Sunday, December 21, 2008

When You Are Engulfed In Flames

"Given the state of my Japanese it seems unfair to criticize some of the English I've been seeing. ... What gets me are the mass-produced mistakes, the ones made at Lawson, for example. A huge, nationwide chain of convenience stores, and this is what's printed on the wrappers of their ready-made sandwiches: 'We have sandwiches which you can enjoy different tastes. So you can find your favorite one from our sandwiches. We hope you can choose the best one for yourself.'

"A book in our hotel room includes a section on safety awkwardly titled Best Knowledge of Disaster Damage Prevention and Favors to Ask of You. What follows are three paragraphs, each written beneath a separate, boldfaced heading: 'When you check in the hotel room,' 'When you find a fire,' and, my favorite, "When you are engulfed in flames.'

When You Are Engulfed In Flames was my favorite too, my favorite essay in the book by the same title. For some time, I haven't been sure if David Sedaris's writing has gotten a little limper and darker, or if I've just tired of it the way I do magazines after a couple of years of subscribing. But in the book, he mentions quitting drinking, then drugs, before, finally, smoking. So perhaps a lot of things have changed.

At any rate, the title essay is much improved by its transcriptions of Japanese-into-English translations. I love that kind of thing -- I get such a kick out of the Chinese food restaurant in my neighborhood that also serves Puerto Rican food and advertises "chicken fried banana" on its marker board. (after a bit of head scratching, I discerned that "chicken fried banana" is a meal of chicken and plaintains ... ) I love it, I guess, because it allows you to follow what the hell, exactly, the translator was thinking. It would appear that unlike languages that use our alphabet and evolved with European cultures, Japanese reflects an entirely different way of thinking and communicating -- one that English words are not suited to express.

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