The Japanese Use of Loan and Direct Translation

Naoko Hosokawa shares that to preserve the purity of the Japanese language, some people argue that they use loan translation over direct translation; they think using loanwords is against the concept of kotodama.

Kotodama is often linked with the linguistic identity of Japan.

Nick: Your article talks a lot about the idea of purity of language, and loanwords. Some Japanese believe that loanwords are threatening the country of Kotodama or this idea of kotodama. 

So I think that presents an interesting debate. And it got me thinking, if Japanese don't use loanwords, what are they to use? Do they just make up words to represent these loanwords or concepts?

Naoko: So yes, as you said, at the early time of the modernization that Japanese tended to translate the Western words into a loan translation, and those who would like to use more of the pure form of Japanese or criticise the use of Western loanwords tend to argue that we should use the technique of loan translation more than direct translation.

Even today, it is quite rare as the number of loanwords that we use in the Japanese language is increasing quite rapidly. So yeah, today, we often hear this idea of kotodama in the context of the use of loanwords. 

So, once the war-face has finished, we continue to talk about Kotodama even though the context has slightly changed, and now people associate this term not so much with the political identity, but more with the cultural and linguistic identity. 

And when we talk about, for example, the use of loanwords, and the increasing number of English words, for example, used in the Japanese language, some people think it is against the concept of kotodama

So people argue that we should use the loan translation. And we should kind of learn from the examples from the late 19th century when we used a lot of loan translation, so that is some of the arguments that they still use today regarding the use of the Western words.

Nick: All right, so obviously, there's a clear difference between loan translation and direct translation. Loan translation seeks to keep the purity or maintain the purity of the language. Where I guess direction translation's acknowledging we're accepting a foreign word.

Naoko: Yes. So they are both borrowing foreign words. So in a way, they're the same thing, just the format is different. But it seems to me that in the Japanese discourse, people place a very strong focus on the difference between the two. 

And as you just said, people think the loan translation is the way to preserve the purity and traditional form of the Japanese language. Whereas direct loans, it's some sort of corruption in the traditional language, which is quite interesting.