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.

Chen Mingyu

Chen Mingyu

Max Zuckerberg has a Chinese name, and it’s… pretty nice, actually.

It basically means something like “Bright World”, but you can click on the individual characters for the in-depth meanings.

Interestingly, even though Xi Jinping gracefully declined the honour of having a hand in naming her, it seems like his influence may not have been totally absent. His daughter’s name also contains the character 明, being 习明泽 (Xi Mingze). The link remains ambiguous however, because 明 appears so frequently in names that it could conceivably be a coincidence. (They could have used the 泽, but given the character’s political connotations it would pretty much have been the equivalent of pledging allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party, something that you don’t necessarily want to do when naming your kid, however much you enjoyed Xi Jinping’s book.)

Couple of other interesting titbits:

The subtitles use simplified Chinese, as is current on the mainland, rather than traditional characters as used in Taiwan (and, to a certain extent, in other Chinese-speaking regions outside of the PRC).

The video uses standard Mandarin throughout, even though Chan grew up speaking Cantonese. Usefully, however, 明宇 sounds more or less the same in Mandarin and Cantonese. It’s not uncommon for Chinese parents who speak several languages to aim for a name that sounds similar in all of them, even when one is English. (陈 is pronounced “Chen” in Mandarin and “Chan” in Cantonese.)

Priscilla is speaking slowly and enunciating carefully – like it was a language class. Possibly because Mandarin is far from being her first language, possibly to make the video as comprehensible as possible to a mass audience, possibly a bit of both.

How to run a multinational company, Part 4

This Taiwanese Subway ad is obviously a pastiche of the old timey tv dramas. The dialogue is meaningless pseudo-antique claptrap (much like in the originals) but the basic thrust is that Subway is doing reduced-calorie sandwiches and you should buy some*. Not that I’d be able to tell you that without the subtitles, since the voiceover is so dialect that apparently even native Taiwanese have trouble getting it.

This is worth comparing with the amazing Hokkien Journey-to-the-West PSA released in Singapore recently.

In both countries the governments have spent years trying to promote standard Mandarin and discourage the use of dialects, though for different reasons. In Taiwan it’s to do with the leaders’ increasingly tenuous claims that they represent the “real” China, and that the communist government in Beijing is a temporary aberration. In Singapore it’s more to do with community cohesion and social integration.

And in Singapore the anti-dialect campaign has largely been successful. Chinese Singaporeans in their 40’s and 50’s tend to speak dialect with their parents but Mandarin or English with their children. Most people under about 30 understand little of their family’s traditional language and speak even less.

Taiwan has seen a different trend. In the years immediately following the setting up of the Kuomintang government Mandarin did succeed in establishing itself over the local dialects to a great extent. However, the most recent generation is comprised of people who have, in many cases, never visited the mainland, feel little connection to it and see themselves as Taiwanese rather than Chinese. However, this doesn’t mean that they’ve also reverted to speaking Hakka, Hokkien or any of the other local dialects that were common prior to the Mandarinisation of the island. Instead, they will tend to speak a version of Mandarin that has drifted away from the version used on the mainland. This is influenced by the dialects (and by English and Japanese) but also simply by the effects of time and separation.

*Long story short: Taoist Immortals don’t eat, so by eating low-fat sandwiches from Subway you’re closer to becoming one.

It’s what you do with it that counts

Forbes’ annual power list is out:

Forbes power list


There’s nothing wildly shocking in there compared to previous years, but what is interesting are the criteria that Forbes uses to define someone as “powerful”.

Notably, three out of the top five spots – specifically 1, 2 and 4 – are occupied by people who took on roles that were not hugely promising at the beginning, but which they have since made their own in various interesting ways.

In no way is it evident that the President of Russia, the German Chancellor or the Pope should be so highly ranked. Sure, they should have a pretty high score ex officio, but not necessarily that high. Germany is a small European country hamstrung by its neighbours’ problems, Russia is a lumbering giant held together by belligerence and gaffer tape and the Catholic church is a scandal-wracked ruin of its former self. In other words, it’s less the positions themselves that Forbes is complimenting, than what their tenants have managed to do with them.

In fact, Forbes‘ ranking system is something like the opposite of the parable of the talents: starting with many advantages and doing a reasonable-if-uninspiring job with them is rewarded less than making something remarkable out of less auspicious beginnings.

Well ok, but so what?

The fact that Forbes chose to take such an approach reflects on their own editorial department’s modes of thought, but the fact that they had a reasonable amount of latittude in defining “power” isn’t a given. In fact, it’s a matter of language. One presumes that this list was compiled as well as published in English. If they’d been writing in French or Italian or Chinese, however, they would have faced a different set of questions to asnwer.

English has far more words than many languages, partly due to the waves of conquerors that swept across England during the dark ages, and partly due to its rapacious attitude towards useful-looking foreign vocabulary and its willingness to accomodate creoles. (According to Bill Bryson in Mother Tongue, English has twice as much vocabulary in common use as French, for example.) Consequently, it’s a rare word in English that doesn’t come with two or three commonly-used synonyms – usually there’ll be at least one with Germanic roots and one with Latin roots.

“Power” is an interesting exception. We only have one commonly-used word to cover the whole phenomenon. Most Latin languages, for example, have at least two, splitting it into two distinct concepts. So it is that in French “power” can be rendered either as “pouvoir” or “puissance” and these two cannot be used interchangeably to refer to the English-language concept.

I was educated in part at Sciences Po, and thus spent a possibly unhealthy amount of time bent over a creaky old exam desk attempting to define the two. So it is that I feel moderately qualified to speak on the subject (my marks weren’t particularly good, but I never actually got kicked out).

