Evolving metaphors and contextual understanding of the Japanese language

Ever since we as human kind developed spoken and written language, we have ingrained metaphorical descriptions of the world in our nature, which corresponds to our way of thinking. However, the ways in which these metaphors arise and function in culture depends on what society we belong to. In this aspect, Japan is a country with an exceptionally rich treasury of metaphors due to the fact that it is often a «veiled» language in which the literal content of the message is either tactically omitted, covered or transformed depending on who we are addressing.

Discreet tears and war flowers

Many Japanese metaphors have their roots in poetry, be it from one of the most famous anthologies, Man’yōshū (Jap. 万葉集), which translates as «Ten Thousands Leaves», where a popular metaphor for pain, longing or woe is a kimono sleeve soaked in dew, rain or water or other works, where there are often metaphors of falling cherry blossoms. This symbol of mono no aware (Jap. 物の哀れ) that is transience, fragility, sensitivity to beauty evolved in the modern world and was associated with another metaphor, Kamikaze. Kamikaze (Jap. 神風) initially referred to the storm that saved the Japanese Islands from the Mongol invasion in the 13th century. During the Second World War, however, the Japanese nationalist government, seeking to legitimize its actions, often referred to historical and mythological topics. Due to this, pilots who carried out suicidal attacks borrowed the name. It did not directly express the actions they carried out, but instead proclaimed them a «divine wind» that guarded the Japanese Islands and repulsed their aggressors into the sea, as had been done in the history. The metaphor that they were fleeting as cherry blossoms, meanwhile, referred to the fact that their fate was as short as the flight of a flower which fell from a tree – they were to reign spinning in the sky for only a short while. Language is constantly evolving, indicating that not only the literal context of the message conveyed is often important in translation, but also its deeper, cultural understanding.

Ambiguous fireflies

Another intriguing metaphor that originally derives from poetry which now has a wide range of meanings that need to be adapted to the general sense of the utterance is the light provided by fireflies. Initially, it referred to a romantic, passionate love, but with time it also gained its war connotations (the light of fireflies was supposed to mean the departing souls of the fallen samurai warriors or soldiers) and now it can even mean men who, living in small apartments in large urban agglomerations, have to smoke by the windows or on the balcony (their appearance with a cigarette is supposed to look like an urban version of a firefly’s light from a distance). This metaphor, appearing in the form of the phase Hotaruzoku (Jap. 蛍族), literally means «clan/tribe of fireflies» and challenges the translator to understand its hidden meaning.

School emotions

In addition, the light of fireflies has also been linked to the educational sphere. One of the contemporary metaphors referring to both these animals and their romantic connotation is the expression Hotaru no Hikari (Jap. 蛍の光), which means «the light of fireflies». It is a Japanese song title, but is nowadays more widely understood as ending/farewell/parting due to the fact that it is often used during the end of the school year ceremony. The metaphor Kaisetsu jidai (Jap. 蛍雪時代) has also developed. Its origins are related to the old night learning by the window with the soft light cast by the fireflies. It literally means «the age of snow and fireflies» and nowadays refers to the university years, paying tribute to the past and linking it to the present. But how can you convey the meaning of these metaphors to the recipient?

How to find yourself in the maze of linguistic metaphors without knowing their cultural and historical references? How can a translation agency cope with their proper translation without losing their original beauty, but rather conveying their cultural undertone to a recipient unfamiliar with the culture of a given country? Well, this is a question that most translators probably grapple with. However, they are certainly able to meet the challenge posed to them.

(translation A.M.)

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