Persona and Language
Identity is always mediated through one form or another―appearance, affiliations, tone of voice, profession, or language, etc.―and thusly, identity itself is not fixed. One can even identify differences in the structuring of identity in “Eastern” and “Western” cultures, my most memorable encounter of which was a problem in translating a short text from English to Japanese some years ago. Through discussion with a Japanese friend, we deciphered the difficulty. The difference lay in conceptualizing identity as formed by gathering fragments of the world to which one belongs to make the individual, or, alternately, identity being a fragmentation, imagined as a leaving of pieces of oneself in various places, or groups, within a society. At that time I had been living in Japan just a couple of years, struggling with the language to some degree, but engaged in a greater struggle with my identity. One key factor in this issue of identity was the fact that I had begun to live parts of my life exclusively through a second language, and the projection of my character through Japanese did not correlate with the persona I projected when speaking in my native tongue.
Being Irish, I was raised and educated through English and Irish (Gaelic), Irish being the official first language, despite its being displaced by English as the dominant language in the Republic. My English, though not strongly accented, is still a variant of Hibernian English that borrows a little grammar and syntax from Gaelic, flavoured here and there with Dublin slang and nowadays even occasional Japanese phrasing. I cannot tell you how my accent and phrasing in Japanese are interpreted, but I can say with confidence that there is far less of a chasm between my perceived characters in each language nowadays. But in the years of moving beyond the communication of basic information, to more nuanced discussion of ideas and opinions, I was initially plagued by the curse of kawaii. Perhaps the mistakes in my grammar were endearing, my tone too soft, or the expression of my thoughts over-simplified. I’m not entirely sure of the cause, but I resolved to assert myself in a manner more in line with my self-image, both socially and professionally.
Translating the words of public figures necessitates immense skill, requiring a great depth of linguistic and cultural knowledge. The task of interpreting, not just the words, but also the nuance of meaning, and the character of the speaker, is a quandary for even the most practiced translator. The now infamous 2005 audio recording of Donald J. Trump that surfaced during his 2016 election campaign, in which he regaled with his actions towards women, how he could just “…grab ‘em by the pussy”, was repeated throughout the English-speaking world to the shock and disgust of the majority. Watching the news on various television stations, I waited with curiosity to hear this particular phrase translated into Japanese. I could not imagine an NHK news anchor repeating the English words, nor could I figure out a direct translation that would be aired on the national news. I never heard the words translated by the national broadcaster. Most references were to “lewd comments” made. The boldest translation into Japanese, according to Daniel Morales’s Japan Times article , was by Agence France-Presse , but this translation did not receive airtime on par with the original English outside of Japan.
The words themselves, an admission of action, had meaning beyond their crass description of acts. One does not grab gently. And there are few men that would use the word pussy in front of their mother, daughters or in a professional environment. The omission of words of such import caused me to reexamine how the persona of Trump was being presented through the Japanese language, and how this knowledge gap may shape and direct differences of opinion between English and non-English speakers in Japan.
Nuanced words and loaded phrases have played a major role in the rightward shift of politics over recent years. “Take our country back” was heard at rallies across the United States. The first black president of the U.S.A. had awoken deeply rooted fears and divisions drawn across racial lines, and a minority within the white majority made public a sense of collective vulnerability. Across the Atlantic the rhetoric was mirrored in the words of Brexit campaigners. “Let’s take back control” spoke of returning to a former sovereign glory, a history of a proud nation, but with little discussion over the colonisation of other nations that were the foundation stones on which the British Empire built itself. During a January 25, 2017, press conference, Tokyo Governor Koike chose the words “Let’s make Tokyo Great again” referring to improvements being implemented throughout Tokyo in the run up to the 2020 Olympics. Although originally coined during Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign, these words, with America in place of Tokyo, are synonymous with Trump’s 2016 campaign rallies. Governor Koike’s presentation did not heave with regressive rhetoric. Nevertheless, “great again” implies return to a greater time, or social order. The appropriated English words are rank with divisive undertones and, for an English-speaker, inseparable from this association. The plans outlined by Koike spoke of progression, forward-thinking in terms of energy conservation and tourism, yet with the language chosen rooted in the wave of Trumpism. Are they harking back to their original Reagan connection to economic regeneration? Did the re-uttering of these words miss the nuance of current meaning, or not?
Trump supporters have praised his plain speaking, but on the global stage, his language must be analysed more closely. Difficulties in translating Trump’s non-sequential, nonsensical patter have been addressed in numerous articles. But whatever your opinion on Trumpese, Trump speak, or the problems of Trumpslation, there is no doubt that in these words, and those of the many participants in the rightward swing in politics of this era, are layers of meaning and intention that will be analysed for years to come to better understand the reasons for the current global political climate and the characters that have played their parts.