Magazine article The Spectator

Japan Thinks English Is the Future - Whatever Jean-Claude Juncker Says

Magazine article The Spectator

Japan Thinks English Is the Future - Whatever Jean-Claude Juncker Says

Article excerpt

Whatever Mr Juncker says, Japan thinks English is the future

Buririggu deshita. Suraibi tobu

Webu de gairu to gimburu shite,

Nante mimuji na borogobu,

Momu rassu autoguraibimashita ne.

If this looks familiar, it's not surprising. This is the first verse of 'Jabberwocky' by Lewis Carroll, translated into Japanese by Noriko Watanabe. Ms Watanabe is a translator of children's books living in Sendai, in the north of Japan, and she is working on a new translation of the two Alice books. I met her in a bar called Come Here.

Is translating Lewis Carroll, which is already nonsense, into another language, a near-impossible task? I asked her. 'No, not at all,' she said. 'Actually it's easy because Japanese is about 15 per cent English. So we can just take a word like "brillig" and turn it into wasei-eigo [Japanese-made English]. So it becomes buririggu. "Mimsy" becomes mimuji. There's not much need for translation in this case.'

In fact, Japanese contains so many English loan words that Japan feels closer to the UK, linguistically, than it would to, say, China (Mandarin Chinese is unrelated to Japanese), or indeed to any other Asian country. Common words such as cup, knife, fork, spoon, table, keyboard, pen, light, glass, speaker, tape, pill, backpack, jacket, skirt and sweater -- just a few of the nouns I can see by looking around me at this moment -- are all borrowed from English, and are commonly known as koppu, naifu, foku, supun, teburu, kibodo, pen, raito, gurasu, supika, tepu, piru, bakkupakku, jaketto, sukato and seta. There are many thousands of others.

That Japan and Britain are similar in many ways is no real news to anyone. Both are island nations living off the coast of a very big and powerful continental entity. Both are jealous of their independence. Both like tea. Both have an exaggerated system of polite interactions -- if you doubt this is still the case in Britain, count how many times the words 'please' and 'thank you' are uttered when you buy a stamp. Both are relatively peaceful societies where guns are very difficult to get hold of. Both are self-consciously literary societies with traditions that stretch back at least 1,000 years. And it is in this last respect that the Japanese love of Britain comes into its own.

Keita Tanaka is a teacher of physics at an exclusive boys' school in Tokyo, where I met him for lunch. The school is modelled on Eton, and it plays regular host to visitors from English public schools, who compete with the Japanese pupils at football and kendo. Keita carries an oft-folded poem by Wordsworth in his wallet: 'The Rainbow'. …

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