In brief, pouvoir deals with the more administrative and governmental side of things, while puissance has more to do with raw force, whether physical or psychological. In fact, it is easier to explain using examples: high-ranking civil servant (in the Weberian sense) relies more on pouvoir, while a warlord favours puissance.

In fact, in a slightly smug in-joke, Sciences Po still uses a fox and a lion on its crest in reference to the famous passage by Machiavelli (link).

Sciences Po logo

In such a schema, the fox could be said to represent pouvoir – using human ideas and institutions to control events – and the lion would stand for puissance – using brute force or charisma. (If I recall correctly, renaissance Italian also used two separate terms, much like modern French – podestà and potenza – though common usage has changed slightly since, and now privileges potere over podestà)

So from a French point of view, we could interpret the Forbes compilers’ criteria as favouring people who have used puissance as a way to extend pouvoir.

If you move away from European languages things can get even more complicated. Chinese, for example, has several individual characters that describe various aspects of power, and which can all be combined in various ways to provide even more nuance:

or  generally means physical force, though it can sometimes have to do with will power (努力), intention () or ability (视力).

or quán is to do with legally-endorsed authority as well as rights and privileges, though legally-endorsed does not necessarily mean good or benevolent or even law abiding. It is used to refer to human rights (人权) just as happily as hegemony-by-conquest () and intellectual property (知识产权).

The two combine to produce 权力, the term most often used in refering to political power, though, interestingly, it isn’t the word used by the Chinese edition of Forbes in reporting on the 2015 power rankings. Instead, the writers have gone for , which brings us to the third option and the least intuitively easy-to-grasp for a non-Chinese speaker.

 or shì is an odd and complex creature. It does mean power, but it also has connotations of momentum and inertia – of trends within society.  could just as happily be translated as “influential” as “powerful”. If you look at a selection of the various words that use 势 you can get a better idea of its various meanings.

There are various other relevant concepts ( etc.), but 力, 权 and 势 are the main ones. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that the Chinese translation of the article may actually express the intentions of the original compilers better than their own English-language title did. 权势 gives a sense of using the ability to mobilise the assets of one’s position in order to improve and extend it, something that is conveyed by the example sentences MDBG gives for the word:

mdbg example sentences

Which is all well and good, but once again: so what?

Well, with China rising it’s worth everyone’s time to take a few minutes and think about how Chinese-speakers think about politics, which is what this blog is all about.



The word ‘defector’ is a sensitive one. How difficult does a country have to be to get out of before those who leave can be considered defectors? Does a defector only mean someone who left for political reasons, or do economic migrants count too? Does defection necessarily imply a prior allegiance to the counrty that one is leaving?

When discussing North Korea, people can get very touchy about the use of ‘defectors’ vs. ‘refugees’. Most defectors use the word ‘defectors’ themselves, but others consider that ‘refugees’ is a more neutral term, in light of the fact that most people who leave the DPRK are getting out for economic rather than political reasons.

A similar phenomenon can be found in the distinction between ‘expats’ and ‘immigrants’. specifically, white people are expats, whereas all of the others are mere immigrants.

It even has a name: emotive conjugation. To take Bertrand Russell’s famous examples:

I am firm, You are obstinate, He is a pig-headed fool.

I am righteously indignant, you are annoyed, he is making a fuss over nothing.

I have reconsidered the matter, you have changed your mind, he has gone back on his word.

The issue came up today in a long and moderately interesting piece about a Russian guy who ran a shady bank in Moscow, got into trouble, and left the country, before proceeding to milk the CIA for all he could get in return for his FSB secrets. Td;dr: he’s pissed off because the witness protection programme sent him to Portland, which he considers to be a dump.

Obviously, the most charitable of observers would have great difficulty stretching the definition of ‘refugee’ to fit such a person. He, on the other hand, refers to himself as a defector throughout, something with which the article is entirely happy to go along with.

And I’m not saying that this is necessarily the incorrect word. It is certainly more diplomatic than any of the other terms that could possibly be applied to someone who sells state secrets to the opposition. On the other hand, it also raises a good many questions about how we should define other people who have found themselves in similar situations. Assange? Snowden? Are they defectors? Would they consider themselves to be defectors? If not, then what? How about someone like Kim Philby? You never see him described as a defector in the history books, though Anatoly Golitsyn invariably is. How about all the London Somalis being leaned on by the secret services to provide information about Islamism? If they agree to do it, does that make them defectors?

If it comes to it, I’ve gone abroad in the past as a result of having got in hot water at home. Am I a defector? Because if so then that’s pretty cool.

When it comes down to it, however, a basic flow-chart can be drawn up:


Though even there North Korea is an exception, since everyone who leaves is considered a defector, regardless of VIP status.

However, the point that I’m trying to make here is not ‘Oh we’re all such hypocrites and it’s terrible, let’s all check our privileges’. It’s not just that we don’t speak about these things in an objective manner, it’s that we can’t. Our language gives us no words that are not value-tinged. Which is, of course, part of the reason that the distinctions between the categories are so sensitive and so liable to cause offense.

Contrast this with giving directions. If you are giving someone directions, you can choose to use either objective terms (North, South) or subjective ones (left, right) and whichever you choose, everyone will still know what you’re talking about (even if they’re European and don’t have the faintest clue what direction you’re thinking of when you say ‘three blocks East’).

When you’re talking about refugees and defectors, however, this option is not available. You just have to use the vocabulary that you have, and hope that the person at the other end shares the same definition as you do.