Monday, June 15, 2015

Getting lost in Japanese

The problem about living in a foreign language is interesting and a little challenging at times. However, if you're an English reader then you can pretty much already read, though not necessarily understand, French, Spanish, Italian, German etc. And if you can read it then you can have a good go at translating it. But if you can't read it in the first place you're kind of stuck, and this is the issue with Japanese (though not if you read Chinese, then you have a good starting point).

Kanji, one of the three written Japanese alphabets, is based on pictograms and ideograms. Yes, once you know that the two symbols represent a man sitting under a tree and therefore are equal to taking a vacation, it can become easier to understand. But that man could have been taking a siesta or, indeed, planting a tree. The multiple pronunciations add the interesting effect that people may actually understand the meaning but cannot read it out loud. Always a fun challenge for your Japanese friends to ask them to read a newspaper aloud article and see how long there is before an argument.

There are actually ways of translating kanji even if you can't read it. The core elements are slightly more standard than would appear at first sight and once you recognise these radicals there are dictionaries to help look them up. There's also the approach of counting the strokes and then searching by count, though this can be someone long winded. But when I went to change my phone at SoftBank on Saturday, I was sort of relieved to find they now have a dedicated English service, at least in Shibuya, central Tokyo. Life just got a little bit easier. I'm a happy person!

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