A call came in from the editor of the script book of Serenity, the movie spin-off from Joss Whedon’s Firefly. In which, you may recall, people swear in Chinese.
“We’re just doing the back cover,” he said, “and we wondered if you could write us a Chinese slogan: ‘If you do not buy this book, your associates will consider you to be a stupid inbred sack of meat.’”
It’s been a while. Last time I was translating something into Chinese, it was some awful British boy-band number I had to sing in Mandarin on the Sci-Fi channel. But it was a small mercy. At least Chinese is easier to be blunt in.
From your mother tongue to your umpteenth language learning experience, the swear words always seem to come first. Anime fans multiply this tenfold, immersed in a universe of spitting bad-guys and demonic aggressors, many roll out terrible insults just to be cool.
Ian Fleming has a lot to answer for. 007’s creator once argued in You Only Live Twice that Japanese had no swearing. Even if that were true, it wouldn’t matter. There are so many levels of meaning in Japanese that you don’t need to swear to insult someone. Something as simple as “hello” can cause an embarrassing silence if said in the wrong way. I knew one fanboy who thought it would be fun to talk in the style of his favourite anime character. He breezed through Japan like a cup of cold sick, addressing numerous celebrities with the same level of disdain as someone saying “See you, turd-features.”
So here’s a top tip to anyone who wants to learn Japanese from anime. Stay away from Overfiend, Gunsmith Cats, La Blue Girl… er… pretty much anything not set in an everyday school, really. Or they actually will think you’re a stupid inbred sack of meat.
(previously published in NEO #8, 2005)