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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Cliches energize conversation in any language


Special to The Japan Times

First of two parts

Movie producer Samuel Goldwyn is credited with the oxymoronic expression, "Let's have some new cliches!" Cliches are, by definition, never new; but I'm sure "you've heard that one before (hatsumimi ja nai, or literally, "not first ear"). You may not like cliches, but they are here to stay.

As you can see, it is no easy task (dekinai sodan) to write an article without using cliches. Take the cliches out of the journalist and what's left? Articles that are one-paragraph long, that's what.

But, believe you me, I am not trying to squeeze the fat out of my reporter friends. "To squeeze the fat," or abura o shiboru, is the Japanese cliche, by the way, for "raking over the coals."

What makes a cliche, then, in any language? Instant recognition of meaning, tone and rhythm. These are words or phrases that have paid their dues, been around the block and back (keiken o tsumu).

Kore wa maji ya de: I kid you not.

Some cliches are so simple as to carry the same or similar lexical meaning and nuance in Japanese and English, even if the grammatical structure slightly differs.

Take the Japanese cliche waratchau wa, which comes from the verb warau (to laugh). In this form it is very close to the English cliche, "Don't make me laugh." This is a good example to illustrate an important difference between the two languages, which have their origin in separate linguistic families.

Even though the syntax of the phrases may not be the same, their tone and feeling can be identical. To us, when a dear departed would be shocked if they knew something, they would be turning over in their grave. In Japan, these restless spirits can't turn around. There's never enough room for such maneuvers, even for the dead. So they simply kusaba no kage de naku, or "cry in the shadow of the [grave's] grassy leaves."

In approaching these bilingual cliches, don't be fooled by the literal meaning of the words. Ask yourself, "What cliche in English best matches the mood of the moment?" If you do, you can't go wrong (mazu machigai nai).

I am not saying this just for the hell of it. If you translated "for the hell of it" literally into Japanese, you'd have the devil's own job being understood. "Just for the hell of it" can be rendered as omoshiro hanbun, which literally means "half in fun." I wasn't born yesterday, and, if you were, you're a very precocious reader. When you lack experience or are wet behind the ears, you are a "blue 2-year-old," or aonisai. But you also could have a yellow beak (kuchibashi ga kiiro) — the avian equivalent of the bovine "greenhorn."

There are a lot of common cliches (common cliches itself is cliched tautology) surrounding the root of all evil. Some people make piles, or in Japanese, mountains of money. This is kane o yama hodo mokeru. They are, in a word, raking it in. Others do what is called kane o tsukai sugiru, or spend money like water. Another common way of saying this in Japanese is taimai o hataku. Taimai is a heap of money; hataku is to squander. Basically, they spend money like there was no tomorrow.

But there are some things that money can't buy, at least, or so I am told. In Japanese, ikura kane o dashitemo kaenai mono, things you cannot buy for (love or) money.

Well, as they say, it takes all kinds. In Japanese you would say, "10 people, 10 colors," or junin toiro. Some people are prim and proper (tsun to sumasu), which borders on the prissy. Others like to let their hair down, to let it all hang out . . . well, maybe not all. The Japanese equivalent of this cliche is very interesting. It is hame o hazusu. If you look up hame in the dictionary, you will see it translated as "predicament, plight." But this phrasal cliche did not originally use hame. It came from hami, which is the bit in the horse's mouth. When you unfastened (hazusu) the bit, the horse could horse around at will, in the main, or, if you will, "mane."

I am only too aware (hyaku mo shochi) that I am treading on thin ice by introducing such corn into the discussion of cliches. Next week, however, I promise to get serious, in writing about Japanese buzzwords and catchphrases.

Whatever, one thing is certain, to coin a phrase: Whoever said "a cliche is a cliche is a cliche " knew what he/she/it was talking about. Without them, we journalists would surely be at a loss for words, or, toho ni kureru.

Perish the thought.

The Bilingual page welcomes readers' comments. Please send an e-mail to bilingual@japantimes.co.jp


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