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Linguistics and SFF: Stormdancer and the Japanese Language

This is the first post in my series on Linguistics and SFF.

Jay Kristoff’s Stormdancer was released in September of 2012, and was heralded as a brilliant steampunk novel set in an alternate Japan.  There are a few facts I want to establish before I begin this analysis:

1. The book is not steampunk.  It is in fact much closer to the genre of dieselpunk, where the power of “chi” substitutes for gasoline.  I’m not just nit-picking at genre.  This directly affects some of the conclusions that can be drawn about the language used in the book.

2.  I will be talking a bit more about culture in this book because one of the major focuses of this article will be linguistic appropriation, a sort of sub-concept of cultural appropriation.

So, we begin.

Kristoff makes use of the Japanese language in this novel.  I wish to establish right now that this is clearly intended to be “real” Japanese, and not some sort of pseudo-Japanese, as many people have claimed.  He used Japanese words and grammar, albeit often incorrectly, and I have zero interest in debating over this.  Many of the previous reviews and analyses of the book have had strong debates about this in the comments, and I am not interested in getting involved in anything like that.

Now, because Kristoff makes use of primarily single words of Japanese used in English sentences with English grammar, I will be primarily focusing on the use of single Japanese lexemes and morphemes.

1. A lexeme is generally equivalent to a complete word, but actually includes all forms of that word.  “Run” is a lexeme.  “Ran” is part of that lexeme, as are all the conjugated forms of the “run”.

2. A morpheme is a unit of meaning, and does not have to be a complete word.  Morphemes are generally affixes, such as the suffix “-ly” used to create an adverb.  Many English words with Greek roots are made up of morphemes.  “Geology” is a word made up of two morphemes: “geo-“, meaning “earth”, and “-ology” meaning “the study or science of”.

Now, we can look at some examples of the mis-use of Japanese words by Kristoff in his novel.

1. “hai” is a japanese word that is often considered to mean “yes”.  In reality, the meaning is more complex.  It can be used as a form of assent, as in, “Yes, I will go to the store with you.” or the common anime scene of calling roll, where a name will be called, and a student will reply “Hai!” meaning that yes, they are present.  It also has a connotation of understanding, or of acceptance of a command.

Kristoff’s error is in viewing the word as a complete equivalent of the English word “yes”.

In English, the word “yes” has many of the functions of “hai”, but can also be used as a tag.  A “tag question” is a form of question where a declarative statement such as “It’s hot in here.” is converted to a question by the use of a tag: “It’s hot in here, isn’t it?”  “It’s hot in here, yes?”  The idea is generally to encourage the other person to agree with the sentiment expressed in the declarative portion of the sentence.

In Japanese, however, “hai” is never used as a question tag.  The most common question tag in Japanese is the particle “ne”.  “Atsui, ne?”  Which translates to something like “It’s hot in here, don’t you agree?”  Kristoff seems to either not know, or to ignore the fact that “hai” is not just the Japanese word for “yes”, and so often puts “hai” at the end of a sentence to create a tag question.

2.  Our next example is the use of the Japanese honorific “-sama”.  Do you see that dash before the “s”?  That indicates a bound morpheme, in this case a suffix.  A bound morpheme is a morpheme that requires another morpheme to be added to create meaning.  You would never see an English speaker say “Till the geo.”, even though “geo” is often translated as “earth”.

In order to make use of the honorific “-sama”, it must be added to a name or title, and has a connotation of respect.  When talking to your lord in historical Japan, you would add this suffix.  So, if your lord’s name was “Yamada”, then you would call him “Yamada-sama”.  (Strictly speaking, the choice of honorific in historical Japan was slightly more complicated, but all honorifics would follow the pattern described.)

Kristoff makes the error of using “-sama” as a free morpheme.  A free morpheme is a morpheme that can exist on its own without being attached to any other morpheme.  “Hai”, for example, is a free morpheme.

A sentence in Kristoff’s book that makes this mistake is “Thank you, sama.”  Here Kristoff attempts to use “sama” as a free-standing word for “lord”.  The issue of bound morphemes aside, that is simply an incorrect translation all by itself.  “-sama” does not mean “lord” or “sir”.  The meaning is much less specific.  Another phrase often seen in the book is “young sama”, apparently intended to mean “young lord” or “young lady”.  There are in fact words for this in Japanese, although they are generally used by a retainer towards his own lord.  An example is “waka-dono”.  “-Dono” is another honorific, and throughout history, it has been equivalent to, greater than, or lesser than “-sama” in terms of respect.  “Waka” is a Japanese word meaning “young”.  So “waka-dono” would in fact be a more accurate translating than Kristoff’s “young sama”.

These are the two most obvious, and most often cited examples of misuse of Japanese in Kristoff’s books.  There are others, however.  For example, he trans lates “arashitora” as thunder tiger.  Strictly speaking “arashi” means “storm” in Japanese, as he acknowledges in another construction, “arashi no ko”, translated by Kristoff as “storm girl”.

Another odd usage by Kristoff is a common referent to the Shogun used by the characters: “Yoritomo-nomiya”.  “Nomiya”, actually “no miya” is way of referring to something connected to the Emperor in Japanese.  For example, palace compound, such as Katsura-no-miya in Kyoto.  Over time, it began to be used as a way to designate princes or princesses.  However, the Shogun is not technically Japanese royalty.  He is a military ruler, not the Emperor.  So it would be technically incorrect to use this form of address.

Other oddities include the name of the pseudo-Japan created by Kristoff.  “Shima” is literally translated as “Island” in Japanese.  There are similar uses of Japanese words as names in this manner, such as “Yama city”.  “Yama” means mountain in Japanese, and it is odd to see the bare word used as a name like that.  The same is true for the “clan names” in the book: “tora”, “kitsune”, etc.  None of these are real family or clan names, and it would seem odd if they were used as such.  In fact, all of the clan names in the book share this odd trait.

Another inaccuracy is the use of “aiya” by the characters as an expression of exasperation by the characters.  Although there is a lot of intermingling between Japanese and Chinese culture, really Japanese people do not use this Chinese expression.

Now, the reason I made the distinction between steampunk and dieselpunk is because some words are correct Japanese, but belong to specific historical periods.

“Zaibutsu” is a Japanese term for a corporation.  THe clans are often referred to by this term in the book, which is inaccurate, and depending on when this story is supposed to take place,  didn’t even exist.  The word is from the 1930s.  Similarly for the term “salariman”, which is a Japanese borrowing from the early 20th century.

And slightly more controversial, the use of Bushido, or “the way of the warrior” in the book.  While popularly believed to be the code of the samurai in the west, and used in the east, it is a relatively modern term popularized and likely created by a Japanese man writing in English at the end of the 19th century.  Looking at primary sources from the time, there was no such universal code of behavior, although Kristoff can be forgiven for using it in light of its commonality in pop culture.

There are also many cultural inaccuracies in the novel, but if I discuss them, it will be in another post.

Because there is so much to look at here, I will be writing a follow-up post to discuss some of the less clear-cut problems with the book.  There were many artifacts of the translation convention of SFF novels in the book, where the author seems to forget that these characters are really speaking Japanese as opposed to English, and I will go into some of them in-depth in the next post.

If anyone has any disagreements with my analysis, or feels there are some inaccuracies in this post, feel free to mention it in the comments.

Next time on Linguistics and SFF: Stormdancer and the Translation Convention

 
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Posted by on July 13, 2013 in Cultural Appropriation, Linguistics

 

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Epistolary Novels and What’s Up with this Blog?!

I haven’t been posting to the Chimney much, recently.  Partly, I haven’t found any topics I found myself passionate enough and knowledgeable enough about to post on.  Partly I’ve just been busy with other things than literature, and I haven’t had the chance to read much lately.

But!  While I still don’t have much time for reading and really thinking about the state of literature, I am going to be posting here more often and more regularly.

What do I mean by that?

Well, literature posts will still be few and far between, but I am going to be posting excerpts from a work in progress for your delectation or frothing ridicule.  Normally, I don’t think it’s a good idea to post work publicly online that one hopes to someday maybe get published.  However, events have conspired to throw me in a new direction in my writing, and that direction meshes wonderfully with the blog format.

I’m talking about epistolary novels, people: my favorite new non-standard format for stories.  I think they are awesome and that we should have more of them.  So I’m going to write one (or a few), and share them with the whole internet in a serial format.  There’s going to be smoke coming out of this chimney again, and hopefully a roaring blaze of a novel to generate it for me.

Once a week–or more often if I feel like it, I am going to post a letter(chapter) from my current WIP, most brilliantly and creatively entitled: “Love Letters”.  It’s a secondary-world,  pseudo-historical, steampunk coming-of-age/YA novel with a complicated political backdrop written entirely as an exchange of letters between two male cousins of no great importance, separated by a war and an imperialist occupation, and containing no particular focus on romance.  First letter will probably be posted sometime before next Sunday.  I’m really curious to see how it pans out.

For research, I pulled together this list of the 25 best modern epistolary novels everyone should read:

1. The White Tiger
2. Love, Rosie/Where Rainbows End
3. Nothing but the Truth
4. So Long a Letter
5. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
6. House of Leaves
7. Up the Down Staircase
8. Last Days of Summer
9. Almost Like Being in Love
10. Eleven
11. Letters from the Inside
12. Letters of Insurgents
13. Super Sad True Love Story
14. The Key
15. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
16. Upstate
17. The Communist’s Daughter
18. Sorcery and Cecilia
19. The Nobodies Album
20. Which Brings Me To You
21. The Boy Next Door
22. Dear Everybody
23. Freedom and Necessity
24. Purple and Black

25. Voices of a Distant Star*

The last one is technically an animated short film, but it was the only real science fiction example I could find, and is also brilliant, especially for being created independently on a home computer.

Epistolary novels are those told all or in part as a series of documents, most commonly letters but also e-mails, news clippings, internal memos, IMs, social networking posts and message board threads, and many more.  They were most popular in the 1800s and have since died back, but this list tells me they are not dead yet, and I hope they never are.

 
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Posted by on February 19, 2013 in Love Letters

 

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Scalded by Steampunk

So I dropped into my blog reader today, and the number one topic of conversation seemed to be that steampunk sucks, is boring, is shallow, is revisionism(fictional revisionism, the horror!), is a commercial sell-out, is crap, is shit, is tiresome, is over-hyped, is racist, is colonialist, is adventurist, has not one really powerful story to its name, etc.

And then I saw that one of the people saying this was Charlie Stross, and I almost cried.  Because I love the books Charlie Stross writes.

And then I stopped and thought:  “People are getting worked up over a fucking sub-genre of fiction.”  Why?  What’s the point?  You don’t like steampunk?  Great.  Enjoy whatever it is you enjoy, but why attack a genre that’s never done anything to you?  Either write something better or move on.  Isn’t there some new Tolkien clone somewhere to bash?  Horrendous glorification of the middle ages and all that?

If speculative fiction was a house, steampunk would be the leaky boiler pipe in the basement.  Don’t stand in front of it and you won’t get burned.  Maybe you find it annoying.  Well, I find it annoying when people turn down the high while wearing a jacket indoors.  Tolkienesque fantasy could fit that metaphor very well.  But there are four other people in the house who agree, so I suck it up and move on with my day.  I don’t accuse them of oppressing the working class.

I’ve read some great steampunk, some good steampunk, and some shitty steampunk.  The latter category is much larger than I would prefer, but 90% of every genre is crap, so why the need to jump on one poor little sub-genre over having a few shity books, or books that disagreed with your politics by having a few noblemen protrayed in a positive light?  Nobody is making you read this, and I don’t know very many other readers or writers who would prefer to live in the 19th century because they loved the last steampunk story they read.

 
 

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Things I Wish SF(F) Had More Of

So, after thinking about my last post on education, I’ve come to some conclusions. I’ve been reading less and less science fiction lately, and I haven’t been able to figure out why. But now I think I know. It’s because I’ve been seeing a lot of the same things recently. Here’s a list of recent sub-genres I’ve become disillusioned with lately, and some ideas I think could infuse them with new life:

1. Space Opera–Don’t get me wrong, I love this sub-genre, but we’ve been harping on post-humanism and alien combat quite a lot lately. How about we try something new? Like some new thoughts on STL travel, or Near-Earth Space exploration.

2. Near-future SF–Love this genre as well. (Futurismic, here’s to you!)  But we’ve been seeing a lot of the same thing, lately.  Nano-tech, cyberpunk, bio-punk.  I’d love to see some more stories on information technology pre-singularity.  VR’s been a common theme, but very few books out there seem to be addressing Augmented Reality(AR), which–for those who don’t know–is the mapping of virtual information, such as audio and video, onto the real world.  The more well-known application here is the good old “heads-up display”, or HUD, in use in targeting systems and mapping.  Stories about AR that come to mind:  Dennou Coil, Rainbows End, Eden of the East.  There’s a lot of potential in this technology, and a lot of conflict that it could create.  Virtual ads in fields, or modern digital graffiti are two.  And think of the networking and social media applications.

3.  Science fantasy:  There’s been a rise in this genre lately, which I have greatly enjoyed.  Some examples are anime’s Yoku Wakaru Gendai Mahou, which postulates a modern form of magic created with digital information instead of personal energy and ancient symbolism.  A great deal of steam-punk also falls into this category, although it’s generally not as modern as the normal idea of the genre.  Of course, I’m somewhat misrepresenting this term to describe a combination of scientific and fantastical elements.  I’m not really refering to just planetary romance or dying earth scenarios, as much as contemporary or near-future fantasy outside of the UF genre.  We might also include some space opera works in the category.  Anime provides the example of Heroic Age, while C.S. Friedman has given us the Coldfire Trilogy.

4.  Let’s also throw in alternate universe science fiction here.  Earth-like worlds with different cultural and geographical settings that nevertheless approximate our present level of technology.  I’m hard-pressed to come up with an example of this grouping that doesn’t involve alternate dimensions or the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.  I’m not talking multiverses or dimension-hoppers here.  I’m thinking of entirely independent worlds.  Which makes me want to read this sort  of story even more.  Perhaps Jeff Vandermeer’s Finch could be an example book, although that veers closer to Science Fantasy/New Weird than I’m trying to go.

5.  Oh, and let’s not forget the Chimney-punk.  This isn’t a recognized genre yet, but I’m hard at work behind the scenes, spreading awareness(lol) and writing material.  New Weird isn’t the only interstitial genre out there–at least, not for long.

Anyway, those are a few genres I’d really love to see some new material in.  Does anyone have particular areas of their own that they find interesting but under-populated?

 

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Genre of the Week Revival

First, I would like to acknowledge that “Genre of the Week” is not entirely accurate at this point, considering how long ago I posted about Steam-punk, and the fact that the proposed next GotW, “Space Opera” never appeared. It’s more like “Genre of the Three Months”. 🙂 But I’m going to try again, and circumstances permitting, I’d like to get these posts up and written more regularly, and to add a small feature of actually posting more than one post about each genre a week. So that, you know, it’s actually the Genre of the Week, and not a third variation called “Genre of a Random Day which Happens to be in this Particular Week”.

Now, this is already Tuesday night, so it’s a late start. But I will in fact introduce a new genre this week: Urban Fantasy(UF), and there will be one or more supplementary posts looking at more specific aspects of the genre. In particular, I have already written one describing one of the possible breakdowns of the UF genre, Type-P UF vs. Type-D UF. You’ll learn what those two terms mean when the post goes up sometime after Wednesday. Until then, you’ll have to make do with my Introductory Post on UF which will hopefully go up sometime tonight. Hope you enjoy it.

 
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Posted by on January 13, 2010 in Fantasy, Genre of the Week

 

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I Have a Twin!

I’ve  just discovered (through the wonder that is google search terms) that I have a virtual twin.

Now, in a rare moment of personal revelation, I will tell you that I’ve always known I had a twin–an indentical one in fact.

But this twin we are speaking of now is of a very different sort.  He is not related to me in any way, and I have never encountered him before.  But, as they like to say, great minds think alike.  This twin runs a blog on livejournal that has been going for a few years, and is way more popular than mine… which has only been going for a few days.  The amazing thing about this twin, is that he runs a series of “… of the Week” posts similar to mine.  It is a series on subgenres, though the intent is very different.  He even started it off with a post about Steampunk.  If I didn’t know  better, I’d imagine he pulled an H.G. Wells and time-travelled into the future to snag my brilliant idea.  Here’s a link to the post:

http://rippatton.livejournal.com/5227.html

It’s a small, small world, people.

 
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Posted by on October 5, 2009 in atsiko, Genre of the Week

 

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Subgenre of the Week: Steampunk

Genre of the Week:  Steampunk

Personally, I’m a big fan of steampunk.  It’s a great genre with possibilities.  Despite the fact that it’s been around for 30 years, there just isn’t that much available in the area of steampunk novels.  Wikipedia lists 21 works of fiction that fall into this category. (See link below)  Of course, there is a lot of material in other mediums.  Anime, manga, video games, comics, graphic novels, films.  But the whole of steampunk material is just not that big.  Even thought there are many aspiring authors working in the genre.  Will they get published?  I don’t know, that’s up to their own effort and the decisions of publishers.  But I would like to see more steampunk on my shelves.  I don’t care if it crosses genres, or has “elements”, or what.  I just want more.  And it doesn’t seem like it will be hard to find original and creative material…  After all the genre isn’t as played out as UF or High Fantasy.  There’s still lots of room to grow and develop.

Which brings me to the next cool thing about steampunk.  It crosses genres like crazy.  There is historical steampunk, AU steampunk, steampunk fantasy, and even steampunk romance.  Nothing is out of bounds.  I’m just waiting for that steampunk mystery….  Steampunk, despite it’s façade as a very specific category of fiction, is one of the most open genres out there.  It even has a sub-genre, “clock-punk”, that deals with non-steam mechanical technology, usually set in the Renaissance.  That’s pretty good for a genre with a catalogue of 21 works.

Now, even though steampunk isn’t as “dystopic” as cyber-punk, it isn’t all bubbles and sugar either.  Common issues are class struggle, the dangers of time travel, magical conspiracies and war.  Even nuclear war.  Another common theme is creation of life, playing god.  And honestly, who doesn’t prefer a sexy steam-bot over some clone grown in agar gel?  Gross…

Forecast:  As for me, I think steampunk will only increase in popularity as time goes on.  I see so many new writers working in the genre, and the fact that it has a dedicated _lifestyle_ implies a similarly dedicated audience, even if it may be a small one.  My favorite new writer in steampunk is Alan Campbell, who wrote Scar Night, Iron Angel and God of Clocks, in his trilogy, the Deepgate Codex.  See?  The genre is alive and well.  So keep on the lookout.

Recommendations:

1. The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia

2. Leviathan series by Scott Westerfeld

3. The Clockwork Century series by Cherie Priest

4. Whitechapel Gods by S.M. Peters

5. The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

6. Mainspring by Jay Lake

7. Age of Steam series by Devon Monk

8. Infernal Devices by K.W. Jeter

9. Anime: Last Exile

10. Anime: Fullmetal Alchemist

Description: Steampunk is a sub-genre of speculative fiction generally set in a time period similar to our 19th century, and that may even be our 19th century, depending on whether or not the author wants to ground their work in real-world history.  The most common Earthly setting is Victorian England.  But as the genre has grown, settings in many countries on all continents have been portrayed.  The most visible trait of the genre is the use of steam-power, thus the title.  Over time, several other branches of technology have become popular and occasionally even ubiquitous: mechanical computers, dirigibles(blimps for the uninitiated), and basically anything that we would do with electricity but these societies do with mechanical means, such as robots or replacement body parts.

Themes: Although the term “punk” implies a certain dystopic, counter-culture atmosphere, much as was present in cyber-punk, many steam-punk works downplay or lack these elements entirely, preferring to focus instead on the sense of discovery and wonder inherent in the improbable and baroque creations they describe.

History:  The term “steam-punk” originated as a play on the name of the “cyber-punk” sub-genre.  K.W. Jeter originated the term in a letter to the sci-fi mag Locus where he suggested it as a catchy name for what he believed to be “the next big thing”: ‘Victorian fantasies.’

Influences:  Steam-punk was greatly influenced by the scientific romances of the 19th century.  Writers in this area included H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Mark Twain and Mary Shelley.  Important precursors in terms of books include: Titus Alone, Queen Victoria’s Bomb, A Nomad of the Time Streams, and Worlds of the Imperium.  Technically, Jeter’s Morlock Night is considered the first true work in the steampunk genre, as he coined the term.

Next time: Urban Fantasy

Complete List of Works: See here

 
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Posted by on October 4, 2009 in Fantasy/Sci-fi, genre, Genre of the Week

 

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