Katakana: the ultimate ‘Lost in Translation’

January 27th, 2014By Category: Uncategorized


You know that feeling where you begin a test filled with certainty that the 100%, A-grade, best-student-ever, candidate for lord-and-master was in the bag? Only to be faced with soul crushing defeat of only one correct answer out of five, thereby proving every local 2 year old your superior?

No? Are any of you actually sitting Japanese classes?

To be fair, the problem could just be me; I am truly terrible at listening to Japanese. Despite being surrounded by people chattering away in the language, my brain some how takes this stream of carefully formed words and intent and turns it into a continuous thrum to be blocked out like a blue screen in a movie. So bad was this problem that I had to demonstrate my incompetence multiple times before my Japanese teacher finally selected the correct level of listening exercise for us to begin our study.

Regardless of this, I had high hopes for today’s exercise. We were focussing on words in Japanese that had been taken from another language. When written, these are scripted in katakana; the phonetic scripts for words of foreign origin. While reading these is a devilish art, speaking them normally reveals their original sound and what is more, the word is very often from English. So this came down to ‘spot the English word amidst the blue screen buzz’. How hard could it be?

I was confident.

I was a fool.

As a warm up, the exercise began with an example:

趣味はウォーキングです。 (shumi wa uoukingu desu)
My hobby is walking.

Based on this announcement, I had to chose the equivalent expression from three possible Japanese sentences that did not use the katakana word:

(a) 趣味は歩くことです。(shumi wa aruku koto desu)
(b) 趣味は走ることです。 (shumi wa hashiru koto desu) 
(c) 趣味は寝ることです。 (shumi wa neru koto desu)

Since 歩く means ‘to walk’, 走る means ‘to run’ and 寝る means ’to sleep’, the answer was shown to be (a): ‘ウォーキング’ is equivalent to the Japanese word ‘歩く’. See how easy this is?

My teacher than played the next 5 questions continuously. I picked up my pen in eager readiness. By the time the exercise finished, I had confidently answers for (1) and (5), had no answers at all for (2), (3) and (4) … and I was wrong about (1).

The first question was a description of a person and used the katakana word スマート (sumaato) or ‘smart’. The three corresponding sentences in Japanese were:

(a) あの人は頭がいい。(ano hito wa atama ga ii)
This person is intelligent

(b) あの人は背が高い。(ano hito wa se ga takai)
This person is tall

(c) あの人はやせている。(ano hito wa yaseteiru)
This person is slim

CLEARLY ―I thought― the answer must be (a). Smart means intelligent. I announced my selection impatiently to my teacher and waited for her to move onto the next question.

She didn’t. Because I was wrong.

In English, using the word ‘smart’ as an isolated adjective would imply someone was clever. However, In Japanese, the word has been adopted in the context of ‘smart appearance’, making (c) the correct choice. My luck did not improve with question 2, where I completely missed the word the first time the recording was played; a somewhat ironic event, since the word was in fact ‘ミス’ (misu) or ‘miss’. The choices laid out before me were:

(a) テストにおくれた。(tesuto ni okureta)
I was late for the test.

(b) テストでまちがえた。(tesuto de machigaeta)
I made a mistake on the test

(c) テストで100点をとった。(tesuto de 100 ten wo totta)
I got 100 points on the test.

It is true that ‘miss’ more likely implied failing to go to the test at all, rather than simply arriving late, but I figured (a) was close enough. Due to the theme of this article, it is a good guess that it was in fact not close enough. From a love of abbreviations, when ‘miss’ is used in Japanese, is it short for ‘mistake’, sealing the answer as option (b) and indeed, my own mistake.

For questions (3) and (4), the listening exercises took a different tack: they gave me words that were much harder to identify. The first one was アンケート (ankeeto) and turns out to mean ‘questionnaire’, originating from the French word ‘enquête’ with the same meaning. The second one was ユーモア (yuumoa) whose origins are actually English, but involving a tauntingly obtuse combinations of characters, due to Japanese having no ‘hu’ sound. It means ‘humour’. I was not amused.

The fifth and final question I actually succeeded in getting right. The word was チェック (chekku) or ‘check’ and it does ―heaven forbid― actually mean to check something as in, ‘please can you check my writing’: 作文を見てくださいませんか.

The end result was me feeling that ‘Lost in Translation’ had nothing on your average Japanese class.

(Image credit: full sized katakana (and hiragana) charts here)

Author of this article

Elizabeth Tasker

Elizabeth is a science researcher living in Sapporo on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. Originally from the UK, Elizabeth keeps her own blog about day to day exploits in the hope that writing them down will result in them one day making sense.

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