Daily Archives: 14 January 2007

Wordcatcher Tales: Iwo, Kakka, Kisamara

Yesterday I went to see the best Japanese movie I’ve seen in a long time: Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima (硫黄島からの手紙). Although Eastwood deserves the lion’s share of the credit, and the Japanese actors were excellent (especially the leads, veteran Watanabe Ken as the commanding general and boyband star Ninomiya Kazunari as the slacker private), I appreciated above all the superb screenwriting by Iris Yamashita, who did an amazing job of bridging linguistic and cultural gaps. The wording of the Japanese dialogue and the English subtitles often diverged radically in order to make each appropriate to the context. Here are a few of the divergences.

硫黄 iou (also ryuuou, yuou) ‘sulphur, brimstone’ – Note that there is no /w/ in the current Japanese pronunciation of this most appropriate name for an island in the Volcano Archipelago (火山列島 Kazan Rettou) that was hell on earth for the men who fought there.

UPDATE: The Mandarin Chinese reading for this compound is liúhuáng. The second character, optional in many contexts, means ‘yellow’, but in this compound it is sometimes written with a ‘stone’ radical (硫磺). The regular Sino-Japanese match should be ryuukou (once written riu-kuwau), but both syllables of the island placename have suffered erosion: ryuu- > yuu- > yu- > i- and -kou > -ou.

閣下 kakka ‘(Your/His[/Her]) Excellency’ – The commanding general is both addressed and referred to as kakka, a term of great deference but not a military rank. I learned my first two Japanese military ranks while watching the Japanese-dubbed Adventures of Rin Tin Tin as a kid: 軍曹 gunsou ‘sergeant’ and 中尉 chuui ‘1st lieutenant’. In English, several of the names for the officer ranks come in pairs: 1st and 2nd lieutenant, lieutenant and lieutenant junior grade, colonel and lieutenant colonel, commander and lieutenant commander, and (my favorite) rear admiral upper half and rear admiral lower half. In Japanese (and Chinese and Korean, I believe), they come in groups of three, each coming in small, middle, and large size:

  • 少尉 shoui, 中尉 chuui, 大尉 taii for the company-grade officer ranks (USA/USN) ‘2nd lieutenant/ensign’, ‘1st lieutenant/lieutenant junior grade’, ‘captain/lieutenant’;
  • 少佐 shousa, 中佐 chuusa, 大佐 taisa for the field-grade officer ranks ‘major/lieutenant commander’, ‘lieutenant colonel/commander’, ‘colonel/captain’;
  • 少将 shoushou, 中将 chuushou, 大将 taishou (as in 将軍 shougun ‘general of an army’) for the general officer/flag officer ranks ‘major general/rear admiral (2 stars)’, ‘lieutenant general/vice admiral (3 stars)’, ‘general/admiral (4 stars)’.

The much more problematical in-between ranks of ‘brigadier/commodore‘ (with 1 star) are rendered by 准将 junshou ‘(lit.) quasi-general/semi-admiral’. In the U.S. Navy, commodores are now rear admirals (lower half).

貴様ら kisamara ‘you collective (derog.)’ – Japanese has a host of ways to translate English ‘you’. (See the useful summary at the end of the Yale Anime Society glossary.) The most common ones used in the military context of the movie were the gruff, male-bonding omae (お前, etymologically ‘honorable facing [person]’) and the familiar, superior-to-subordinate kimi (君, etymologically ‘lord’). The latter etymon is also the source of -kun, a familiar (usually male) equivalent of neutral -san ‘Mr., Ms.’ and polite -sama (様). As the derogation of 君 ‘lord’ attests, the most derogatory terms often have the most noble origins. And few terms of address have dropped farther down the scale of politeness than 貴様 ‘(lit.) exalted/sacred-sama‘, which is now best rendered in English as ‘you son-of-a-bitch, you bastard’, in other words, the ‘you’ that precedes a fight.

I had heard kisama many times, but had never heard it with its collective suffix -ra—the impolite equivalent of -tachi—until I heard abusive officers use it in the movie script to address troops about to be punished, in fact, troops about to be summarily executed in one episode. That got me thinking about the contexts appropriate for using -ra vs. -tachi. At one end of the scale, you would not combine highly derogatory kisama with a neutral collective marker: *kisama-tachi sounds socially bizarre. At the other end of the scale, you would not (except ironically) combine polite anata with impolite -ra in *anata-ra (although the less respectful anta-ra sort of works, for me anyway). However, either collective suffix seems to work on the gruff, male-bonding terms: omae-ra and omae-tachi both work for ‘you guys’, just as ore-ra and ore-tachi do for ‘us guys’.

UPDATE: Another tricky term of address I heard in the film was onore (己), which my electronic dictionary defines as either (1) ‘oneself’ (syn. jibun), (2) ‘you’ (syn. omae, anata), or (3) “Hey!; Damn it!; You son of a bitch!” [syn. kisama—J.]. In the film script, it was used by a gallant but kind-hearted commanding officer addressing his men after their situation was hopeless, telling them to do what they think is right (like Polonius: “to thine own self [onore] be true”), thus implicitly allowing them to choose surrender. The officer himself chose solitary suicide after being blinded by shrapnel.

Leave a comment

Filed under cinema, Japan, language, war