Posted by: patenttranslator | June 19, 2011

A Few Random Examples of Insanities Hidden in Various Cultures and Languages

All translators, including this patent translator, have to deal with various cultural and linguistic traditions that can be described only as insane by people who speak a relatively rational language such as English.

The French, for instance, decreed long time ago that for some reason, the words seventy, eighty or ninety have no right to exist and that they must be translated as  60 + 10 (soixante-dix), 4 x 20 (quatre-vingt) and 4 x 20 + 10 (quatre-vingt-dix). I understand that it is legal to use the word 70 (septante), or 80 (octante) in French, but only in the tiny French part of Switzerland called La Suisse Romande. Anywhere else these words are illegal, just like third parties are for all practical purposes illegal in United States. The French could easily use for example octante huit or huitante huit for 88, but I am not going to waste any more precious space on my blog with the French language. The French themselves don’t know why they count like this while the rest of the world is using the simple decimal system inherited from the Romans. I have a nagging suspicion that Cardinal Richelieu is behind this sad situation. Remember, Cardinal Richelieu was the cagey cleric who was made famous by Alexandre Dumas in The Three Musketeers and who said:”Give me six lines written by the most honorable of men, and I will find an excuse in them to hang him”. The French counting system from sixty to ninety nine must be based on some sort of an entrapment, that is the only explanation that makes sense to me.

Europeans, of course, have funny ways of expressing themselves even when they do speak English, if I say so myself as a former European, presently a hyphenated American. For instance, why do they use a comma instead of a period to indicate a decimal point? Why don’t they use a comma to indicate thousands, millions and billions (trillions) as we do here in America? How else could we possibly makes sense of those incredibly long numbers expressing basic and essential concepts such as our national debt, for instance, or how much money we spend on the military, hungry CEOs and bailouts of big banks and other things that are obviously absolutely necessary? We Americans are simply much more rational than Europeans, which is evidenced even in the way we use the decimal point in numbers. Unlike people living in other countries, we can always add another comma to indicate another bigger number whenever we want to and solve the problem in this manner.

But some Asian languages and cultures are even more bizarre than for example the French language and culture and the Japanese are a prime example of that. Let us take a brief look for instance at the Japanese calendar. Year one of the traditional Japanese calendar starts with the ascension of a new emperor to the throne and the calendar ends when the emperor dies (which incidentally never happens at midnight on January 31). This period is called an era (年号, nengoh). Here are the last 10 eras:

1848 嘉永 Kaei

1854 安政 Ansei

1860 万延 Man’en

1861 文久 Bunkyū

1864 元治 Genji

1865 慶応 Keiō

1868 明治 Meiji – Mutsuhito, the Meiji Emperor

1912 大正 Taishō – Yoshihito, the Taisho Emperor

1926 昭和 Shōwa – Hirohito, the Showa emperor

1989 平成 Heisei – Akihito, the currently reigning emperor

If we counted years in this manner here in the United States, the year 1993 would be the second year of president Clinton’s era, which would have its own name (let’s imitate the Japanese and call it the Era of Magnificent Peace), and the year 2011 would be year 3 of president Obama’s era (let’s again imitate the Japanese and call it the Era of Glorious Peace as the truth is completely irrelevant when it comes to naming of eras in calendars, especially since nobody can possibly know what the new era will be like anyway).

Now, I can understand when a certain culture or nation creates a calendar that starts at a fixed point and ends, basically, never. You can use a calendar like this to date anything. The Romans, for example, counted years ab Urbe condita, which means since the founding of the city of Rome, or 753 B.C, by two brothers, Romulus and Remus, who were raised by a wolf. Now, that is a perfectly rational way to create a calendar. They also named some eras after consuls and used this system sporadically, but at least they had a calendar with a fixed point, just like the Europeans (A.D. – Anno Domini, or year of the Lord, and B.C., or Before Christ). But using emperors for your calendar strikes me as highly impractical because emperors simply never live that long. When one Japanese person tells another Japanese person that he was born, for example, in the year 33 of the Showa Era and that other Japanese person is much younger, this young person will not really know exactly how old that person is if this younger person was born in the next era, which is called the Heisei Era that started in the year 1989, which would make it year 64 of the previous era, except that it is year 1 of the new era if there is a new emperor.

Fortunately for me, the Japanese came to their senses and started using the Western calendar as of the year 2000 for their patent system. I am grateful to the Japanese Patent Office for having had the courage to initiate such a major change in their perception of themselves and the world. I bet the French will never have the courage to start counting like everybody else.

The only quibble I have with the Japanese Patent Office now is that they allow the names of Japanese patent agents to be listed on patent application without an indication of how to pronounce their names. The names of inventors and applicants are transcribed in English summaries, but the names of the patent agents are not. For some reason, patent agents are often the children of unorthodox parents who like to give their children weird first names, namely by using Japanese characters with a pronunciation that nobody can possibly figure out without asking the person:”How do you pronounce your name?”. It is considered a good thing in the Japanese culture when nobody can figure out your name.

And because I cannot ask the patent agent in Japan how his first name should be pronounced, my transcription of his name into English is just a guess. You could call it an educated guess, or you could call it a wild guess, but the fact is that due to this particular insanity of this particular culture, it is just a guess.

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