Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Japanese Heroes

I've been enjoying the (subtitled) Japanese dialog in the TV series Heroes, and it sounded fine to my uncritical gaijin ears. Hero Hiro Nakamura and his sidekick Ando are the most appealing characters in the show, and now they've introduced Hiro's stern father Kaito Nakamura, played by George Takei of Star Trek fame. So here I was listening to the Japanese dialog in blissful ignorance until I read a blog entry by a native speaker titled "The numerous Japanese problems in Heroes":

Except for Saemi Nakamura, all the Japanese actors’ Japanese sounds wrong to some degree. She’s the only one who sounds like she’s actually Japanese. Hiro (Masi Oka)’s Japanese is okay I guess - I can understand him most of the time without reading the subtitles, though he does sound way like a helium-inhaling anime character. A big part of the problem is the dialogue he is given to say, which seems like it was written by some manga-anime fanboys rather than real script writers. Ando (James Kyson Lee)’s Japanese is totally incomprehensible; I have to read the subtitles to understand what he’s saying. I doubt he has any actual knowledge of Japanese. George Takei’s Japanese was stilted yet understandable, though it sure sounded rusty.

Actually I think the dialog is intended to sound like a comic book. Another blogger also took aim at the Japanese speech in Heroes:

Okay, I admittedly couldn't understand Hiro half the time. He kinda... mumbled his way through the lines, and the rhythm of the dialog through me off. His buddy was much easier to understand, although it amused me that his accent (likely Korean) slipped through a couple of times. Oh, and in just one line, the buddy busted out his Kansai-ben, which just make me laugh.

The actor playing Ando, James Kyson Lee, is of Korean ancestry, and has had to be coached with his Japanese lines. Masi Oka, who plays super-geek Hiro, was born in Japan but his family moved to Los Angeles when he was six. And George Takei is a Japanese-American whose Japanese is authentic but out of practice.

On a side note, in the original Star Trek George Takei played the supposedly Japanese Lt. Hikaru Sulu. I always found his last name to be totally bogus, since Japanese lacks our "l" sound. In Japanese "Sulu" would be pronounced "suru" - the most common verb in the language, meaning "to do". According to the Star Trek Wiki, "In the Japanese version of Star Trek, his family name was changed to 'Kato', a common surname." そうですね。

Heroes also has problems with a couple of the Japanese names. As blogger Makiko Itoh pointed out, "Ando" is a surname (安藤 or 安堂) and "Masahashi" sounds like a masculine first name, like Masaharu and Masahiro, although I couldn't find it listed in my book of Japanese Names. Hiro's father's given name, Kaito, is also listed there as a surname (垣外 or 垣内).

Oh well, on to a few Japanese factoids. The slogan Save the cheerleader, save the world! in Japanese is チアリーダーを救え、世界を救え! The word that Hiro is always yelling - Yatta!, meaning "I did it!" or "hooray!" or "Yes!", is the past tense of the verb やる, "to do"; SPACE ALC has some fun examples.

And then there's The Symbol. As it says in Wikipedia,

The symbol appears most frequently throughout the series. In episode 12 ("Godsend") the symbol, as appears on the sword hilt, is revealed by Ando Masahashi to be a combination of two Japanese characters: 才 (sai) meaning "great talent" and 与 (yo) meaning "Godsend".

The Symbol is a little bit too stylized for me to make out those characters, so I'll have to take their word for it. According to Jim Breen's WWWJDIC Server:

才 【さい】 (n) ability; gift; talent; aptitude; genius
  異才 【いさい】 (n) genius; prodigy
  才子 【さいし】 (n) talented man; clever man
  才人 【さいじん】 (n) talented person; clever person

与え 【あたえ】 (n) gift; godsend
  賞与 【しょうよ】 (n) reward; prize; bonus
  天与 【てんよ】 (n) godsend; heaven's gift

Posted at 14:36 PST  Link | Tags: ,

Saturday, February 17, 2007


Four months after streaking across movie screens like a demented comet, Borat's movie is up for an Academy Award for best adapted screenplay. LaGeek has no compunctions about baring research done back in November (just before being sucked into a black hole of work. Indistinctly I remember it was in the bleak November, and each separate Java member sought its object on the screen... But I digress.)

By now everyone has either seen the movie, the trailer, or gawked at the many videos posted on YouTube. There's plenty of material here for a language geek to rummage around in:

Most of the "Kazakh" dialog in the film is the actor speaking Hebrew, as the actor speaks Hebrew fluently and uses this language around unfamiliar Americans when upkeeping his character's foreigness.
... Jagshemash - "how are you?" (from the Polish "Jak się masz?", the Czech "Jak se máš?"). Returning to Central Asia, the Uyghur greeting "yahşimusiz" means "are you well?", and in Uzbek it's "yaxshimisiz". Perhaps ironically, "yaxshi emas" means "not good/well" in Uzbek.

