Translating Obama into Japanese
Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, October 14, 2009
SOME LINGUISTS claim that Japanese rivals English and German in its amenability for incorporating outside influences. Indeed, the Japanese might well surpass native speakers of the other two languages in their ability to borrow words and chop and channel them for their own purposes.
And now comes word that the first faint signs are beginning to appear of Japanese young people importing another word into the language—this one based on the name of the President of the United States.
A contributor to a mailing list for Japanese-English translation that I read reports that the verb obamu is gaining currency on the Kyoto University campus. He writes, “It means something along the lines of, ‘to ignore anything which appears to make you likely to fail or (be) wrong, and blindly surge ahead (preferably chanting, “yes we can, yes we can”)’.” He adds that he heard a friend jokingly try to cheer someone up by saying, “obandoke, omae.” (オバんどけ、お前.)
If I had to translate that on the fly, it would come out something like, “Lighten up and think positive, guy!”
A quick look at the Japanese-language turf on the Internet turns up few examples, but one in particular is meaningful. I found it as an entry dated 22 September in a collection of slang and modern usage put together by the Japanese Teachers’ Network in Kitakyushu. Here’s what they write:
obamu: (v.) To ignore inexpedient and inconvenient facts or realities, think “Yes we can, Yes we can,” and proceed with optimism using those facts as an inspiration (literally, as fuel). It is used to elicit success in a personal endeavor. One explanation holds that it is the opposite of kobamu. (拒む, which means to refuse, reject, or oppose).
They give the following example:
Or, “Hey, why are you so down in the dumps? Cheer up, cheer up!”
That people cite its use in cities as far apart as Kyoto and Kitakyushu suggests some fire might be under those wisps of smoke.
One more Japanese-language citation is from a Twitter tweet, which defines it simply as believing you can accomplish something.
Those familiar with the language will understand immediately that such a coinage would sound very natural, and that it is typical of Japanese creativity and their sense of humor.
I asked my wife, the television-watcher in the family, if she had heard anything about it, but it was news to her.
It remains to be seen whether this word is capable of hitoriaruki (literally, walking alone, or becoming independently viable), and whether the tweety Pollyanna definition or the more pointed Kitakyushu definition become the standard.
But considering the nature of the Internet and the Japanese love of wordplay and new coinages, it shouldn’t be long before we find out.