Another interesting cultural comparison from Kate Elwood's Yomiuri column:
Following the recent Nobel Prize announcements, and heading into autumn with winter looming around the corner, my thoughts have turned to Yukiguni (Snow Country). This stylistically beautiful novel is one of three by Yasunari Kawabata that were cited by the Nobel Committee when he was awarded the prize for literature in 1968. Edward Seidensticker's well-known translation of it begins, "The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country."
It's a lovely opening, and yet as many scholars with an interest in Japanese literature have observed, it differs somewhat from the original text, "Kunizakai no nagai tonneru o nukeru to, yukiguni de atta," which is more like "Coming out of the long border tunnel, it was the snow country."
The linguist Yoshihiko Ikegami notes that the Japanese words suggest an abrupt transformation of an entire view, while the English primarily focuses on one constituent of the scene--a train that is only mentioned in subsequent sentences in the original--undergoing a change of location. Ikegami asserts this difference in mode of expression is not simply an interesting contrast between the two languages, but reflects a fundamental divergence in the way the world is viewed--the English text emphasizing do vs. the Japanese original's become.
Japanese language researcher Yoko Hasegawa and her colleagues set out to investigate the basic premise of whether in fact the English language does make more frequent use of do constructions compared to Japanese. The researchers created a parallel-text corpus of language published in Scientific American articles and their Japanese translations published in Nikkei Science. They found that transitive clauses with inanimate subjects were almost twice as frequent in the English corpus as in the Japanese one. These included sentences such as "The popularity of Wi-Fi also brings problems" or "The alternative possibility...strikes many people as science fiction."
Nevertheless, Hasegawa and her team advocate caution in coming to the conclusion that English speakers are so intent on "doing" that even inanimate objects are seen as conscious agents. The researchers comment wryly, "Anthropomorphism gone wild is exciting; differences in lexical meanings and in subject selection possibilities are boring." Variations in mode of expression may exist; determining their significance is another matter.
And yet, it is possible that such language differences may influence one's perception of events. Cognitive psychologist Caitlin Fausey and her colleagues explored a connection between agentive language use and subsequent recall of the agent involved. Monolingual English speakers and Japanese speakers were shown videos of 16 events. For each event there were two versions, one in which something happened intentionally and one in which the same thing occurred accidentally. For example, a man might take an egg from a carton and intentionally crack it, or he might take the same egg and crack it accidentally. The participants viewed the videos in a random order and after each event they were asked to write down what happened.
Ninety-seven percent of both the English-speaking and Japanese-speaking participants used agentive language to describe intentional actions, for example, "He broke the vase." But in describing accidental actions, 69 percent of the English speakers used agentive language compared to 52 percent of the Japanese speakers, who were more likely than the English speakers to use nonagentive language such as, "The vase broke" instead of something like, "The man accidentally broke the vase."
Fausey and her team then showed the videos to new groups of English and Japanese speakers, who were simply told to pay attention because their memory would be tested afterward. Two Japanese men appeared in the various videos, one wearing a white shirt and the other a black shirt. Afterward, the participants were shown some of the same events again, with a new man featured. The participants were asked to recall who had done the same action previously, the man in black or white. The Japanese speakers and English speakers exhibited similar recall for the intentional events (72 percent and 70 percent correct recall, respectively). However, in regard to the accidental events, the Japanese speakers were somewhat more likely to have forgotten the agent of the action, with 66 percent of them identifying the event actor correctly compared to 73 percent of the English speakers.I've been thinking for a while about that scene at the start of Snow Country, repeating it to myself sometimes in Japanese, sometimes in English. The experience of flipping back and forth between the two versions feels like one of those optical illusions when an image, clearly perceived, slyly recedes and is replaced by another.