I'm Learning Japanese

I really think so

Cult of the Dead Cow, and the reason to learn the language

Posted by drivers99 on October 14, 2010

Yesterday I was watching coverage of the rescue of the miners in Chile. Something was bugging me about how it was being covered though. Websites were referring to the rescue capsule as the “Phoenix” even though I could see on the capsule it was called “Fénix.” Another was that they were calling the encampment around the mine as “Camp Hope” instead of “Camp Esperanza.” When the final miner was rescued, there was still a group of rescuers in the mine, and they held up a banner that said “Misión Cumplida” but the newscaster reported that it said “Mission Complete.”  The final example, I think, is the most egregious: someone was reporting from the nearest city and said the word “plaza” but then he corrected himself and said “square” as if we didn’t know what a plaza was.  Perhaps fewer people would know what a plaza is, as compared to a town square, but how else would they ever learn that a plaza is like a town square, particularly in Spanish-influenced areas?

I felt like the news is artificially protecting people from exposure to the Spanish words for things. You even see it in the way that different editions of books are published in England and in the United States. The first Harry Potter book has a different title in the United States because “Sorcerer’s Stone” would be more marketable, even though “Philosopher’s Stone” is an actual concept from alchemy.  You also see it in the way that Japanese animation is remarketed in other countries by dubbing, even though foreign movies do not usually get dubbed (except maybe some martial arts movies) although they probably suffer commercially for it.

I was thinking about that while driving this morning, and I suddenly remembered a text file I read over a decade ago, by the Cult of the Dead Cow hacker group, called “What is cDc?” (It’s worth the read, and it’s not very long.) In the text file he makes an analogy to how the information that most people receive has been filtered and modified in order to make it easier to consume (the “dead cow” vs the seasoned steak), but the end result has very little resemblance to the original.

What do most people know about Japan when you ask them? Only the most distorted, stereotyped, filtered and mass produced pieces of information get through.  I’m not saying I know much more about Japan than anyone else, but the above made me think, the only way I will ever get past those filters is to learn the language and seek out the “dead cow” (so to speak) of reality: books that were never intended for me to read, people I would never have been able to talk to, sights I would never see without going there myself.

Every once in a while, I feel like I don’t have enough time to really accomplish learning Japanese, and then I wonder why I should do it, something beyond “if I don’t do it, I’ll be a failure.” I think this is a big part of the answer: the stuff that I don’t even know that I’m missing yet.


One Response to “Cult of the Dead Cow, and the reason to learn the language”

  1. Lan'dorien said

    Very good post – I think you have hit upon the heart of the matter.

    It isn’t just a matter of getting lost in translation, but the selection of materials that get translated in the first place.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: