Karate tone

Most Honorable- Japanese Honorifics

For the next month the Illegible Stamps and Untranslatables section will be focusing on this subtopic and others related to tone’s upcoming presentation at the American Translators Association in New Orleans, LA (@atanet #ata59); Preserving Tone: Translating Cultural Context in Eastern and South East Asian Languages In this post tone’s very own Translation Administrative Coordinator, Derek Nekritz takes a first person approach to discussing the Japanese language.

What would you say is the most polite way to address someone? If you met someone who is a medical doctor, or a police officer, even off duty would you still refer to them by their title? How inclined are you to still address strangers as “Mr.”, “Mrs.” or “Ms.” Your answers to these questions regarding your personal code of politeness may offer you an interesting insight into your internalization of politeness and “honorifics”. An honorific is any word like “Mister” or “Miss” that simply denotes a respect for the person being addressed.

Honorifics in Practice

In my case, my upbringing was based in “old fashioned” American etiquette, but had an unusual supplement. When I was eight years old, I was enrolled in the Japanese martial art, karate, and studied until I was fifteen. During that time, a strict code of respect and formality was instilled in me based on the same structures found in Japanese culture.

They included the following:

  • Instructors of a particular rank in black belt were referred to as “Sensei”.

  • Instructors of a lower rank of black belt, regardless of their age, were referred to as “Mr.”, “Ms.”, or “Mrs.” and their surname.

  • You did not turn your back to your betters until dismissed or instructed otherwise.

  • Bowing as the most polite gesture. When bowing, keep your feet together, hands to your sides or at the thigh.

  • Expressions of apology, gratitude, and greetings were encouraged to be coupled with a bow.

  • Entering and exiting the practice space required asking permission, accompanied by bowing.

  • Rudeness or violating these other norms would be punished with extra work or activity.

When I was in my early teens, I was enrolled in a new school in our area and one of the lower rank black belts, we’ll call her “Kayla”, was going to be in my class. She was only a year older than me, but  it posed a socially awkward, artificial dilemma for me that would not normally exist for other American children. I had to adapt my social rules from calling my classmate and friend-to-be, from “Miss B.” to just “Kayla”, and treat her like a regular student in my class as opposed to treating as a social better. I would not have been scolded for acting casually around her, but it didn’t feel natural to me because I had a stricter structure of social order instilled by the karate culture.

Highest Honors

Japanese culture, among other Asian cultures, employs a more rigid set of social etiquette, often being marked with honorifics far more frequently than Western cultures. In these cultures, honorifics vary greatly depending on age, societal position, location, and familiarity. In Japanese alone, there are several major honorifics:

  • 殿(どの “dono”)- This title is not commonly used in daily conversation, but it is still used in some types of written business correspondence.

  • 様(さま “sama”)- A more respectful version for people of a higher rank than oneself or divine, toward one's guests or customers (such as a sports venue announcer addressing members of the audience), and sometimes toward people one greatly admires.

  • さん("san”)- the most commonplace honorific and the closest analog in English are the honorifics "Mr.", "Miss", "Ms.", or "Mrs.", -san is almost universally added to a person's name; "-san" can be used in formal and informal contexts and for both genders.

  • 君(くん “kun”)- used by people of senior status addressing or referring to those of junior status, by anyone addressing or it can be used when referring to men in general, male children or male teenagers, or among male friends. It can be used by males or females when addressing a male to whom they are emotionally attached, or who they have known for a long time.

  • ちゃん (“chan”-  is a diminutive suffix; it expresses that the speaker finds a person endearing. It is seemingly said to have come from a "cute" pronouncing of -san

  • 先輩(せんぱい ”senpai”- used to address or refer to one's elder colleagues in a school, dojo, or sports club. 

  • 後輩(こうはい “kouhai” )- used to address or refer to one’s junior colleagues in a school, dojo, or sports club.

