February 07, 2013

Language subtleties

Japanese has opportunities for tremendous subtleties. I just ran into one in Fairy Tail, ep 69. Spoilers below the fold.

Gemini, Aries, and Scorpio have come to Lucy to ask her to accept her keys. I think it's tremendously significant that she has the kind of reputation in the spirit world that spirits want to work for her, as opposed to someone like Karen, who the spirits hated and feared.

Anyway, Lucy says something to the effect of "Three new companions from the zodiac?" and what she uses in there is "san-nin". Aries repeats "San-nin?" astounded. Scorpio says, "Don't you use San-tai?" more or less.

-nin is the counter word for people (with some exceptions). So Lucy is implying that she thinks of her summons as people, as fellows, companions, friends. -tai is used for things that are human-shaped but not human: images, dolls, statues, and corpses. That, apparently, is how Scorpio is used to being thought of by his masters.

And Lucy then explains that she can't think of them that way. She cares too much about them.

Gemini already knew that, and certainly it was Gemini who convinced the other two to come to Lucy. But I thought that use of the different counter words was a nicely subtle thing. Since English doesn't have such a wide variety of counter words, we couldn't do that.

It also represents quite a challenge for translators, who have to depart rather radically from a literal translation in order to get the substance across.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste in Japanese at 08:21 PM | No Comments | Add Comment
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