Language facts: Japanese

Dec 19, 2014

Federico Fellini said, that a different language was a different vision to life. While we cover over 70 languages at idioma, we can only agree with that statement. Each language has its history, specifics and flavors and we're here to inform you about it regularly in the Language facts.

Did you know Japanese uses four "alphabets"?

Japanese (Nihongo in Japanese) is spoken by around 127 million people in Japan, plus a couple of million people outside of Japan. It is of course the official language of Japan, but it is even an official language of Angaur (island nation of Palau). Japanese is not directly related to any other language even though it does share a lot of characters with Chinese. It uses four writing systems: kanji, hiragana, katakana and romaji. Hiragana is syllabic and is used for simple words, conjugations, particles and children's literature. Katakana is used to write foreign words. Kanji is based on the Chinese writing system and has about 2000 basic signs, but there are thousands more. Romaji is a Romanization of Japanese words, basically relying on the letters in the Roman, or Latin, alphabet, used e.g. for company names, logotypes and text entry of Japanese text into computers.

Japanese translation specifics

Japanese has borrowed many words from the Indo-European languages, primarily English, and even made up terms that a native English speaker would never understand, especially in the line of business we are in: Technical Translation. The Japanese term for such "borrowed" words, especially from english, is Gairaigo (外来語).

Would you ever guess that ハフコン [hafukon] is a reference to 'half-concealed' wipers", while リモコン [rimokon] means 'remote control'? Or that ペンション (pension) should actually be translated as a 'a guest house'? Because Katakana can be very ambiguous, sometimes it is hard to determine how to translate a given term. "Hose" and "Hawse" for example are both written as ホース in Japanese.

There are many, many more where translators have been pulling their hairs for days, even weeks. Combining this with other peculiarities of the Japanese language – such as where the subject in sentences is often omitted – makes translating Japanese text into other languages a true undertaking.

Japanese alphabet:

Hiragana (ひらがな)

あいうえおかきくけこさしすせそたちつてとなにぬねのはひふへほまみむめもやゆよらりるれろわをん がぎぐげござじずぜぞだぢづでどばびぶべぼぱぴぷぺぽぁぃぅぇぉっゃゅょ、。

Katakana (カタカナ)

アイウエオカキクケコサシスセソタチツテトナニヌネノハヒフヘホマミムメモヤユヨラリルレロワヲン ガギグゲゴザジズゼゾダヂヅデドバビブベボパピプペポァィゥェォッャュョー

Kanji examples

自動, 計算, 費用, 納期, 即時, 提示, 天気, 管理, 健康, 旅行, 料理, 鍋

Romaji examples

We love Japanese!

Celebrating Lucia in Sweden

Dec 11, 2014

Tomorrow in Sweden we celebrate Lucia. Together with advent, this is a popular celebration and the harbinger of yuletide and the Christmas holidays. Held every year on December 13th, Lucia celebrations start early in the morning, very early for some, and continues throughout the day until late evening.

Traditional Swedish Lussekatter

Girls with cookies and crown of lights

If you visit Sweden on this very date, you are bound to witness Lucia processions throughout the day. Each procession is led by a young girl with a crown of lights; they used to be candles, but for practical reasons electric ones are more popular. The procession then includes Lucia girls and boy attendants. Their number vary but each one carries a candle or light in their hands. The name Lucia originates from the Latin lux or lucis and means “the light one”. They are the bearers of light, and this is possibly one reason why Lucia is so popular – in deep winter daylight is scarce, in the north of Sweden people have daylight for only around four hours every day, sometimes less.

The Lucia girls and boys are dressed in white and sing Christmas songs for everyone watching, including the Santa Lucia, which originates from Italy. They also bring Lussekatter ("Lucia buns" often made with saffron) and other traditional cookies with them for everyone to enjoy.

Lucia everywhere

At home, those with children will often have a mini procession in the morning to wake up dad and others. In schools, there are usually processions with volunteer pupils, and most companies, eldercare centers, hospitals and other public facilities arrange Lucia processions to put everyone in a festive mood. Some processions turn into concerts in churches and other public venues.

At idioma in Gothenburg, there is also an annual Lucia procession, however, this year because Lucia is on a Saturday, the procession was instead held on December 10, and the people there are now in a festive Christmas let's better get back to our translation and localization business :)

Sad singles in Japan and fishes in Czech bath tubs

Dec 2, 2014

As a multinational company, we encounter with many different winter traditions as well as multicultural approaches to Christmas. While our Prague office went off the chain this year and has been decorated in a very festive Christmasy way since the beginning of Advent, our colleagues in Tokyo are preparing for the Japanese New Years celebrations instead, having a white cake and the traditional KFC bucket for Christmas dinner... Wait - what??

KFC, illumination and Mariah Carey

Traditional Japanese Christmas cake
(source: Dollar Photo Club)

Since the 1970s, it has been a tradition for Japanese people to indulge in KFC during Christmas, no matter how surprising and weird it may sound to Europeans or Americans. Foreigners back in those day couldn't get their Christmas roast chicken so they went to KFC. The chain saw this as a good marketing opportunity and indeed, eating a fried-chicken-bucket has been a traditional thing since then in Japan. In fact, the Japanese version of Christmas seems a bit like a concentrate of all the western glitz and glamor multiplied by 10 :) You hear Mariah Carey everywhere and of course Wham!'s Last Christmas is an eternal hit. On Tatsuro Yamashita – Christmas Eve – the majority of Japanese people annually buy and eat a cake with fruit and icing. Also illumination is a big thing during Christmas in Japan.

Interestingly, Christmas is a season for couples in Japan, not families as in Europe or the States. Couples get together during Christmas, exchange presents and eat at expensive restaurants. It's not a good time for being single on Christmas in Japan – many singles feel sad because couples are together virtually everywhere (this yearly pleasure of single people is reserved for Valentine's day on the other side of the world). There are even social gatherings for single people looking for a partner during the Christmas season. On the other hand, New Years is the time for family gatherings in Japan.

Fishes in bath tubs, lead pouring and angels everywhere

idioma Prague office - 
Christmas decoration making

On the other side of the globe in Prague, central Europe, the Christmas radio set list matches with Japan, however that's pretty much the end of resemblance. Czech Christmas traditions are tightly bound to religion and Christian customs, however due to cultural impact after the fall of communism several before unknown elements have been adopted. The decoration of the idioma Prague office is self-evident in this regard with a Christmas tree decorated with straw adornments and angels, the Advent wrath, pine branches with hanging chocolates and Christmas socks, local special Christmas incense sticks called "Frantisek", bells over the front door and pieces of cinnamon all around the place.

In the Czech republic, Christmas is a purely family event. It is literally the one time of the year when all members of the family should gather for a common Christmas dinner, exchange gifts, settle conflicts and enjoy each others' presence. Because of this, Christmas is also the busiest time of the year in the majority of Czech kitchens.

Christmas pastry as well as traditional Christmas dishes are rather complicated and usually prepared several weeks in advance. Traditional Czech Christmas Eve dinner usually consists of a cabbage soup, potato salad and baked or fried fish (carp being the prime choice). Interestingly, it is still a preference and also strong-lived custom in Czech families to buy the fish alive and keep it in the bath tub until the feast comes. The kids love it. Poor fish. At the right moment, the fish is ritually killed (usually by the head of the family – the father, although a lot of fathers opt for the less brutal alternative and go out and buy ready-to-eat fish filets or even fish fingers).

Poor Czech Christmas carp
(source: Dollar Photo Club)

Another remarkable Czech custom, and also fathers' responsibility, is the lead pouring. The head of the family pours liquid lead into cold water to create a solid shape to recognize. The imagination is very important here, as it is said that the lead shape predicts the family future. We decided better not to risk this tradition inside our office :)

So that's how winter and Christmas work in Japan and Czech Republic. For fascinating winter tradition in Sweden, wait for our next blog. Until then, you can admire these delicious Czech Christmas sweets!