Tellus: (tel’us), n. 1. [Latin] earth, soil, and the land; a country; the world. 2. a collection of Willamette University student’s insights, stories, photos and thoughts from their experiences studying abroad.

RSS Feed for This PostCurrent Article

Lost by translation

When I went to Japan for the fall semester of 2016, I had the time of my life. My host family in particular were some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. I got to stay in a house that was built over a hundred years ago. I did however, have a particularly awkward incident the first day I met them. Now before I get into exactly what happened, I have to preface that Japanese is a complicated language, and it doesn’t use pronouns the same way we do. In most cases, where in English we would use the words you, him, or her, in Japanese it is considered more polite to use the name of the person you are talking about or to instead. However, this can’t be applied to situations where you want to be polite but don’t know somebody’s name, like I did when I first arrived at my host family’s house. I had been studying Japanese for about five and a half years at that point, but I still wasn’t exactly sure what to call them in exactly that situation. I was mulling it over in my head, when I remembered a word that I had heard from somewhere that seemed to fit the bill- “Onushi.” Most of the other options I knew either felt too informal or downright insulting, so it seemed like my best shot. I was wrong. The moment I said it, my host family looked at me strangely for a moment, unable to fully process what they had just heard. Then it led to giggling. Then it led to full on hysterics. I was also pretty much completely unable to gauge what this response meant until they explained it. As it turns out, I did remember where I had heard the word used. Prior to coming I had been working on translating a samurai manga that took place around 1410. Onushi is a word that would typically be used only between samurai, or between a samurai and a lord. Essentially, I had arrived at my host family’s house and immediately called them “milord” and “milady.” This would have been embarrassing enough had I not done essentially the same thing a month later. I was eating dinner with my family, and asked one of them to pass me the water. I apparently asked for the water like a samurai. I didn’t even know that was possible.

The moral of the story is, if you’re going to learn Japanese through manga, learn what year it is first.

Trackback URL

Sorry, comments for this entry are closed at this time.