Glass Houses


Japan’s reputation as a nation of uptight, overworked weirdos has been overstated internationally, but make no mistake, the Japanese language is indeed a polite one. Any second-year student of Japanese can tell you at least three ways to say “I’m sorry” with varying degrees of formality, and a quick way to get yourself labeled an idiot foreigner is to use excessively informal language when speaking to a superior. It’s also a language that’s poetic in its grammatical simplicity, two things that might help explain why interpreters are struggling to translate Donald Trump’s bigoted comments and stream-of-consciousness ramblings into Japanese at all.

“He is so overconfident and yet so logically unconvincing that my interpreter friends and I often joke that if we translated his words as they are, we would end up making ourselves sound stupid,” professional interpreter and translation professor Chikako Tsuruta tells The Japan Times. Trump’s presidency has stirred presumably exceedingly civil debate amongst the country’s interpreters, who are divided over whether to polish Trump’s phrasing in translation or interpret it exactly as it falls out of his little orange mouth. The problem isn’t the difficulty of the words themselves—a study conducted last year by Carnegie Mellon University’s Language Technologies Institute put Trump’s vocabulary at a seventh-grade level—but rather the fact that when they’re not offensive, they make no goddamn sense, and translating that while maintaining your professional dignity can be difficult.

But as retired interpreter-turned-university professor Kumiko Torikai puts it, although she would personally struggle with repeating Trump’s misogynistic and xenophobic comments, “As an interpreter, your job is to translate the words of a speaker exactly as they are, no matter how heinous and what an outrageous liar you find the speaker to be.” She adds, “If Trump is not making sense, you don’t get to make sense, either.” Explaining what the hell is going on with his handshakes can’t be an easy task, either.

Which is ironic because Trump is a model of concision and lucidity compared to 99% of Japanese political speeches.

Because Japanese is a such a polite, contextual language, and because Japanese politics is almost entirely uninterested in policy (not joking: studies have been done), most Japanese political speeches are largely filler. And by this I don’t mean inane inspirational statements of the hope-and-change-make-America-great-again variety, I mean it in the linguistic sense – filler words and phrases: “actually”, “on the other hand”, “if you think about it” etc.

As Takeo Doi put it back in the 70s:

That the Japanese language is so constructed as to be particularly conducive to the effect of ambiguity is well known. For instance, Japanese verbs come at the end of the sentence. Therefore, unless and until you hear the whole sentence, you wouldn’t know where the speaker stands. This apparently gives him a psychological advantage, as he can change his position in anticipation of your possible reaction to it. However, it may happen that you are often left wondering whether he really means what he says. Also, there is the case of numerous auxiliary words in the Japanese language, which primarily function as adhesives of other words and sentences. Since I am not a student of Japanese grammar, I cannot adequately explain them except that they roughly correspond to conjunctives, interjections or auxiliary verbs in English. Contrary to English, however, those Japanese equivalents have a very unique feature of faithfully reflecting the speaker’s reaction to the changing situation. That is why we can do without pronouns in everyday conversation, a fact which may occasion ambiguity at times. Other factors too, create ambiguity. Take conjunctives, for instance. In English they provide logical connections. Not necessarily so in Japanese. Rather, more often they serve only to cement and induce the speaker’s free associations. At the same time, they may help to hold the audience’s attention. So, whether spoken or written, Japanese communication is usually quite loose in logical connections. You can go on talking for hours, even gracefully, without coming to the point. That is why it is sometimes extremely difficult to render a Japanese speech or article into English.

It’s that man again

Ladies and gentlemen: Vladimir Vladimirovitch Le Pen.

Here she is flying a helicopter, riding a horse and steering a boat. Love her or loathe her, in terms of production values and fulfilling the communications brief, this ad is A1. If the sight of her yanking gubernatorially on a windlass doesn’t stir your patriotic inklings, then you clearly have no patriotic inklings to be stirred.


