Saturday, September 25, 2010

Language: Japanese Cursing vs. English Cursing

How do you cuss in Japanese? This is one of the questions I sometimes get asked when people find out I can speak (some) Japanese and lived in Japan, but it's not a straightforward situation. (Please skip this post if you're at work or prefer your posts PG-rated.)

With English, cursing is pretty simple. You have certain words that can't ever be used in polite conversation, even if they're directed at life in general and not the person you're talking to.

Japanese isn't that simple, so if you're reading this looking for a laundry list of words that correspond to the English versions, you're SOL. (Sorry, I couldn't resist. ;) ) There are several that are like English curse words in that they are inherently rude enough they're bleeped on TV (I'll leave you to find those for yourself), but compared to English most are more fluid in their meaning.

In Japanese, sometimes a single word can be translated multiple ways into English. "Sugoi" is one of them (and not a curse word!): it can mean "great/awesome/wonderful/amazing/etc.". That's how you have to look at most Japanese curse words and cursing. One word can slide up or down on the "offend-o-meter" depending on how it's used.

"Kuso" (K'soh) is one of them. If you drop your wallet and everything falls out, you might mutter "kuso" to yourself. Here it would be roughly the same as "Damn."

 If you slap it in front of another word, it can become stronger. "Kuso-gaki" ("Gaki" here means boy or child), if you're shouting it at someone, it could in truth be fairly translated as "little bastard", "little shit", or even "fucking brat" if enough anger were behind it (though many anime translators will tone it down to, I imagine, maintain lower ratings?). If you were muttering it to yourself, it'd be closer to "stupid brat" or "damned kid".

Speaking casually when the situation requires you to be more formal is disrespectful enough to count in feeling as cursing as well. There are more levels of speech in Japanese than English, so shifting down a level or more when you're not supposed to shows definite disrespect. It's sort of like if you met the Pope and greeted him with "How's it hanging, Papi?", but several times worse.

This is a problem Japanese-to-English translators can run into when trying to accurately convey meaning in movies, books and anime. The character may literally be saying, for example, "I won't do that," but depending on the level of speech they use the feeling might be more like "The hell I'm doing that!" or "There's no fucking way I'm doing that." Which one do you go with, or do you try to strike a balance?

Anyway, the more you learn, the more you can pick up on these nuances when listening to subbed programs and the more you can enjoy the feel of what's going on.

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