Thursday, May 26, 2016

Writing Outside Your Culture: Language Issues, Part I

When writing Desert Jewels, I needed to use Japanese names and a few Japanese words to make it authentic. As I mentioned last month, I pronounce words in my head as I read, and I assume many others do, too. I’ve always been lousy at foreign languages, but I did my best to learn basic Japanese pronunciation using Internet and print/CD resources.

My middle-grade readers are unlikely to do that, so I tried to choose names that made it as easy as possible for them to hear the words correctly in their heads. I don’t expect total accuracy, however. Some of the tongue and mouth actions that form the sounds are unfamiliar to most English-speakers, and even the various sources I’ve listened to pronounce the same words differently, much like the use of English across the U.S. (Do you say tomayto or tomahto?) But I wanted to get as close as I could.

I have the biggest difficulty when two vowels are next to each other. Unlike English, in Japanese you get only one vowel to a syllable. That means contiguous vowels are in different syllables and are pronounced separately. At least that’s the theory. Americans have a tendency to run syllables together, and many of the Japanese speakers I listened to did the same thing. It’s even more complicated when the vowels aren’t pronounced as most American readers expect. My natural inclination is to pronounce the name “Keiko” as Kee-koh, when it is really more like Keh-ee-koh.

Although I went out of my way to choose names without two adjacent vowels, I couldn’t avoid words like “Issei” and “Nisei,” which run rampant throughout my manuscript. They were common terms for Japanese Americans and highlighted a distinction that was extremely important at the time. “Issei” were the first generation in America, and U.S. law denied these immigrants the right to become citizens. “Nisei” were the second generation, and they were citizens by virtue of being born here. If I wanted to create an authentic experience, I had to use those words.

I tried incorporating the meanings of Japanese words into the flow of the story, but I also put a glossary at the end of the book. And that’s where the dilemma came in. When I added pronunciation to the glossary, should I have used the technical Japanese phonics, the formal American pronunciation key, or an informal one close to the actual sound?

Take “Nisei.” My language research indicated that the formal Japanese pronunciation should be broken down to something like nee-seh-ee for the three syllables ni-se-i. Online dictionaries all use nē’sā (the formal American pronunciation key indicating that it is pronounced as two syllables with a long e and a long a) or the less formal nee-sey. When I hear it, I hear nee-say. So what did I do?

Given the nature of my audience, I chose nee-say.

What would you have done?


The Japanese characters at the top of this post spell “Nisei” according to Wikipedia.


Kathryn Page Camp is a licensed attorney and full-time writer. Writers in Wonderland: Keeping Your Words Legal was a Kirkus’ Indie Books of the Month Selection for April 2014. The second edition of Kathryn’s first book, In God We Trust: How the Supreme Court’s First Amendment Decisions Affect Organized Religion, was released on September 30, 2015. You can learn more about Kathryn at

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