Wait Just a Kanji-Pickin’ Minute

I realized something today that has been kind of simmering in my consciousness lately, and I’m not quite sure what to make of it.

Many words in Japanese are actually compound words.  For example, 美味しい means “delicious”, but the words separately mean something like “beautiful taste”.  電車 means “train” (or that’s how it’s taught in Japanese Level Up), but the kanji separately mean “electric train”.  But 大丈夫 is not really a compound word, it means something entirely different than the three kanji separately would indicate.

So is it reasonable to teach “oishii” as “delicious”?  Is it reasonable to teach “densha” as “train”?  Or are we losing something in translation because we’re trying to force compound words with separate meanings into one English word, and losing something in context?

“Beautiful taste”, for example, is rather poetic, and is something I would expect from a society that has a very well refined and historic sense of beauty.  It says a lot about how they see food, and even so, the human experience.  But “delicious”, to us, just means something tastes good.  Or even very good.  There’s no poetry in it.  So it feels as if we’re forcing their poetry into our language, and losing a major sense of the Japanese culture while we’re at it.

This is becoming a major frustration in learning Japanese, and I’m starting to think that learning it by translating into English (even using words like “delicious” or “train” just doesn’t work.  I’m not advocating an approach like Rosetta Stone, don’t get me wrong, as their approach is frustrating and insufficient in its own way, but I am saying that I feel like I’m losing something from Japanese by trying to force kanji (and compound words) into an English mold.

Why do we have to learn it as “delicious”?  Why can’t we just use it as “beautiful taste”?  Does that somehow make Japanese easier for us to learn, while blunting the impact of the cultural difference?  Or are we trying to find areas of cultural similiarity to lessen the culture shock (such as “genki desu ka?”) and instead screwing the pooch in the process?  Or am I just overthinking it are these translations perfectly fair?

This would go the other way too, but I’m not sure quite as easily.  To a Japanese, they might have the concept of “delicious”, but the translation to English is one word.  Perhaps they are missing the nuance in our language, that we don’t have a sense of beauty in the sensual aspects of food that they do?  Or again, perhaps I’m overthinking that too.

I don’t know the answer.  This is an exploratory post  But the more I’m learning about Japanese, the more I see some very difficult cultural differences brewing just beneath the surface, and I feel as if those differences may be being deliberately glossed over in the name of learning quickly.  I’m not sure I like that, honestly.

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