When too much language is not enough

One of my best friends from college is now working as a pharmacist in Florida (a hell of a job to end up with after so much time in school). She’s Japanese. When I met her, she didn’t speak much English at all; now that she has a difficult graduate degree under her belt, she knows a bit too much. She recently told me about one situation where she politely asked a patient about the “efficacy” of his medication. The patient had no clue what she was talking about. After a minute of miscommunication, someone else behind the counter suggested that she say “Does it work?” instead.

The story reminded me of one experience I had in high school in Osaka. I had an earache one day, and went to the local ENT clinic to have it checked. The doctor, a wizened-looking old lady, peered inside and told me, in English, “You have timpanitis.” “Timpanitis?” I asked. That certainly wasn’t in my vocabulary at the time. She repeated the word a few times until I eventually figured out it must be a fancy way to say “ear infection.”

There were many occasions when someone would ask me about a certain phrase in English, and I wanted to explain that the phrase was a metaphor for something else. In most dictionaries, the Japanese gloss of “metaphor” is in’yu. While I memorized that word, I never met a single Japanese person who understood what it meant, even when I wrote it out; after a few failed attempts to communicate, someone suggested that I use chokuyu (“figure of speech”) instead. That one actually works.

Anyway, knowing too much of a language can often have the same effect as knowing not enough. I suppose the moral, especially for those of us working in wordy fields like law and medicine, is to keep things as simplified as possible. Imagine how much easier things would be if we all followed that rule…

Afterthought: “Metaphors in law are to be narrowly watched, for starting as devices to liberate thought, they end often by enslaving it.” – Benjamin Cardozo, former Supreme Court justice (apparently lacking a sense of irony…)

7 thoughts on “When too much language is not enough”

  1. Hmm, that is kind of interesting, because technically 直喩 refers definitely to a simile, not a metaphor. Basically “direct symbol/comparison,” (you know, similes are the ones where you directly use “like” or “as” in English) whereas 陰喩 is umm, “hidden comparison” (since you don’t have the “like” or “as” in English) and thus more technically metaphor. 比喩 (ひゆ, umm “comparison comparison”) includes both similes and metaphors as well as other symbols and figures of speech. How does that one work if you try it? You could try to get more formal with “figurative expression,” 比喩的表現.

    Have you tried just メタファー, incidentally?

    I wonder how using some of these compares to if you use “synecdoche” or “merismus” in English.

  2. To express it another way, it seems like a large part of the problem is that 陰喩 is a translation of what some people consider the precise defintion of “metaphor” in English– a comparison that definitely doesn’t use “like” or “as,” that’s indirect and doesn’t make the fact that you’re using a figure of speech explicit. That’s apparently too technical a distinction for everyday usage in Japanese, and hence too precise, just like distinguishing “synecdoche” and “merismus” from the general category of “metaphor” is too much precision for most English speakers.

  3. All excellent points. The bottom line seems to be that usage in any language is going to be most effective when it follows the prevalent patterns. That’s a bit of a “duh” conclusion but it’s still important to keep in mind when we go off on our quests for linguistic perfection.

    I will try “hiyu” next time and see if it registers. Unfortunately, I don’t do much literary explanation in Japanese these days, so it might take a while to get there…

  4. The easiest way for me to explain tricky English phrases, when asked, is to call them ‘idiomu’. Almost all Japanese people (at least those who maintain a passing familiarity with English, ie the type of person someone like you or I is most likely to have an encounter with) recognize this word. It served me very well teaching Eikaiwa to Japanese businessmen. Another way might be “nihongo niwa nai iikata/hyogen”.

    I would venture to say that the above-mentioned phrases tend to be used only in a very technical context (perhaps when talking about lit, poetry, or rhetoric) placing them out of the everyday vocabulary of your average, intellectually incurious Japanese person.

    Just a thought. Back to packing up my life!

  5. Oh oh! “Nihongo niwa nai IIMAWASHI” works too.. The way I see it, native Japanese words make much more sense to the average Japanese than most Chinese-derived ones, at least as a general rule.

  6. The way I see it, native Japanese words make much more sense to the average Japanese than most Chinese-derived ones, at least as a general rule.

    Yeah, I completely agree. It’s just like using Anglo-Saxon words instead of Latinate and Greek-derived words in English. I think the analogy’s pretty strong. “Work” is Anglo-Saxon, good native Engish. “Efficacy” comes from Latin efficācia, itself from Latin efficāx.

  7. I agree with both of you; native words are generally better.

    And I also agree with the comparison. Whenever I’m trying to explain the role of Chinese in Japanese, I almost always compare it to the role of Latin and Greek in English. It’s an almost perfect analogy.

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