Sunday, August 28, 2011

Rhythm and Sound

I remember having an argument with my dad about whether English or Japanese was the more expressive language. In defense of Japanese, my dad brought up (of course) the famous poem by Bashō:

古池や蛙飛び込む水の音 Furuike ya / kawazu tobikomu / mizu no oto

which literally in English translates as:
An old pond / a frog jumps in / the sound of water

Yeah. Not too interesting. What makes it a classic in Japanese is probably the yoin 余韻 or "afterglow" of the words ― what the words makes you think of, the imagery and emotions attached to the words as you read them. Then my dad went on to say how Japanese has 20 different words for the colour blue, whatever.

When I first started translating, I figured I'd be frustrated at the lack of English words that can match and describe things as well as Japanese. But on the contrary, I feel like I've rediscovered the beauty of the English language. And part of it, I think, lies in what Japanese doesn't have (or that I don't find jumps out much) ― rhythm and sound. Rhythm is obvious in haiku, tanka and such, but I don't find it too evident/important in prose, and though Japanese is infamous for its onomatopoeia, I don't find it places much importance on the sound of regular words as much as English does in terms of flow.

These are instances that make me stop and stare off into space in the middle of translating. "What verb best suits this action?" I try to find words that bring the action to mind both in terms of appearance and sound. "When you say the word out loud, does it sound like the action it's describing?" That's always my ideal goal, but oftentimes it takes me a while to find a word that fits perfectly.

I'm especially particular about "speaking words" in this aspect. I don't know if people have noticed, but it might be interesting to try it out. If you say the speaking word out loud and check the expression on your face when you say it (particularly the shape of the mouth), that's how I imagined the character to look when they say their line.

For example, saying the word "screech." Your lips would draw to the sides of your face, and your teeth would probably show, right? That would be how the character looks when they say their line. That's usually the criteria I use to differentiate between similar words like "shout" and "yell". Is the character "shout"ing ― with their mouth open wide in an "O" shape? Or are they "yell"ing, with mouth slightly less wide open, and their lips drawn a bit to the sides? Same for "whisper" and "murmur" ― I get the impression that "murmur" is a little more high-volume compared to "whisper" (and the 'ssss' sound in 'whisper' gives it that breathy aspect too I think).

This is just from my own experience reading books, but I find the image of the character comes to mind so much easier when sound and meaning are synchronized like that. It's not a prominent feature I find in Japanese prose, and it's something that makes English sparkle, I think.

As for rhythm, I love the fact that there's so much punctuation to choose from. Things like "..." "―" and ";" all seem to have different 'pause qualities' (for me at least) and picking and choosing which one to use based on their subtle nuance differences is really fun for me. I probably sound like a punctuation-o-phile, lol.