Cool things: the Japanese language

“Ah, we soon get old.”

Moeagare, moeagare, moeagare Gandamu!

The intelligentsia among you will, of course, know that I’m not expressing a midlife crisis (I’ll be in my twenties forever, dammit!): it’s a mnemonic to remember the five Japanese vowel sounds, aa ee oo eh oh, which (thanks to Hepburn romanisation) we represent in the Roman alphabet as a i u e o.

This, of course, is why the classic video game Ninja Gaiden is “ninja guy den”, not “ninja gay den”, so stop sniggering at the back, baka!

(Leaving aside, of course, the fact that the game is supposed to be called Ninja Ryukenden, “legend of the ninja dragon sword”; gaiden means “side-story”, and thus has no business being in an original game’s title!)

After a long time, I seem to have rekindled my enthusiasm for translating Japanese text, and helping Japanese people with their English — just when my brain was about to atrophy from lack of use outside work (where it’s moulded by the stress of having people rely on me), I’m back enjoying Nihongo.  I guess it’s a bit like how I stopped watching Doctor Who almost entirely in the early 2000s, but then got my own DVD player, and disposable income…

It was back in 2003 that I got hold of the original, unedited version of Space Battleship Yamato (as opposed to Space Cruiser or Star Blazers) and in a weird way, it made me feel like I might actually be able to learn Japanese if I put my mind to it (perhaps hearing phrases like senkan sentou haiji! and hadou hou hassha yoi! repeatedly); my Japanophile mother (sorry, hahaue) was also inspirational in this, as she was the one who taught me some basic Japanese words she’d picked up when I had a Japanese friend at school (imagine my delight at hearing warakimashita in one episode!).

I made fledgling attempts to study the language myself around twelve years ago, as well as getting hold, by (ahem) any means necessary, of subtitled Japanese-audio versions of animes I liked (Macross, ChobitsEvangelionX and the classic Science Ninja Team Gatchaman), as I wanted to enjoy them in their original form: not just to hear the language being spoken so as to familiarise myself with it, but also because I can hear American voice artists any time (Family Guy etc. etc.), and have no interest in “dumbing down”.

However, it wasn’t until 2008 that I finally began taking proper Japanese evening classes, and meeting actual Japanese people here in London, which meant I formalised my existing knowledge and built upon it.  Our sensei recognised that I wasn’t an “absolute beginner”, despite starting at level 1… and although real life later interfered, for the first couple of levels I was so enthusiastic that I used to do my homework during the last couple of minutes at the end of the lesson in which it was issued!

(By an astonishing coincidence, “best mate” joined one of her classes as well, at a different time to me, and thus was her Facebook friend as well — chiisai sekai, ne?)

One thing that’s really helped me get used to Japanese has been to translate Japanese text, including that in children’s books that hahaue bought for me on her many visits to Japan, or that I bought from sensei when she was having a house sale.  Obviously I need translation tools to assist with this (I highly recommend the Firefox add-on Rikaichan), but more to translate the words individually, and then figure out the grammar and context on my own, sometimes using the Inter-thingy to look up weird phrases and verb endings.  My Japanese friends over the years have also helped me with this, which is only fair as I try to help them with their English!

Getting the Japanese text off the paper and into a computer document in the first place is another matter: I used to have to copy and paste the characters, one by one, doing my best to figure out which kanji I was looking at by estimating the number of strokes, but Microsoft helped out here with the Language Bar, enabling me to type out the kana, and either hand-draw the kanji (something my Japanese teacher taught me), or type out any available furigana and cycle through the possible forms.  Boy, did this ever speed up the process — though I can’t help but miss those evenings when I’d copy out characters laboriously, while Star Trek: Voyager played on TV…

(And by an astonishing coincidence, Voyager came on TV this morning, as I translated a Japanese story… Sutaa Torekku to honyaku ga issho ni omoshiroi!)

At one point in 2008 or 2009, I was telling my boss that I was thinking of becoming a Japanese interpreter as a career change from local government admin; obviously I’ve never been quite that good, and one aspect I still find difficult is hearing Japanese when real people speak it.  I know enough to be able to tell when anime subtitles are being dumbed down (this is why I couldn’t finish Bleach — the subtitlers weren’t even consistent!), but I can hear that because Japanese seiyuu, like American voice artists, speak clearly into microphones; understanding Japanese people speaking to me in normal life is definitely an area where I need to improve.  I do try going to Japanese meetup events, but they become so crowded and urasai so quickly that I can only stay a short time before giving up — so it’s all the more essential that I make Japanese friends and engage in “language exchange” regularly.

And on that topic, my original Japanese female friend from 2008-9 (when I was just starting out) is coming back to visit London in May, and I’ve recently made a new Japanese female friend (should I say atarashii Nihonjin onna no tomodachi?) — I’m helping her with her English, and I’ve even taken her climbing at the Castle!  Don’t worry, I’ve had male Japanese friends too, including one who was working as an unpaid intern in my first proper IT job, in September 2014.  However, I do prefer female company as a rule, which is why my knowledge of Japanese is something I mention in my dating profiles!

Finally, yes, I’m still watching anime, as you know from my previous posts — Gatchaman and Chobits on my morning commutes recently, not to mention Yamato many, many times in the past; at the moment I’m revisiting the original Mobile Suit Gundam, with a view to possibly moving on to Armored Trooper VOTOMS after that (a show I discovered after hahaue got me a T-shirt with the protagonist, whom she reckons I resemble)… or perhaps I’ll even rewatch the gigantic, 110-episode epic Legend of the Galactic Heroes.  Hey, I’ll be in a public place, so I won’t watch anything involving magical schoolgirls in ludicrously-short miniskirts, or dutifully-amorous maids… or indeed the hideously gruesome Elfen Lied, which starts with a naked woman literally tearing security guards limb from limb with her invisible arms!

I could always go back to doing what I did when I was in local government admin, and watch anime while taking comfort breaks… okay, too much information, mo ii!

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