Importance of Translation in Creating National Strategies
Babel University Professional School of Translation
Vice-chancellor Tomoki Hotta
During the Meiji period, Japan used translation in transitioning to a modern nation-state to cultivate intellectual ideas, creating an environment where all citizens could be exposed to the latest knowledge. Realizing that one careless move could result in losing independence, Japan deftly evaded debates on changing the official language to English. Japan turned instead to translation to bring about modernization – all in its own mother tongue, Japanese.
Pioneers during and after the Meiji Restoration such as Yukichi Fukuzawa, Amane Nish, Arinori Mori, and Chomin Nakae helped to create new terms for abstract concepts nonexistent in Japan at the time incorporated from Western culture, technology, systems, and law. The following are examples of new terms: society (shakai), justice (seigi), truth (shinri), reason (risei), conscience (ryoshin), subjectivity (shukan), regime (taisei), structure (kozo), dialectics (benronho), estrangement (sogai), existence (jitsuzon), and crisis (kiki).
How many realize what is being considered recently – despite the efforts of these pioneers of the Meiji period? It’s talk in political circles about creating a system in which English speaking districts are established in Japan. These districts would be English only, with Japanese conversations in public prohibited. It seems unreasonable for talk about English speaking districts to go unchallenged.
The supremacy of English has been a hot topic especially among Japanese corporations with the mass media focusing in on this topic. Globalists and international finance capitalists would love to have Japan transition to English as its official language. The outcome unfortunately is predictable; transitioning to English will result in Japan’s overall decline.
A compelling and well-written book on this topic is “Englishnization: Path to Ignorance – How the move to English will ruin Japan (June 2015, Shueisha Shinsho) written by Teruhisa Se. In this book, the author points out that countries which were formerly British colony countries such as India, Malaysia, Kenya are examples of how English rule results in lower to middle-income countries. The Philippines and Puerto Rico are examples of middle-income countries formerly occupied by the US. One could make the point that these countries resigned themselves to a lower status when they adopted English as their official language.
Recently, Japanese mass media has been almost masochistic in reporting that the University of Tokyo has fallen from being ranked number one in Asia last year to number seven. The major reason for this decline is the low percentage of classes taught in English, along with the low number of dissertations written in English. Before switching all classes to English however, Japan needs to consider the following: apart from Japan, what other high-income countries whose language is not English allow citizens to study at the university level primarily in their own language? What is more, how many realize that Japan is unusual in that citizens can read classical literature from all over the world in Japanese?
In contrast, consider Singapore. Singapore is said to be an ideal nation-state, but its current state of affairs speaks otherwise. How many know that In Singapore one must learn several languages to survive? Singapore also struggles with increasing economic disparity caused by elitist policies, lack of solidarity among citizens, and cultural poverty where little unique culture or arts are created. This can be viewed as the unavoidable outcome that occurs when making the switch to English.
On the other hand, Japan has used translation as a shield in preserving Japanese as its official language. Japanese, therefore, has not been lowered to the status of a mere “indigenous language”.
Considering the following history of Japanese and Japanese culture, as well at the merits which substantiated Japanese language and culture, it is only natural that Japan has taken this path in protecting its language.
• In the 6th -7th century Japan brought in ideas from Chinese civilization, absorbing those ideas by creating an eclectic mix of Japanese and Chinese writing containing Chinese characters and kana in creating its own unique culture.
• With approximately 500,000 words, Japanese has a rich and abundant vocabulary. Although English also contains around 500,000 words, many terms taken from other languages. German contains 350,000 words, and French 100,000. It is apparent that Japan is a country blessed with a rich language.
• It is possible to read Japanese classic literature written approximately 1000 years ago without great difficulty (works such as Kojiki, Nihon-shoki, and Man’yoshu). In the US and England however, literature written 1000 years ago was written in ancient Greek or Hebrew. This means the ordinary person cannot read such literature without understanding those languages.
• Among the 200 countries, over 6000 ethnic groups, and over 6500 languages in the world, Japanese is unique in its methodical construction of 50 phonetic sounds each centered around vowels. Japanese is diverse in its notation –it is comprised of hiragana, katakana, alphabet, Chinese numerals, Roman numerals, etc.
• Neuroscientist Tadanobu Tsunoda has pointed out that those in the West process consonants with the left brain, while vowels are processed with the right brain which also processes mechanical sounds and other noise. Westerners also process sounds such as that of birds chirping, the sound of running water in streams, and the wind as noise with the right side of their brain. In contrast, the Japanese process these sounds with the left side of the brain, which is responsible for processing language. This might explain why the Japanese tend to see the divine in all things.