As far back as I can remember, I’ve always felt a passionate, visceral attachment to our country, and to its history. I love France. I love it from the depths of my heart and my soul: this ancient, indomitable nation, its fiery people who never give up. I am a woman. And as a woman, the restrictions on individual freedom that have spread across our country via the growth of Islamic fundamentalism feel to me like an outrageous violation. I am a mother, and like millions of parents, I worry every day about the state of the nation and the world that we are leaving to our children. I am a lawyer, and my years spent at the bar left me with a deep attachment to civil liberties and a special awareness of the situation faced by victims when crime goes unpunished. In essence, if I had to define myself, I think that I would say that I am simply, intensely, faithfully, proudly and clearly French. If anyone insults France, it is as if they were insulting me personally. Whether it’s a question of the insecurity, the violence or the poverty that afflict too many of our compatriots, I feel the suffering endured by the French people as if it were my own. The choice that you will make in the upcoming Presidential election is crucial, essential. It’s the choice of a civilisation. Either you go forward with those who have lied, failed, betrayed, who have led the people astray and set France on the wrong path, or you make the decision to put tidy up the mess that France has become. Yes. I want to put France back together, I want the French people to be able to live free in an independent France. I want the French people to be able to live in safety, in a France that is respected. I want the French people to be protected, in a prosperous France. I want the French people to be united, in a proud France. I want the French people to live well, in a sustainable France. I want the French people to be able to live out their dreams in a fair France! This is what I stand for, it’s what I’m fighting for, and it’s the project that I’ll work towards as head of state in your name, in the name of the people.

I’m not being lazy. She really does say ‘France’ that many times.

Compare and contrast with: overly-dramatic Putin presser intro.


Only Disconnect


The Singapore government is about to disconnect civil servants’ computers from the internet. They will still have email and be able to surf on their own devices. The reaction has been predictably measured and thoughtful.

Let’s all take a moment to laugh at how backward and authoritarian the Singapore government is. There now, done?

In fact, it’s common practice in most countries for computers in security-sensitive offices to be cut off from the internet (email excepted). It’s also common practice to ban staff from bringing their own devices into the office and to oblige them to clean all USB keys before use (whether they actually follow these rules, on the other hand…). The Russian government has gone a step further and reverted to typewriters for some of its functions, with Germany possibly following suit.

While the official line is that this is for security reasons only, it’s worth remembering that there’s little conclusive evidence on whether internet access makes workers more productive, but the workers themselves seem to think that the effect is generally negative. (Thought experiment: look at the first page of your inbox. Which of those messages would you still have received if someone had to type them out on a manual typewriter and deliver them?)

Obviously the Singapore government can’t actually say that they think that their employees are a bunch of time-wasting slackers, and prefer to endure a few days ridicule for being paranoid and out of touch rather than offend their homies.

Which is rather sweet.

Edit: This just in, Patient Zero in this initiative was our social media-loving PM, Lee Hsien Loong.

The first person to volunteer not to have any direct Internet access on his work computer was Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

He took on the challenge at the beginning of the year after security experts advised that it was necessary to shield the public sector’s IT systems from cyber attacks.

Relating his experience yesterday to reporters in Myanmar, where he is on an official visit, PM Lee said: “It’s a nuisance, it takes some getting used to, but you can do it.”


Which other world leaders are famous for deliberately avoiding connectivity? Yup.

He probably puts the milk in before the tea, too

Foreign Policy has taken a break from its usual schedule of Hillary: She’s Less Awful Than You Think pieces, to tell us about a heinous crime:


Vladimir Putin Doesn’t Actually Care About Saving Leopards 

A high-profile, Putin-backed campaign to protect the habitat of Persian leopards has been quietly abandoned, clearing the way for the country’s richest man to expand his ski resort…


Now I’m about as pro-fluffeh as political analysts get, but I’m still not 100% convinced that when Putin finally stands before the Pearly Gates, his attitude towards Persian leopards will be the number one item on St. Peter’s charge sheet. It may not even feature in the top five.

Which is a moderately interesting reaction in and of itself. If I had run into this same article on one of the many animal rights sites to which I subscribe (I wasn’t kidding about the pro-fluffeh item – you should see the amount that poorly battery hens and downtrodden milch cows have had off me over the years), I would – right now – be searching for the “donate” button with suspiciously watery eyes.

Reading it on FP, however stirred not a shred of sympathy for the sadly afflicted kitties, merely cynical irritation at the idea that someone felt this was high-quality negative PR.

Seems like Facebook feels much the same way:

Alas, poor leopards. Choose your media outlets more carefully next time.

(P.S. If the political fannying about hasn’t soured you on the idea, you can donate to the leopards here: or here:


Obama nuke button

“What the hey, I’m outta here in a few months anyhow…”


“It seems clear that what invariably gets us into trouble is our tendency to demonise foreign leaders or foreign groups we neither like nor understand. In such cases, we fill our gaps of ignorance with prejudice, and the result is hostility fuelled by demagoguery, and damage done to all concerned.”

– Donald Gregg, former US Ambassador to South Korea, in his memoir, Pot Shards, published in July 2014

“Clearly reckless and risky, evolving security threat in the hands of somebody who is questionable in terms of judgment.”

– John Kerry, describing the North Korean leadership, 25th January 2016, going against the opinions of the analysts who broadly concurred that North Korea’s nuclear test was a pretty smart move in the circumstances.

“How many world leaders, you think, are just completely out of their mind?”
“A pretty sizable percentage. Some of these people, you must meet them, you’ll just be chatting and you look in the eyes and go, ‘Oh, this guy’s gone’. Part of what happens is, these guys, I think the longer they stay in office, the more likely that is to happen.”

– Barack Obama exercises the international diplomatic skills for which he has become so celebrated, while chatting to Jerry Seinfeld in December 2015

知己知彼,百战不殆。(If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.)

Sun Tzu, probably sometime in the 5th century BC

See also under: This; I am normal, you are exotic

The Chinese internet reacts to North Korea’s nuclear test

nuclear test observers

I translated these posts from the Tiexue bbs (a site specialising in fenqing and armchair generals, plus a few genuine experts) for a news piece. They weren’t used in the end, so enjoy.

I was rushing for a deadline, so the translations are quick-and-dirty, and – to be perfectly frank – I don’t care sufficiently to rework them. The sense and the tone are there.

They come from this page and this one.

朝鲜半岛无核化及和平统一是中国一贯的主张并为之积极加强跟各方沟通,朝鲜核试有美国威胁的成分,更多的是美国为一己之私故意毁约和刺激朝鲜的结果,但朝鲜也违背了自己的承诺并给中国带来了影响。 据报道今天上午,位于中朝边界的延吉、珲春、长白县等地均有明显震感。延吉市民反映,当时桌椅摇晃持续几秒,有单位对室内人员进行了疏散。一高中操场地面出现裂纹,学生全部疏散,考试中断。这只是在核试时中国遭受到的影响,严格来说问题不是很大。大的问题有两个,一个是核武器的维护保养问题,如何确保安全不发生核泄露进而危及中国是中国方面要考虑的问题,朝鲜核设施离中朝边境太近,一旦出事有可能给中国带来危害。二是核设施及核武器的安全保卫,网上就有前几年某个国家派出特种兵偷袭朝鲜核设施被全歼的传言,不知真实与否,但无论平时还是战时,这些目标都是敌方侦察打击的重点目标,受到攻击会波及中国

“The denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula has always been China’s goal, and China has always tried to strengthen communications between the parties. While North Korea’s nuclear policy is somewhat influenced by the US threat, it’s more the result of the US’s selfish and deliberate breaches of faith, which have provoked the North Koreans, and this is the result. Nevertheless, North Korea has also violated its agreements with China, and its actions have had an effect on us. According to reports thsi morning, the explosion was felt in various places on the China-DPRK border: Yanji, Hunchun, Changbai and other places. In Yanji tables and chairs started shaking and people were evacuated from buildings. A school playground cracked, students were evacuated and exams were interrupted. China felt the effects of this nuclear test. Sure, strictly speaking it’s not a big problem, but there are two major issues. Firstly there’s the question of maintenance: we have to consider how we are to make sure that a radiation leak in North Korea doesn’t affect China. North Korea’s nuclear facilities are close to the border, so an accident could potentially harm China. Secondly, there’s the question of the security surrounding North Korea’s nuclear installations. According to internet rumors, a few years ago a commando raid was carried out on North Korea’s nuclear facilities. I don’t know whether this is true or not, but whether in peace of war, these are key targets for enemy reconnaissance, and any attacks on them will have a spillover effect in China.”

