Sunday, January 22, 2012

Subtle Difference of a Word's Meaning in Different Languages

It was my wife who sponsored me to get a Green Card. Now she is helping her own mother obtain a longer stay by getting a Green Card. She is an American citizen, but she asks my advice on language of business or legal documents in English. Her English is good. She hopes to double-check her understanding with me because I have been in business with foreign countries for more than 20 years. In answering her question or discussing a meaning of a word, I found that even the officially approved and accepted English - Japanese or English - Chinese dictionaries' word selection would not be a 100% perfect match for one foreign word to the other.

It occurred to me while we were taking a look at a Green Card application form downloaded from the website of USCIS (US Citizenship and Immigration Services). It was an English word "Nationality". When one turns to an English - Japanese dictionary, one will find the Japanese word for Nationality is "Kokuseki". All the Japanese senior-high school students would properly answer this question what is Japanese word for an English "Nationality". I have never doubted it would not be 100% correct for my English education experiences for almost 40 years.

Let us take a look at a Japanese government document now. A foreigner that travels to Japan must fill in and submit an entry form. There is a column which says "Kokuseki" in Japanese on top. Turn it back; the equivalent column says "Nationality" in English. They look to have the same meaning. However, they are subtly different.

The difference would be obvious when one filled in the column. If one were Japanese, he would write in Japanese in the"Kokuseki" column "Nihon" (Japan). What about in English column? In "Nationality" column, he needs to write "Nihon-jin," Japanese.

The immigration service of any country would not reject the entry if they referred to the country from which the foreigner travelled. However, this shows in English "Nationality" does not exactly mean "Kokuseki" in Japanese. The English word "Nationality" is a word which refers to the person's citizenship. Japanese "Kokuseki", instead, refers to the country to which the person belongs.

There are several other examples. They are usually words related to words which describe people. "Niece" and "nephew" in English refer to both sides' families of a married couple. Japanese "mei" and "oi", equivalent to niece and nephew, do not refer to children of their spouse's brothers and sisters. English "Knights" is equivalent to "Bushi" in Japanese. The people who edited dictionaries recognized the difference and used different words for the English word "knight." Knight in Japanese is "Kishi," implying a warrior on a horse. Though Japanese Bushi also uses horses, they are referred to as Japanese version of knights. It may indicate the difference of the language origin. It is the cultural background. Japanese culture tends to put emphasis on land, house, or country to which individuals belong. English always put people before environment to which they belong.

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