Monday, January 11, 2010

The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, Kanji, Romanji, and This Writer

I may have to learn Japanese.

Which reminds me of Mark Twain's short story, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County." If you're familiar with American literature, you may have read it, or at least heard of it. The title, by the way, comes out as "カラベラスの名高いジャンプ蛙郡" when I put it through the Google translator.

When I take "カラベラスの名高いジャンプ蛙郡" and run it back through the same tool, I get "Celebrated jumping frog of Calaveras County" - which is better than the experience Mr. Twain had.

The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County - or - The Perils of Translation

Intellectual property laws were - somewhat casually enforced - in the 19th century. Someone who thought he knew French, or someone who knew English, took the Jumping Frog story and published it in France.

The story had been a commercial success in America. In France, sales just about flatlined. Twain translated the French version back into English.

And wrote about what he got, in

I get the distinct impression that Mr. Twain was not a great fan of French culture, but that's not relevant to what this post is about.

The first sentence of Twain's story, in English, as he wrote it:
"In compliance with the request of a friend of mine, who wrote me from the East, I called on good-natured, garrulous old Simon Wheeler, and inquired after my friend's friend, Leonidas W. Smiley, as requested to do, and I hereunto append the result...."
I know: It's longer than some paragraphs are, these days. But this is the Information Age, that was the Gilded Age. People apparently wanted to get their money's worth from a sentence back then.

The same sentence, after being translated back from the French:
"It there was one time here an individual known under the name of Jim Smiley; it was in the winter of '89, possibly well at the spring of '50, I no me recollect not exactly...."
The rest isn't much better. No wonder it bombed in France.

The title of the French version, translated back by Twain, was "THE FROG JUMPING OF THE COUNTY OF CALAVERAS."

In case this post is read by a short-fused francophile, I'm aware that Mr. Twain may have been somewhat unfair in his translation. The first sentence in the French version was:
"--Il y avait, une fois ici un individu connu sous le nom de Jim Smiley: c'etait dans l'hiver de 49, peut-etre bien au printemps de 50, je ne me reappelle pas exactement...."
Which, run through the Google translator, is:
"- There was a time here an individual known by the name of Jim Smiley was in the winter of 49, maybe spring of 50, I do not exactly reappelle....."

Finally, What This Post is About - a Request For Help

I'm working out background for a story I'm setting in Japan. It started out as a spoof of (badly done) 'Manga,' with intentional glitches. There are five main characters, for starters.

I don't want to produce something that reads like that translation of Twain's story, for someone who actually understands Japanese.

The story's starting to get away from me, and seems to be changing into something else, but that's not what this post is about.

What's bothering me right now is a word. Phrase, actually.

The only language where I'd trust my story-telling skills is English. Which is okay, in this case, because my target audience is people who can read English fairly well.

So dialog and just about everything else will be in English. I know: not very authentic. But it worked for Gilbert and Sullivan in "The Mikado," so I'll chance it.

But, for 'authenticity' - and because I think it'll be cool - a few words and phrases will, I hope, be in Japanese. Sort of.

For example, there's a sort of person in the story who is called a 'well artist' or 'well maker' - "well" in the sense of a well from which you draw water. I think the phrase "ido-ka" expresses that idea.

Remember, I said "Japanese. Sort of." I can't, at this time, read Japanese characters and 'hear' words. I'm pretty sure many or most of my readers won't be able to, either. So I'm using the Latin alphabet to spell out close-enough representations of the few Japanese words and phrases I'll use.

One character will be called 'the great ido-ka,' or 'the great well-artist.' Easy enough, right?

If I really knew Japanese, yes. As it is, not so much.

I'm fairly sure that the word (phrase?) I'm looking for is 凄い.

That comes through the Google translator (the most reliable tool I've found, so far) as meaning:

  1. terrible
  2. dreadful
  3. terrific
  4. amazing
  5. great
  6. wonderful
  1. to a great extent
  2. to a large extent
This is the cluster of meaning that I'm looking for.

Or maybe what I'm looking for is グレート.

My guess is that 凄い is what I want.

Just one problem: I haven't a clue what it sounds like. The Google translator will helpfully tell me what "great" sounds like in English: but I already know that.

I've tried looking up 凄い online - but unsuccessfully.

Another line of inquiry gave me "sugoi" as a word meaning terrible, dreadful, terrific, amazing, great. It's possible that 凄い is what sugoi looks like - but I can't verify that.

Given the rules I've set for myself, I'm stuck with using Romanji. (I think that's the term for Latin alphabet used to express Japanese words and phrases.)

And, one thing I don't have, yet, is a working knowledge of Japanese.

So, I've written this post and intend to solicit help from some folks I know online, who may be able to help me out. Thanks in advance.

The Questions

1. is "凄い" an appropriate word to use in a phrase like "the great ido-ka"?

2. Is "sugoi" the way 凄い is pronounced?
2a. If not, how is 凄い pronounced?

3. I think that the phrase "the great well-artist" would come out in Japanese as "sugoi ido-ka" - if my guesses are right about the meaning of those words. Is this an appropriate or 'normal' way to arrange those elements of the phrase?

Finally, I've decided that I do need to develop a working knowledge of Japanese. But that'll take time - no problem, by itself, but I want to get moving on this story in a matter of weeks, not years.
Updated 10:55 p.m. January 11, 2010

I started a discussion thread on BlogCatalog, "Help? How Should 凄いbe Pronounced?," and got one response so far. (Thanks!)

Now, I need to turn in.

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