• Located at the tip of the Eurasian continent, Japan has developed a culture by cultivating Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, Zen Buddhism, and Shintoism. These ways of thought have fostered a keen sensitivity and profound spirituality in Japan.
• As scientific journalist and editor, Yoshiyuki Matsuo pointed out in his book How the Science of Japanese will Change the World (Nihongo no Kagaku ga Sekai wo Kaeru), the discoveries of Nobel prize winner scientists are a product of the Japanese language. Japanese scientists have earned approximately 20 Nobel prizes for discoveries in the field of natural science – more than any other Asian country.
Although seemingly unrelated, let’s take a moment now to consider the recent state of world affairs.
Many are aware of Britain’s departure from the EU (familiarly termed “Brexit”, a combination of the terms “Britain” and “Exit”) determined by popular vote. This move continues to greatly impact economies and politics both in Japan and worldwide.
In recent French elections, incumbent French president Emmanuel Macron succeeded in keeping French politician and proponent of departing from the EU Marion Anne Perrine and her supporters at bay. However, it is still too early to predict if Macron can create a political party capable of both earning a majority of the 577 seats in the French National Assembly and working with the prime minister in continuing as an EU member. In fact, the EU might be on a path heading towards dissolution, since The Netherlands, Italy, Austria, Denmark, Sweden are considering separation as well.
What are these global state of affairs hinting at?
They are hinting that the world is turning from globalism to neo-nationalism (or localism). This means turning away from doing away with national borders, liberalization of interaction with people from other countries, and opening markets to the restricting the unrestricted flow of refugees, and turning towards recovering nation-states. It is a shift from elitism to populism, a shift to an era moving away from elitist leadership represented by financial capitalists, moving instead towards leadership by the public. This shift was made visible during the Trump vs. Clinton presidential election. Donald Trump’s slogan of “America First” is in one sense a step towards neo-nationalism and populism.
Globalists have pushed forward neo-liberalist policies, open economies, deregulation, small government, and accordingly the reorganization of the global economy. Recent events such as those mentioned above, however, are a backlash to such policies.
The trend now appears to be moving towards localism, or what should rather be called “glocalism”. Simply put, glocalism is a social process that consists of the concurrent drives towards globalization and localization.
It is here that we find the significance of translation.
The translational approach is being reconsidered – an approach where individual independent cultures respect other cultures and their languages, using translation as a means of engaging in communication.
Language is not simply a communication tool as proponents of English-only speaking districts in Japan might claim. Language creates peoples’ world view. In the case of Japan, Japanese forms the way of thinking, feeling, and make-up of the Japanese society.
It can, therefore, be said that blindly switching to English as Japan’s official language will lead to the destruction of Japan’s strengths. The virtues of thoughtfulness, consideration, keen sensitivity, and profound spirituality characteristic of the Japanese are the products of Japanese, the Japanese mind, and Japanese culture.
The eclectic mix and cultivation of Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, Shintoism, and Zen Buddhism that make up the culture of this island country located at the eastern tip of the Eurasian continent are a treasure that the Japanese should be proud of.
Some have heard of the term “tatamiser effect” coined by Takao Suzuki. This was originally a French term that meant to become Japanese-like. In other words, it means to become more flexible in one’s attitudes towards others and to move away from confrontation and towards harmony. It is said that those who learn Japanese begin to think in this way.
This is exactly why the world seeks translation. Translation is based on the methodology of forming communication while valuing the independence of individuals in various countries.
It is important not be easily swayed by globalists who advocate English at the expense of other languages, but instead find the significance of Japanese, and confidently emphasize the importance of translation. Through translation, we can bring about enlightenment in which cultures from all countries are respected and harmony pursued.
I can’t help but be reminded of the Tower of Babel when considering recent globalist trends. It is as if globalization advocates are trying to create English as their tower of Babel. God is angered by this and instead has created various languages, ordering people to be scattered throughout the world.
We must realize that we are entering a doorway to a world where diverse languages and cultures coexist.
Japan needs to consider translation as a part of its national and language strategies. Granted, I do not intend to state that since Japan has advocated peace in recent years there is no need to take self-defense measures. Just like permanently neutral country Switzerland, I believe it is important for Japan to have a healthy sense of danger geopolitically and be prepared accordingly. As a part of that, I believe translation is crucial in forming national strategies.
Issue 174 from the ALUMNI Editorial Office
Published by: Babel University Professional School of Translation ALUMNI Association