Found in translation

13 May 2017

9:00 AM

13 May 2017

9:00 AM

Buririggu deshita. Suraibi tōbu
Wēbu de gairu to gimburu shite,
Nante mimuji na borogōbu,
Mōmu rassu autoguraibimashita ne.

If this looks familiar, it’s not surprising. This is the first verse of ‘Jabberwocky’ by Lewis Carroll, translated into Japanese by Noriko Watanabe. Ms Watanabe is a translator of children’s books living in Sendai, in the north of Japan, and she is working on a new translation of the two Alice books. I met her in a bar called Come Here.

Is translating Lewis Carroll, which is already nonsense, into another language, a near-impossible task? I asked her. ‘No, not at all,’ she said. ‘Actually it’s easy because Japanese is about 15 per cent English. So we can just take a word like “brillig” and turn it into wasei-eigo [Japanese-made English]. So it becomes buririggu. “Mimsy” becomes mimuji. There’s not much need for translation in this case.’

In fact, Japanese contains so many English loan words that Japan feels closer to the UK, linguistically, than it would to, say, China (Mandarin Chinese is unrelated to Japanese), or indeed to any other Asian country. Common words such as cup, knife, fork, spoon, table, keyboard, pen, light, glass, speaker, tape, pill, backpack, jacket, skirt and sweater — just a few of the nouns I can see by looking around me at this moment — are all borrowed from English, and are commonly known as koppu, naifu, fōku, supūn, tēburu, kībōdo, pen, raito, gurasu, supīka, tēpu, piru, bakkupakku, jaketto, sukāto and sētā. There are many thousands of others.

That Japan and Britain are similar in many ways is no real news to anyone. Both are island nations living off the coast of a very big and powerful continental entity. Both are jealous of their independence. Both like tea. Both have an exaggerated system of polite interactions — if you doubt this is still the case in Britain, count how many times the words ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ are uttered when you buy a stamp. Both are relatively peaceful societies where guns are very difficult to get hold of. Both are self-consciously literary societies with traditions that stretch back at least 1,000 years. And it is in this last respect that the Japanese love of Britain comes into its own.

Keita Tanaka is a teacher of physics at an exclusive boys’ school in Tokyo, where I met him for lunch. The school is modelled on Eton, and it plays regular host to visitors from English public schools, who compete with the Japanese pupils at football and kendo. Keita carries an oft-folded poem by Wordsworth in his wallet: ‘The Rainbow’. (‘My heart leaps up when I behold/-A rainbow in the sky.’)

He has been to Grasmere, sampled the special shortbread that they make near the haka (grave) of Wordsworth himself, and reveres all aspects of Romantic poetry. And he is a physics teacher! What must the English teachers have in their wallets?

I asked him about his reading in general. ‘I enjoy Tom Brown’s Schooldays,’ he said. ‘Also Goodbye, Mr Chips. Chips-sensei Sayōnara.’ Who else? ‘I like Conan Doyle. My favourite author is Wordsworth. Daffodils. The Rainbow. Tintern Abbey.’ Japan has many world-class writers — Yukio Mishima, Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, Yasunari Kawabata — and it bows to no one, not China, nor Russia, nor America, in its literary pride. Except Britain, which it holds in parallel esteem.

Shakespeare is English literature’s crowning glory. Among the many film, stage and musical adaptations of his work that I have seen in Japan was Hageletto, a version of Hamlet in which the hero is bald (a pun on hage, meaning bald). You can’t have puns like that unless the audience is at least familiar with the basics.

Jane Austen, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Roald Dahl, Charles Dickens – these are also all known and appreciated. A.A. Milne and Beatrix Potter must be mentioned as phenomena rather than writers. Winnie the Pooh is kuma no puu-san (Mr Pooh the Bear) and he is known not just from the Disney adaptation, as he is everywhere else in the world, but from the original texts (in translation) and the E.H. Shepard illustrations. Beatrix Potter’s characters are all very well known, and account for billions of yen that annually inundate the Lake District. Japanese Potter fans (Beatrix, not Harry) are well schooled in the minutiae of Potter-iana: they know that Peter (pītā rabitto) was a real rabbit that Beatrix kept in a cage on her desk, for example. I have asked.

So the answer to the question ‘Why does Japan still love Britain?’ is really tied up with the fact that Britain is the origin of the English language and English literature. Although the Japanese, a practical people, may look to America for English-training courses such as TOEIC (leaving the English version, IELTS, relatively high and dry), they love Britain because they love English written culture, and go out of their way to visit Britain, even though it is damp and full of people with tattoos.

English is set to be the global super-language, whatever Mr Juncker says, and Britain, as the home of Winnie the Pooh, Alice, Sherlock Holmes, Hamlet, Mr McGregor and Wordsworth’s leech–gatherer, is the future.

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