Some of the videos on YouTube are presented as "Borat's Guide to Whatever" and start out with titles in Cyrillic, in all caps. That's not the Kazakh language, though, but an exotic-looking code:

The Cyrillic letters are not really the equivalents of the Latin ones for which they are substituted in this cipher. On a computer, this cipher can be produced by typing Latin letters on a standard QWERTY keyboard whilst having the standard Russian keyboard layout activated (QWERTY → ЙЦУКЕН).
For example, the caption "Borat's Guide to America" appears under the letters:
ПШВ ИЩКФЕФ Л ФЬУКШПШ (which would be pronounced, "PSHV ISHCHKFEF L F'UKSHPSH")
Which, deciphered, says:
GID BORATA K AMERIKE Which, after transliterating back to Cyrillic, renders a sentence in Russian, which reads:
Гид Бората к Америке (Literally word for word: "Borat's Guide to America.") This is broken Russian. The Russian word "gid" means a person, not a guidebook. It is more correct to say "Путеводитель Бората по Америке".

Even before the movie came out, various officials of Kazakhstan got upset about the way it presented their country as a backward dump. It was expected that president Nursultan Nazarbayev would give Bush an earful on his visit to Washington. And Borat tried to fan the flames by holding a "guerrilla news conference" outside the Kazakh Embassy:

He began by waving an actual four-page advertisement that the former Soviet republic placed in yesterday's New York Times touting its sophisticated culture, religious tolerance and gender equality. "These are disgusting fabrications!" he said in a thick, ambiguously foreign accent. They're perpetrated by "evil nitwits" from neighboring Uzbekistan "who, as we all know, are a very nosy people with a bone in the middle of their brain."

Later, after Borat put his country on the map, Nazarbayev apparently decided to go with the flow, saying that "any publicity is good publicity".

On a less frivolous note, Borat may eventually have to rework his "Kazakh" intros. Kazakhstan is considering switching from Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet. Presumably this won't make the native Russian speakers in Kazakhstan happy, and linguists are not too keen on the idea either:

"Латинский алфавит менее приспособлен к казахскому языку, чем кириллица. Латиница не может передать всю фонетическую специфику казахского языка", - утверждает Клара Исенгалиева, лингвист и эксперт из Института социальных исследований.
Сегодня в казахском языке используются 42 буквы: 33 из русского алфавита и плюс 9 букв, специфических для казахского языка. В латинском алфавите существует только 26. Этот факт и заботит многих лингвистов.

My translation:

"The Latin alphabet is less suitable for the Kazakh language than Cyrillic. Latin cannot convey all the specific phonetic features of the Kazakh language," asserts Klara Isengalieva, linguist and expert from the Institute of Social Research.
Currently the Kazakh language uses 42 letters: 33 from the Russian alphabet plus 9 letters specific to Kazakh. The Latin alphabet has only 26. This is what worries many linguists.

Yes, we are seriously lacking in the letter department. It's amazing that all these English sounds can be expressed with such a wimpy alphabet.

Posted at 18:10 PST  Link | Tags: ,

Monday, February 5, 2007

Do Not Forget the Fire is Heartless!

The "middle column" in today's Wall Street Journal (subscription required) has an article about how the Chinese are trying to fix the many signs written in Chinglish:

BEIJING -- For years, foreigners in China have delighted in the loopy English translations that appear on the nation's signs. They range from the offensive ("Deformed Man," outside toilets for the handicapped) to the sublime (on park lawns, "Show Mercy to the Slender Grass").

Last week, Beijing city officials unveiled a plan to stop the laughter. With hordes of foreign visitors expected in town for the 2008 Summer Olympics, Beijing wants to cleanse its signs of translation nonsense. For the next eight months, 10 teams of linguistic monitors will patrol the city's parks, museums, subway stations and other public places searching for gaffes to fix.

..."We cannot leave [these signs] up just for the amusement of foreigners," says Olive Wang, marketing manager for a major sportswear company.

Amused foreigners around the world are scrambling to collect prime examples of Chinglish and post them on the web. Check these out:

The Chinese seem very concerned about their lawns. Variations on "Keep off the grass" include: "SHOW MERCY TO THE SLENDER GRASS", "We can't stand the sight of mattress fragrant grass", "DON'T BOTHER THE RESTING LITTLE GRASS", and my favorite, "Green grass dreading your feet".

So join the movement, send in your Chinglish examples to one of these websites. The splendid joy of success is waving to you!

Posted at 19:10 PST  Link | Tags: ,