to [wherever you are staying]?”
    6) basic communication – sort of the equivelant of pidgin English, where you can get simple ideas across, sort of.
    8) cope – you can understand, at the level of a 5 year old, what people around you are saying. At least if they don’t go too fast or get too idiomatic
    10) fluent – you can have a conversation about most topics (including business topics, if that’s what you are there for) without getting blank looks on either side.
    12) idiomatic – you don’t get confused by normal slang expressions
    14) pseudo-native – you function at the level that college educated native speakers do

    The shocker might be how many native speakers barely make it to level 9!

  10. amba12 said,


  11. Icepick said,

    Ran has (amongst other things) great battle sequences, which were directed Ichihiro Honda, the guy behind the original Godzilla movies.

  12. amba12 said,


  13. kngfish said,

    I think the military now uses something like wj’s language system…and ties it to pay increases!

  14. Icepick said,

    Kurosawa and Honda had been friends since they were young men in the Japanese film industry. I seem to recall Kurosawa saying that Honda should have been considered co-dirctor of Ran, and I believe one or two of the other films from late in Kurosawa’s life. (I’m pretty sure there’s a classic Honda scene in Ran – a crowd overwhelming a smaller number of people. I may be mis-remembering this though.)

    Looking at IMdb it seems I got the name wrong – it’s Ishiro Honda. I felt sure I had seen it as Ichihiro at some point recently. Looks like he worked on four movies with Kurosawa late in their lives.

  15. Icepick said,

    And from IMDB’s Kurosawa entry:

    Unbeknownst to many people, Kurosawa had always wanted to make a Godzilla film of his own, but the executives at Toho Co., Ltd. (the Japanese studio that produces all the Godzilla films) wouldn’t let him because they feared it would cost too much.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: