Writing Fiction in English as a Second Language: Code Words.

Japanese people in general are utterly incompetent English speakers. Those who can pull off a reasonable imitation of fluent English are considered exceptions. Quirky street signs and product labels written in a strange version of what appears to be English are everywhere in Japan. This strange language is often referred to as “Japanglish” or “Engrish”.

One famous example is the cartoon mascot for a line of environment-friendly home electronics. The electronics maker chose a woodpecker for the mascot. They could have called the cartoon character Woody, but “Woody the Woodpecker” was already taken, so the called it “Pecker the Woodpecker”. It did not take them very long to retract the whole thing.

There was also a chain of steak houses called “Loins”. Loins, I’m sure, referred to the choice slab of meat (top sirloin, bottom sirloin, tenderloin, and short loin), but the founders of the chain did not realize that the word also had a different meaning. After spending millions of dollars (hundreds of millions of yen, actually) promoting the brand, they abruptly decided to change the name of their restaurant chain.

The cherry blossom is Japan’s unofficial national flower next to the chrysanthemum. You might say that the chrysanthemum represents the non-martial component of the Imperial dynasty, while the cherry blossom represents the samurai spirit. The flower, which blossoms for a few days then sheds away in a blizzard of petals, has been likened to the glorious death of a soldier in battle. The masculine image is probably the reason behind why one of the first Japanese automobiles to be exported to the United States was named the Nissan Cherry. They nixed that name too.

Since these “Japanglish/Engrish” problems are so common, a Japanese writer is highly sensitive about such unintended connotations sneaking into his prose. And if you ask someone like me to critique a piece of writing, these are the mistakes I would be focusing on. Some people latch on to the misuse of commas, semi-colons, prepositions, or pronouns. You cannot expect me, a Japanese writer, not to obsess over the unintended meanings of words.

That is why I somewhat over-reacted when I found the phrase “Thatcheresque woman”. A woman who resembles Margaret Thatcher could be a whole spectrum of things, from a strong-willed leader to an entrenched ideologue. Depending on their political orientation, some people are die-hard fans of Thatcher and some people think she was a witch. You may intend the phrase “Thatcheresque woman” to mean one thing, but the reader may take away something quite different.

Another one is “like the Louvre”. The Louvre is a vast and diverse place. You can see Charlemagne’s crown, Hammurabi’s pillar, the bust of Benjamin Franklin, Egyptian sarcophagi, architecture by I. M. Pei, lots of French couples kissing, and hordes of Asian and Middle-Eastern tourists. And also some paintings. What part of the Louvre are you trying to project in your imagery? If you are going to use the Louvre as an anchor word in your story, you better think it through.

The most heinous of these offences are the code words: A “Gucci-clad” drug dealer, a stock broker “sheathed in Armani”, an artist “lounging on a Wegner chair”, a hipster with purple hair, or a spooky old man living in a “Jacobethan manor house”.

To be fair, I am guilty of the same offences. I write telegraphic descriptions like “over dressed drug dealers in dark suits and vivid ties” while being well aware that the only reason the reader can visualize this is because there are lots of over dressed drug dealers in dark suits and vivid ties depicted in movies and television. It’s like describing a spy in a trench coat, sunglasses and a fedora. You can see it so clearly it is almost a caricature in itself, but only because we have all seen the same visual entertainment. If someone unfamiliar with the visuals ever read this writing, they will never know what it is all about. And if people for whom these words carry different connotations read them, it could easily project a warped image in the same vein as Nissan Cherry.

If you want to write stories in the English language, you have to immerse yourself in the English speaking culture so that you will know that a name like “Nissan Cherry” will sound corny to Western ears. But you also have to take a step back and realize that using a “Jacobethan manor house” as substitute for “cue Bela Lugosi music” is simply bad writing. Just as most people outside of the Japanese culture sphere do not associate “cherry” with masculinity, a lot of people do not associate classic English architecture with vampires. (Besides, “Jacobethan” – originally a fusion of “Jacobean” and “Elizabethan” architectural styles popular in 19th century England – is lately an American euphemism for “MacMansion”.)

In this era of truncated writing, when we are expected to cut to the chase without foreplay, to ditch the expositions and get to the action, it is difficult not to rely on prefabricated imagery. The best we can do is to be conscious that we are using them. And when we use them, we have to be careful what imagery we are employing. But since one man’s cherry is another man’s cherry, it’s better to do away with cherries as much as possible.

(Read also “Writing Fiction in English as a Second Language“)