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Daikon is Daikon: A Growing Philosophy of Translation

Lovely daikon, a lovely winter root vegetable.

As we are in the throes of moving, I'm running some oldies but goodies. This post first appeared at Intralingo, a website dedicated to all things translation and run by the fantastic Lisa Carter, in 2011. I also met Lisa via the Blogathon, and I'm so glad I did. She's an amazing writer not to mention a terrific person. It was her encouragement that got me to put down in words some of the thoughts I'd had about language, translation and food. Enjoy!

Japanese people often ask me how to say daikon – usually appearing as a large white torpedo-shaped radish – in English, and my answer is simply 'daikon'. Really, there is no other name for one of the most unique and ubiquitous Japanese vegetables present in dishes throughout the year in myriad forms. Grated with soba noodles, thinly sliced for tsukemono (Japanese pickles), or cut into thick pieces for nabe or oden, the plant is savored from seedling to maturity. While not the most nutritious of vegetables, the daikon's versatility over the centuries has made it an indispensable part of Japanese cuisine. Just as a croissant is not a crescent roll, daikon is not just a big radish. It is daikon.

One of my challenges as a writer living in Japan is to translate Japanese words and names for things into English. The longer I live here the more difficult it it becomes to see the English words or to find a good translation. The Japanese word sounds so perfect to me now that I see no point in finding a substitute that can only conveys a shade of the concept, the flower, the dish, the vegetable or fruit. Yet, part of that challenge is to convey to my readers what this foreign term symbolizes. My desire is to share what I see and discover, and make this new and sometimes strange object or idea accessible and approachable. And as a writer with a slowly growing proficiency in the Japanese language, all I have at my disposal to do so is my intimate knowledge of a set of letters sitting at the opposite end of the language spectrum: English.

Sharing the Japanese word for something then becomes pivotal to my work even if the item has a well-known English counterpart. Language, like food, is a means to explore culture and place at a deeper level. Persimmons, for example, are soon to be in season. They signal autumn's gold and blue days, cooler temperatures, along with the planting of daikon and komatsuna and other winter crops. Hung in great strings to dry under eaves and sweeten into hoshigaki(dried persimmon) is a centuries old tradition that creates a sweet to be savored all winter long. As these images, feelings, and flavors move through my mind 'persimmon' becomes a clunky word that fails to offer even a glimpse of the warm orange glow of this hard fruit's skin. The Japanese word – kaki (pronounced ka-key) – though, conveys all of those things and more.

Another hurdle then is to convey the correct pronunciation. Romanji, an English version of Japanese developed to assist speakers of other languages unable to read the other alphabets, is a great help, but runs with its own set of rules. For example, 'ki' is always pronounced 'key', and 're' is always pronounced 'ray'. Put an 'n' sound on the end as in 'ramen' and the sound changes slightly. Place an 'u' after one of the syllabaries (Japanese 'letters' stand for paired consonant and vowel sounds), and the vowel sound becomes slightly longer. A word such as riyoushi (ree-oh-shi) meaning fisherman without the 'u' becomes riyoshi (ree-o-shi) meaning barber.

It is this 'alphabet' I use when writing the names of things on my blog or in articles, but I still often find myself listing a pronunciation guide of my own making (as I did above) to help readers. It could be argued that sound is irrelevant to a reader, but I see it as key to communication and understanding. If my reader heads to a farmer's market in Tokyo or Osaka or even an Asian grocery in search of a particular food item but can't pronounce it, then I've, in part, defeated my own purpose. Immigrants may well know the common English term, but it is the word in their own language that rings true. Its use can, if even for a moment, establish a positive connection between two strangers. It will, perhaps again only for just a moment, ground them both in that other place and culture.

The practice of renaming is nothing new. Istanbul was once Constantinople, and Ellis Island's immigration officials changed surnames in an instant in order to make them more understandable and accessible for citizens of the new country. While the new name or word may be more convenient or helpful (other immigrants changed their names in an effort to assimilate to their new land), something is lost in the translation. Wasabina, aleafy green with the bite of wasabi (a sort of Japanese horseradish), is often called Japanese mustard greens. An accurate description, but the new name conveys little of the taste of its homeland. Similarly, the Japanese name for the uniquely flavored umeboshi (pronounced oo-may-bo-shee) or pickled plum, somehow captures a hint of the salty tartness of one of Japan's more unique food items.

Words magically convey us to new places for new experiences and new vantage points. Asking a reader to grapple with a foreign word while sharing a recipe, idea or experience places them next to me in the field or at the market stall. While my work doesn't share great works of literature, I do try to show readers traditions and ways that while different in material or habit are similar in sentiment. Sharing the fruits of the season, cooking together, or preserving the harvest are very human activities. Broadening horizons via the plate, glass, or seed is perhaps one of my goals and developing an effective means of translation is integral to that.


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