Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Translation

Do not forgive translators, for they know what they do.

About fifteen years ago, when I was an otaku, I remember watching an episode of Maison Ikkoku, a romantic-comedy sort of anime. In this particular episode one of the characters, a charismatic, macho tennis coach, offers to take everyone to the beach in his car. However, it turns out he can't drive because they want to take a dog along and he has a paralyzing fear of dogs. Instead the lead female character (and owner of the dog) drives. At the time two things about this episode struck me as indicitave of the mysoginistic nature of Japanese society.

One was that people were startled the female character had a driver's license. Maybe that point was a little indicative of sexism, but not as much as I thought. It turns out that firstly, you can get by fine in Japan without a driver's license. Public transit is actually useful, (unlike in my home town) and Japanese cities are often arranged so that it doesn't require a long drive to get to, say, a supermarket. Most things you need will be withing walking or cycling distance.

Secondly, getting a driver's license in Japan is an insanely expensive and drawn out ordeal.

These two factors combine to make it actually pretty common, even today, for an adult not to have a driver's license. (For some reason it didn't register as so significant that the other main male character in Maison Ikkoku, a university student, didn't have a driver's licence, which would be quite unusual in North America.)

The second sexist point that struck in my mind was when a young boy exclaims admiringly that the female lead "drove like a man." Again, this is indicative of a bit of sexism, but not in the way I thought. The problem is translation. Probably what the boy said was "otoko mitai unten shita", which, sure enough, translates roughly as "drove like a man." However, in Japanese driving "like a man" doesn't imply driving 'correctly' the way it does in English, instead it means driving aggressively, possibly even recklessly.

(Somebody with better Japanese than me will no doubt turn up momentarily to point out that I am completely, utterly wrong.)

There is still sexism in that women are expected to be polite and cautious while men are expected to be aggressive and reckless, but I do wonder if perhaps English is the language showing sexist tendencies here, with the positive implications of a phrase like "like a man". Or perhaps it is me showing my sexism by thinking that the phrase carries a positive implication at all.

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