Combine these with lesser used honorifics and you have a whole field of words that denote a wide array of relationships, dynamics, context and formality. missing from these is an option that is just as meaningful: not using them whatsoever. By not using an honorific, it denotes a particular degree of familiarity with the person you are speaking, or in contrast, a particular degree of disregard.

Like my example with Kayla, the degree of over familiarity with which I suddenly had to address her felt “wrong” thanks to the precedent set by the simulated “Asian” cultural values I had adopted. .  This small simulation of the culture was not as complicated as the full breadth of Japanese culture, but the impression it left on me, that particular words mattered and had a social influence, was a powerful insight into the nature of societies that use honorific hierarchies.

The Honor is All Mine

When I started studying Japanese, I quickly adapted to the rules of these honorifics because I had a basis for them already. Truthfully, it was not too much of a challenge to add the newer honorifics because I had, by that point, consumed a lot of Japanese media in the form of TV shows, movies, comics, and video games on top of my background in martial arts. When I transitioned from being a Japanese speaking student of my college to a Japanese speaking professional tutor, according to these rules, I underwent a change in social status and the nuance of honorifics truly stood out. Not only did honorifics change for me from the formal “Derek-san” or the more casual “Derek-kun”, those I worked with, if they hadn’t known me as a student , were inclined to call me “Derek-san, or Derek-sensei”. Neither of those felt quite  right. I would offered the option of referring to me as “Derek-senpai” which felt like some form of compromise.

Even though they had come from a place of respect, the divide between my identity as a peer, “Derek-kun” and now “Derek-san” or the occasional, “Derek-sensei” made me feel much more estranged from the community I had been welcomed to. This was not from an exclusionary sense but due to my new elevation in the social hierarchy, which to a Westerner can be lonely. Students who were only a year or two my “kouhai” now saw me as much higher than that and in my mind it created a barrier and a distance. Therein lies the difficulty of translating honorifics: Westerners have a harder time feeling comfortable about these divides. In Western culture, the second we tend to feel more comfortable with someone we slowly begin to, for the most part, speak more casually. In Eastern culture, breaking the barrier usually needs to be specially addressed. This may be approached by someone saying, “you can speak more casually with me”, or something to that effect.

An Honorable Achievement

The key difficulty that I’ve been alluding to,  is that to translate an honorific from an Asian language, especially one with a very clear hierarchical structure like Japanese, isn’t just a word to word, or one to one translation. By translating Mr. Yamamoto to Yamamoto-san and vice versa, you’re translating the basis of an entire relationship and a person’s perspective of a person in a single word. Translating Chihiro-san versus Chihiro-chan tells you a lot about what the speaker’s dynamic with Chihiro is, but once the translation is committed to English, “chan” doesn’t translate well. This is why we often continue to see the honorifics used even in the English text as they are. The relationship of a particular familiarity will usually be obvious to the translator, but it is then hard to find an equivalent. Most translated Japanese media will usually twist a name in to a “cutesy” play on the name, or cut the name in that instance and replace it with something more diminutive like, “hunnie” or “sweetheart” which isn’t entirely appropriate to the originally conveyed dynamic. With the series of anecdotes I have presented, you probably have a firmer grasp as to what I mean. By understanding of this point where language and culture meet, you may be more aware of why these honorifics can’t be” swept under the rug”.

As J.Philip Gabriel, English to Japanese translator for famed Japanese author Haruki Murakami, said in an interviewWe are too comfortable with the familiar, when we should be trying to challenge ourselves and extend our understanding of difference rather than just confirm what we already know.” ()Tone is the translation of nearly everything, and we wouldn’t be doing our jobs if these words were forgotten or replaced. Although they don’t easily translate, and sometimes need to be left at the translator’s desk, translators can create better translations by understanding them. Meanwhile, we can help clients better understand the challenges of translation, and those who read these translations can better understand the meaning that is being translated.  In doing so, translating nearly everything includes culture, worldview, and interpersonal dynamics.


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