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Monday, 25 June 2018

Using transliteration for Japanese words

Someone posted a tweet on Twitter yesterday about a delegation of Japanese government officials that had come from Yamatotakada in Nara Prefecture to visit Lismore, its sister city. They used the transliteration that the city itself prefers, which incorrectly splits the name into two words. Japanese love to do things correctly under normal circumstances but if the result they get does not agree with their expectations, they will improvise. This is the reason they split the city’s name into two words. They found that foreigners found it too hard to read and pronounce the name, so they decided to make it easier to parse.

Because Japanese uses the old logograms (also called “characters”) that came out of China in around the year 700 (like Taiwan and Hong Kong still do), transliteration into foreign languages has always been a problem. To focus on one common problem that highlights how this improvisation occurs in Japanese, there are many different ways to transliterate the long “o” that and is written, using the syllabaries that they employ, to spell “ou”.

To digress for a moment from the main point, the hiragana syllabary is used in Japanese for verb declension and other grammatical items such as conjunctions, while the katakana syllabary is used mostly but not exclusively for foreign words. Each syllabary is made up of a series of symbols that represent a single sound, either a vowel alone or a vowel plus a consonant (and also one for the letter “n”, an exception to the rule but an important one). So, for example, the syllable “ka” is represented by one hiragana symbol and also one katakana symbol. There is a completely different symbol for “mo” in each of hiragana and katakana. And so on. There are a few other complexities when creating some sounds (for the syllable “pi” for example you use the symbol for “hi” but with a modifying mark attached to it that turns it into a plosive) but what has been written here constitute the basic rules.

Now, the long “o” is a notorious and thorny issue for Japanese people, who come into contact with foreigners from time to time in their normal daily lives. They pronounce it differently from the short “o”, but foreigners don’t notice the difference unless they have been taught to.

On railway signs in Tokyo they use a bar over the “o” to indicate a long “o”, for example. Some businesses understand that it’s too hard for foreigners to understand the difference between the short “o” and the long “o” and they have gotten rid of it completely, such as the New Otani Hotel or Tokyu Corporation (in both of these names, the “o” is long). When I worked in Tokyo I had a Japanese colleague in the company I worked for whose name was Satow (this is how he spelled his family name). The “o” in his name was the long “o” and so this spelling was his way of making people understand the difference even though it risked being pronounced to rhyme with “cow” by foreigners. Other people did other things. My manager’s manager’s name was Ohkubo, and so he used an “h” in the name to show that the first “o” was long.

The Japanese are very inventive when it comes to ironing out problems encountered when dealing with foreigners. My company was named Yamatake but they found that foreigners could not pronounce the name correctly unless they had been instructed to first. The name is pronounced “yama-takay” but Americans would say “yama-takee” because the “e” sound in English is customarily pronounced this way. (Japanese vowels are identical to Italian vowels, they are completely pure and always pronounced the same way, regardless of the context.) So when the company shifted its business model to expand overseas, they decided to use a completely different name for the business. In the end they changed the company name to “Azbil”. It was a typical Japanese solution to a tricky problem.

Mazda Corporation made a similarly big move when it decided to transliterate the original company name this way last century. The Japanese name (which is written using katakana) transliterates into English as “matsuda” but this is very difficult for foreigners to say, and they will always put the stress on the “u” unless told to put it on the “a”. So the company improvised when it adopted the name it currently uses overseas.

So when the trusty burghers of Yamatotakada decided to take their brand overseas, they adjusted their city’s name to conform to the way of operating used by foreigners. “Yamato”, by the way, is an old name for the country of Japan. “Takada” means “highfield”, so the whole name would be something like “Albion Highfield” if it were located in England.

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