4/19/2006

How do you say it in English?

Yesterday's English phrase in a couple of my classes was "How do you say _____ in English?" A simple, straight-forward and useful expression. The problem is, since language is shaped by environment, there are some things in Japan for which there is not an English equivalent.

In my first class, the Japanese teacher pointed out various things in the room and asked me how to say them in English.

Japanese teacher: (holds up a student's ruler) "How do you say monosashi in English?"

Me: (smiling and the kids, wishing I was anywhere but there) "It's a ruler."

Japanese teacher: (holding up a dictionary) "How do you say jisho in English?

Me: (continuing fake enthusiasm, wondering why I spent 4 years studying French litterature to do this all day) "It's a dictionary."

Japanese teacher: (removes a plastic sheet from a student's book) "How do you say shitajiki in English?"

Me: (suddenly looking uncomfortable) "Ummm, ummm, it's a plastic sheet thing-y that you put under a sheet of paper to make it easier to write? I don't know, we don't have those in America."

And I felt incredibly stupid, although it's not my fault the Japanese are so anal they need to carry around plastic sheets to make their writing neater. I may or may not own one of these myself, and it may or may not have cute monkeys on it.

Later on in the day, I was talking to an older Japanese woman about the yellow dust that was filling the air. I had assumed it was pollen, but it turned out to be yellow sand from the Gobi desert. Who knew?

"So anyway," she said, "what is the English word for yellow sand that comes from China?"

"Ummm, I think you just have to say 'yellow sand that comes from China.' Why? Is there a Japanese word for that specifically?"

"Yes," she answered. "It's kosa."

So I learned of the shortcomings of the English language yesterday. But outside of Japan (well, East Asia maybe) why would one need to talk about shitajiki and kosa? By the way, if there is in fact an English word for shitajiki, could someone please tell me what it is?

2 Comments:

Anonymous michaelpanda said...

hahaha!!

actually i was similarly stumped by shitajiki. as far as I know there is no "proper" translation for it since we don't have one. I think when I was asked that (I actually know exactly the JHS lesson you're talking about...!! good to see they haven't come up with anything new in the past 2 years) I think I stammered out something like "writing board you put under your paper" or something.

that shut them up.


one funny thing: once during a test day, the office lady was making an announcement telling the kids not to bring any notes etc, especially not to write anything on their shitajiki. Only instead of "make sure to have a clean (mark free) shitajiki" she said "make sure to have (a) clean shitagi".

Which of course, means underwear.



You can ask isobel for details on this, she probably remembers the wording better than I do. But boy did we laugh ;)

4/19/2006 07:15:00 PM  
Blogger Nina said...

It's called a pencil board. I had always seen them in the miscellaneous section of anime stores and such. I had no idea what they were used for. Perhaps a mouse pad? Dunno. They looked cute and pretty much useless.

It wasn't until you described it that I had any idea what they were used for despite the name. I thought for sure the Japanese couldn't stylize a plastic thing to write on until you said it!

4/19/2006 11:09:00 PM  

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