Pax Romana and the barbarian hordes: translating Asian languages.

In my role as one of the editor-in-chief of the East Asian Journal of Popular Culture I have been spending some time recently debating the use of non-English characters in journals. The problem is thus, articles are submitted from all over the world and focus on various aspects of East Asian popular culture. The main areas of study are, rather unsurprisingly, Japan, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea. Each of these nations have there own unique language(s) and for the most part, separate writing systems. Most of the main languages have clear methods by which they are romanised, by this I mean transferred into written English. For example take the Korean film Attack the Gas Station, imagine you, as an fan of cinema, pick up a article on Korean cinema which you have been desperate to read for ages and find, ‘주유소습격사건 is a key film in new Korean cinema…’ If you don’t read Hangual you are in trouble so what usually happens in English language scholarship is that the script is romanised to allow you to read the language phonetically so to speak. That’s better…or is it? Romanization of languages for the obvious reasons raises some issues, least of all how do you romanise what we would describe as tonal languages?

With Korean for many years people wanting to romanise would use the McCune-Reischauer system. So주유소습격사건 becomes Chuyuso sŭpkyŏksakŏn. This approach used diacritics to indicate the sounds. For those not in linguistics that means the small marks above and below letters to make a further sound eg. ◌́ over a letter is called acute and indicates a higher pitch. The problem with this is that missing out the diacritics (which often happens in for example emails) can lead to mispronunciation and lack of consistency in translation. So, with that in mind, after years of McCune-Reischauer system been the official system the South Korean Government moved towards the Revised Romanisation System. This leads주유소습격사건 to become Juyuso seubgyuksageun. Which is better is still under debate but for the journal purposes we went with the official Korean government guidelines and Korean will be written in revised Romanisation. Those of us like me who are used to McCune-Reischauer system it is quite an annoying change but I slightly digress. Chinese languages are similar. Mandarin Chinese has an official transcription system called pinyin. So to give an example the famous Chinese book on Daoism/Taosim (see, different Romanisation presents different words!) is written in traditional Mandarin as 道德經, simplified (the version used in Mainland China) as 道德, Pinyin translated it to Dàodéjīng. Great! But what if you are not in Mainland China and still using a Chinese script? This can be seen in Southern Min (Taiwan Hokkien), Cantonese and multiple other Chinese dialects. In this case scripts may look the same but they are pronounced very differently indeed. If you just use pinyin to romanise you will not reflect what is been said in that language. With Taiwanese dialects there is not one official way to romanise (unlike with pinyin) so you have a variety of systems which each vary in their approach and end result.

So, we can achieve that romanisation is not an easy process and is open to a large number of issues. Whilst up until now I have discussed the logistics of romanising, what about the actual ethics? Romanise literally mean to ‘make a person Rome’. The whole concept is riddled with issues, not least how to actually write the word – Romanise (UK English) vs. Romanize (US English). When you romanise you literally convert another person language to your own. What often happens in journals and books is that the original language is removed (due to issues with type setting in English language press, word length, complexity for reader etc.) and just the Romanization is left. This is of course when the whole title/word/person has not just been translated to English i.e. most books on South Korean cinema just say Attack the Gas Station and that is that. For most of us this smacks slightly of cultural imperialism. Are we saying that our ability to read easily and save on the word count is more important that respecting another person linguistic and written systems? The answer of course is not simple. On one level yes, it would be ideal to be able to ensure that all options were present but then you do end up with a line in a text looking like this: 悲情城市(bēiqíng chéngshì/City of Sadness) was directed in 1989 by 侯孝賢 (Hóu Xiàoxián/ Hou Hsiao-Hsien) and focused on the events known in 臺灣/台灣(Taiwan)as 白色恐怖; (báisèkǒngbù/White Terror). Over several pages this can be confusing and not that pleasant to read. Still, you remove the Asian language symbols and you could/and do, alienate your Asian language readership. Words in for example, Mandarin and Taiwanese are pronounced differently, so if you are missing the symbols it become unclear who is being talked about and for those who wish to use the journal as a research resources this can be frustrating. For example ‘City of Sadness’ is not what the film was domestically known as – you ask people in Taiwan, even those who speak English, about ‘City of Sadness’ you will likely get blank faces, 悲情城市(bēiqíng chéngshì) will hopefully grant you more success.

In an international journal you are seeking to reach a broad readership and many people overseas who work on aspects of East Asian Popular Culture are not 100% confident in their written skills of a respective language. This does not denigrate their scholarship but they would perhaps be approaching the topic from a different angle for example a writer exploring the success of Japanese horror films inside UK. Still a relevant article for our Journal but unlikely the author would be able to read fluent Japanese and would not be able to successfully provide all the required information in Japanese.

We need to be consistent and for this reason guidelines have to be drawn up. We have to balance international publishing needs with cultural sensitivity and the use of journal articles as reference and educational tools. We came to a balance between the two (to see the final guidelines keep an eye on East Asian Journal of Popular culture webpage!). It is a balance that we are not 100% happy with but also not  100% unhappy. It does to show that cross-cultural work is fascinating and wonderful but even logistics such as how you present a manuscript are fraught with issues.

Sack of Rome: if we are Rome what does that mean for the future of academia!

Sack of Rome: if we are Rome what does that mean for the future of academia!


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