Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Honourable Mr Elephant: Translating honorifics

Reading an interesting review of Shipwreck (or Shipwrecks) (破船 ha sen) by Yoshimura Akira (吉村昭) got me thinking about the meaning of honorifics and about translation.

The reviewer doesn’t say this (and nor do the other reviews available online), but ‘fune’ in ‘o-fune-sama’ is surely ‘boat’ or ‘ship’: ‘舟’ presumably (although there are other characters that mean ‘ship’ and are pronounced ‘fune’). The honorifics ‘o’ and ‘sama’ indicate something like auspiciousness here, I think, so ‘o-fune-sama’ might be translated as ‘the blessing of a boat’, in the sense of a boat received by the village as a kind of gift from higher forces: from the gods, or fate, say. (Cf. ‘In her ninetieth year, Sarah was surprised and delighted to receive the blessing of a child.’)

Honorifics are notoriously difficult to translate. The translator of Shipwrecks obviously judged that with ‘o-fune-sama’ it was best not to try.

Even when a good translation is possible, it often leaves out the honorific dimension. In most contexts v- and t-forms (e.g. ‘vous’ and ‘tu’) are best just translated as ‘you’, as is Spanish ‘usted’ -- a third-person pronoun used to refer to the addressee -- although in very limited contexts (at a barber’s, a tailor’s, or in a PG Wodehouse story) sir might prefer a more literal translation, hmmn? (Of course, English has other, role-specific, third person-ish honorifics: ‘Your Grace’, ‘Mr. President’.)

Returning to Japanese, ‘o-kane’ is just money, not ‘honourable money’ (while ‘kane’ can sound a bit rough and in some contexts might be best rendered into slang: something like ‘dosh’ or ‘the readies’).This demonstrates that the prefix ‘o-’ is sometimes required for polite speech, particularly for those (like women) who are not thought capable of speaking colloquially and politely at the same time.

But Japanese honorifics are particularly context-sensitive in their effects; they don’t always raise the tone. I suspect everyone has to say ‘kami-sama’ or ‘o-kami-sama’, not bare ‘kami’ (god) – or sound mildly blasphemous. But in other cases honorifics can indicate closeness as much as respect. My favourite example, ‘(o-)zou-san’ (lit. (honourable) Mr elephant) is a phrase used by children, those who speak to children, and those who speak to elephants while children are listening. A friend who speaks much more Japanese than me once suggested that ‘o-furo’ (the normal way of saying ‘bath’, but literally ‘honourable [warm] bath’) should be translated ‘lovely hot bath’.

What is the point of all these observations? Partly reinforcing my preexisting beliefs (prejudices) about translation: it is an art, or an applied science, and not a domain which could ever have its own theory. (One of the main contentions of Ernst-August Gutt’s dissertation on relevance theory and translation: published by Blackwell’s – review in the Journal of Linguistics.) It must be a lot of fun.

But also what might be a novel thought. Resistance to translation (and to paraphrase) is supposed to be typical of procedural meaning, exemplified by so-called discourse connectives like ‘so’, ‘then’ and ‘alors’. And it is easy to see how procedural meaning need not contribute to truth conditions, and it is clear that honorifics usually do not: I might have been wrong to tutoyer you, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t refer to you; and ‘o-kane’ and ‘kane’ surely have the same denotation. Perhaps then the semantics of honorifics is procedural. Surely someone must have said this. Relevance theory and the study of polite speech are both popular with people who study pragmatics in Japan. But I can’t find it on the obvious search terms: relevance theory, procedural meaning, honorifics, keigo.

In any case, I’m not convinced. Some questions of politeness and word choice obviously have nothing to do with word meaning in a narrow sense. That a taboo word is forbidden (and in which contexts, to whom, etc.) is a fact about the social status of that word, not something to explain in terms of its semantics. (Very much pace recently fashionable – but in my view daft – accounts of swear words in terms of ‘conventional implicature’, or ‘presupposition’.) Perhaps the same goes for honorifics. It seems to make sense not to postulate any word meaning for honorifics – given that politeness is not necessarily part of speaker meaning, as Mark Jary pointed out some years ago. I wrote in the entry on politeness in my Key Terms book,

“[It is not clear] whether politeness is communicated. Is a speaker who is being polite necessarily, or even usually expressing politeness as part of her speaker meaning? One view is that in being polite a speaker is mainly trying to avoid any implicatures to do with the speaker-hearer’s relationship, by staying within certain parameters of socially acceptable behaviour.”

Compare this with what Mark proposes: a “Relevance Theoretic account of polite verbal behaviour” which:

“distinguishes cases where politeness is communicated from those where it is not, [and] distinguishes the strategic manipulation of expectations of politeness from cases where politeness emerges from the speaker crafting her utterances in such a way as to avoid making manifest assumptions likely to have a detrimental effect on her long term social aims.”

(Last year when I wrote this I hadn’t read Mark’s paper. I should have known about it, though, and I would have put his paper in the list of further reading at the end of the book. It's a good deal more interesting, in my view, than the references on politeness that I did include.)

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