– Qiu Weixian


“If N. Korea has an H-bomb, it was forced into getting it by the US and the Japanese; the Japanese have created a rod for their own back here. North Korea couldn’t deliver a bomb to the US, but it could hit Tokyo!”

– “Bu Gan Dang”

“I agree with the OP basically. The cause of North Korea getting this bomb is its feeling of insecurity. The US deliberately set out to foster this sense of insecurity. In order to feel secure, North Korea is developing nuclear weapons. However, the weapons certainly won’t be used, if only because North Korean technology isn’t advanced enough to threaten the US. Moreover, using a nuclear bomb won’t solve any of North Korea’s problems. It’s a harsh truth, but developing nuclear weapons won’t help North Korea any more than it helped the former Soviet Union to survive.”
– “25660208”

“North Korea can use this to blackmail China. If we cooperate, they can threaten to sell bombs to the Dalai Lama and the Uighurs. Either China gives them the cash, or they give the bombs to someone to weaken us. So what if China has second strike capacity? Who would we attack in retalliation? Now Japan has an excuse to develop nuclear weapons. What with that and the South China Sea business, we’re living through interesting times. And what about South Korea? They might decide to team up with Japan.”

– Yinhe Yujia

He makes a good general point, but the image of the Dalai Lama brandishing nukes is just brilliant in every possible way. Like raging Gandhi in Civilization:

Gandhi nukes Civilization

朝鲜的核武能够威胁到日本韩国就足够了,而目前这种 情况下,美国为了避免日本发展核武,只能重新将东北亚作为重点了,。

“North Korea’s threat to South Korea and Japan should be enough; under current circumstances if the US wants to persuade Japan not to develop nuclear weapons it will have to re-focus on Northeast Asia.”

– “Shuidi Dalishi”


“Seems like Mother Russia is stirring up trouble in the Far East. Whether it’s explosions from nuclear bombs or landmines, underground or above ground, it’s the result of Russian technical assistance or Russian products. Alone, North Korea wouldn’t have the power, technology or money. Russia is under enormous military and political pressure in the Ukraine, Eastern Europe and the Midle East. Russia has to stir up the North Korean nuclear issue to drag China into things and share the heat, so this nuclear test pretty much must have involved Russian participation. After all, China is the only military power not bogged down in the Middle East, and China’s military is not weak. China does not want the North Korean regime to collapse. Basically, there’s no question that Russia played a disgraceful role in this. That’s just my opinion, I invite polite discussion.”

– “zx5181680000”


“North Korea has long been a source of discord among us, why can’t we get our country to take in more North Koreans? Sometimes opinions like your make me feel really sad; why make excuses for Fatty III? Causing regime change in North Korea would not be impossible.”

– zx5181680000

想当初,中国和越南是同志加兄弟的关系,可是后来还是交恶了,当初越南没有核武器,中国就算出兵惩罚越南,也不用担心越南的核报复,但是要是当初越南有了核武器该怎么办?现在朝鲜进行核试验,朝鲜的核武器根本不成熟,还不能造成太大的威胁,要是以后朝鲜成为第二个越南该怎么办?所以为了避免当初越南的悲剧重演,一是不能让朝鲜半岛统一;二是坚决反对朝鲜拥核.如果朝鲜实在过分, 中国可以全面制裁朝鲜;如果朝鲜敢威胁中国的国家安全,中国绝对敢于出兵灭掉金家,然后扶植一个听话的朝鲜领导人上台。

“Originally the relationship between China and Vietnam was like that between comrades and brothers, but then we became enemies. Vietnam didn’t have nuclear weapons, so China could send troops in to punish the Vietnamese without worrying about nuclear retaliation. What would we have done if Vietnam had had nuclear weapons? Now North Korea has carries out nuclear tests, their weapons program is still not mature and for the moment they’re not a big threat, but in the future they could become a second Vietnam. What should we do about North Korea? How to avoid a second Vietnam tragedy? Firstly, it is impossible to unify Korea, secondly, China should firmly oppose North Korea’s nuclear programs and apply sanctions if North Korea goes to far. If North Korea threatens China’s security, we should definitely send troops in to dispatch Kim and replace him with a more obedient leader.”

– Xuehuagao

That last bit isn’t a mistranslation, by the way. The actual word used is 听话. If you came here looking for a glimpse into the future, that post is it.