Category Archives: language

Rice Paddies in Autumn: A note on faking translation

I really don’t know why it makes me feel happy and stimulated to sit and  look up words in 5 different types of dictionaries while trying to formulate a composition. There is something soothing in the precision I can attain in attempting to balance the rhetoric. Being fastidious like this, of course can be frustrating in it’s own right. It’s an odd feeling to say, “I just want to write one paragraph,” and then when I am almost satisfied,  see that one hour had just passed by. (I don’t do this with all of my work of course. You would not even see one blog a month from me if that were the case.)

Onwards, I went to a 100 yen shop the other day, and a particular poem card game caught my eye. The box claimed to have “romaji with commentary” of the classic poem collection “Hyakunin Isshu.” I foolishly figured that meant the poems were translated or there would at least be some cultural notes since the game directions were translated. I was wrong. I should have taken a note from the warning which included, “Do not place this product close to naked flames.” (a poetic act on it’s own.) and the rockier “The thing which collected one poem of each 100…” (Really?)

Needless to say, I was a little bit disappointed to find that the translations would not be quite so readily available. I thought for a moment, with my limited language and cultural knowledge, what kind of translation can I come to? Can I do a similar service to the Engrish I see in Japan every day?

I took all the words I didn’t know, and looked them up. I took the grammar and discarded it. (Like I do with English, but more so.) How did the collection of pure words make me feel? What images did it bring to mind? It turns out they were dramatically different from what anybody who knows what they are talking about would probably translate the poem as.

The first poem in the collection is by Emperor Tenji:


This is my translation:

In the autumn field-
amongst the hermitage of harvested rice
chaff carpets the ground wildly
while my sleeves become soaked with dew

A literal translation by people who probably know what they are talking about involves a house with thatched roofing. Well, you can look that up if you want.

Of course the next thing on the translation agenda comes to the cultural and grammatical interpretation of the poem rather than an artistic spin on vocabulary and my liberal addition of inferred vocabulary. It’ll probably take me a “few” months to come to level with the grammar. The culture will be even more challenging. There is a process of disillusionment that I must now walk through, allowing the poem to return to what the author may have intended it to be. This is the most frustrating thing about learning a language for me. Interpreting what someone is saying as they meant it, not in the way I want them to mean it.

I keep on thinking of a particular bilingual edition of Basho’s Oku no hosomichi (The narrow roads through the back country) which illustrated 5 different translator’s versions of one poem. All are accurate to a capacity, but no one translation can carry all the nuances and weight that the poem had in it’s original language.


How Mathematics Became Beautiful

This is a window to one year ago and beyond.

I was in a class, which I shall affectionately call “Algebra to Alcohol” because that spring coincided with my roommate and I stocking the fridge with 24 packs of beer.

There was a lot of cognitive science involved in this course. A lot of “Why is our culture math-phobic” being asked. Most students in the class were in the “Mathematics is amazing” camp and couldn’t see the other side of the fence. I was the lone student voicing a differentiated state of mind. I still remember the tears falling down my cheeks as the protist blob of a math teacher I had in 8th grade scolded me, branding me the laziest girl she knew. I probably took algebra 3 out of 4 years in high school each time being uniquely told that I was lazy and stupid for not catching on…and yes it was boring and repetitive. My first college adviser (who held all say in registration) one upped it all, and just plain didn’t allow me to sign up for any mathematics, because it would be “too difficult” for me. Besides, everyone I knew told me that I was damn good at writing, and that’s what I needed to be focusing on.

I was having issues with sleep, as well as issues caring about the work I did. I desperately wanted to understand what it meant when someone talked of the beauty in mathematics, but I could not. “Fake it ’till you make it,” my professor advised.

Due to seminar readings, I met a proof that changed my mind about math: Euclid’s proof of infinite prime numbers. I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. Three people in seminar patiently spent 20 minutes explaining it to me, we played with it. Things started clicking. As the class regrouped my mind assumed a low hum. Ideas from readings about linguistics collided with the primes. Patterns snapped and popped, and I started scribbling furiously into my notebook, ignoring everything else around me. The class ended. I made it home that night, but I could not say how.

The next day, I asked my professor, “If they believe prime numbers occur randomly, how do they have prime number generators?” “Look it up,” he said. “Start with the sieve of Eratosthenes.” The next week he threw the sieve into a programming workshop with a mischievous grin. Over the next few days I witnessed myself buying color coded pens, writing every prime number down well past 1,987 and calculating the difference between them along with a few other variables. It was suddenly no longer foreign to get out of a bath, pen down some calculations and then wake up a few hours later slightly confused, my face in a puddle of numbers. I did a decent amount of research on primes and started building a rudimentary program to aid me in calculating my thoughts, but all too quickly, the quarter ended.

My first ever (organic) chemistry course kicked in. The ball was rolling, and I was going to fall off if I didn’t drop everything else.

I haven’t forgotten how that project made me feel, and I would still love to throw hours at it, but I have a lot of excuses and obstacles. I’ve begun learning statistics, which are important to number theory, scientific experimentation, & informed decisions.

Statistics is a small step to understanding infinity.

Washing Away Wonder

水に流す, mizu ni nagasu, wash away in water.

A turn of phase in the Japanese language which is often likened to the English saying “water under the bridge”. On the surface, these two phrases may seem similar, they talk of the same subject, Water.  “Water under the bridge”, however, implies that perhaps you are standing over a body of water. You are observing from a higher vantage point something that is a (likely) comfortable distance from getting you wet.

“mizu ni nagasu” is dramatically different. There are many ways in which water could physically manifest itself here, it is not confined to one locality…perhaps you are setting something out to drift on a strong current, or you are using the word water as a euphemism for tears. Perhaps you are using water to clean.

What are your thoughts?

I refer you to Kristen Allen Zito, Open up.