On Dotards and Dictionary Dumping – getting Japanese words right!

A while back, someone (who seems to have the idea that I am a language-wonk android) asked me if I could throw light on the word “dotard”.

When I asked why, this person sent a message explaining that Supreme Leader of a certain Asian country had made a speech referring to the President of an extremely prominent Western country as a “dotard”.

Apparently Google was alive with people searching the word, wondering why that particular one was chosen. Could I explain it?

Yes, I believe I can.

Unless I am much mistaken the reason for the choice of this word is that there is a Dictionary Dumper working in translation service of this particular Asian country.

What is “dictionary dumping”? Well, a good (rather sweet) example is when I was doing some coaching in Japanese and got one of those Russian viruses that make me sick, a student sent me a message that included the expression:

もうしわけありません

What this literally means is “there is no excuse (I can humbly make)”. It is a formal apology.

What she wanted to say is I am sorry (to hear that you are sick). The dictionary told her that  もうしわけありません means “I’m sorry”. So she used it.

This is a very simple example of Dictionary Dumping. For a beginner, taking words you have never seen before and dropping them into a sentence based on their dictionary meaning.

For a more advanced user (like our official translator friend), it means taking a phrase in one’s native language and then scouring the dictionaries to find something that expresses the same thing.

The problem at this more advanced level is that while you will probably get it technically “right”, you still don’t know if the word is just going to sound odd and obscure rather than being a natural and stinging insult.

A recent question on YouTube raises the same issue:

 Rewatching this lesson made me wonder a lot the translation of the title “ふしぎの国のアリス”. I can see why “wonderland” was translated as “ふしぎのの国” but I can’t figure out why it’s “のアリス”. Is it not supposed to be a literal translation? If so, if it was supposed to be literal, would something like “ふしぎの国にアリス” be correct?

This was my reply:

You are certainly right that the Japanese title is not a literal translation of the English title. That is because Japanese often doesn’t express things in quite the same way as English.

In this case の is the most usual way of expressing a relationship of this kind and that is the most usual way of putting it (which is why Japanese titles so often have の in them).

Literally the Japanese title means “Alice of the country of wonders”.

ふしぎの国にアリス isn’t quite natural Japanese, but we could say 不思議の国にいるアリス which is grammatical, and does pretty much literally translate the English title, but it wouldn’t have the same feeling in Japanese at all.

If such a phrase were used it would sound something like “the Alice that is in the country of wonders” (as opposed, perhaps, to some other Alice who isn’t).

This opens up a larger and more important consideration if one is writing Japanese. One cannot assume that getting an exact literal rendering of something one would say in English – even if grammatically correct – will have the same implication.

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So essentially my answer was addressing the question of Dictionary Dumping in a slightly more sophisticated form – not exactly dumping words from the dictionary, but translating English expressions literally and assuming that they will have the same meaning and implications in Japanese.

So how should a beginner avoid Dictionary Dumping?

I wrote an article on this a long time ago, rather presumptuously titled How to Write Correct, Natural Japanese and the advice still stands. Though I ought to update the recommended sentence banks. Weblio is very good.

Essentially using one of these databases of Japanese/English sentences you need to research whether the way you want to express something is actually used in Japanese and has the meaning you thought it did.

Slightly めんどくさい, I know, but I highly recommend communicating in written Japanese and using this method because one instance of trying to express something and working out how to do it is (in my experience) worth ten experiences of simply seeing or hearing it expressed correctly.

This way we become aware of specific issues of expression and their solution. It takes a long time to get this passively.

Though passive listening is very good for helping us get an ear for what “rings right”.

This article first appeared on my private Patreon feed

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