Modern Colloquialisms Japanese-English

Nichibei kogo jiten, ketteiban/Modern Colloquialisms Japanese-English.
Third Edition, 1,308 pages, Asahi Press, 2021. ISBN 978-4-255-01214-8 C0582.

Among the tools available to translators, writers, and students of English and Japanese of all sorts, Modern Colloquialisms (MC) has been a standard for more than 40 years. It was published in 1977 under the supervision of scholar and translator Edward G. Seidensticker (1921–2007) and prolific writer, interpreter, and English expert Matsumoto Michihiro (b. 1940). Their aspiration was to provide both Japanese and non-Japanese language learners with colloquial-level alternatives to the sometimes too-literary definitions of words and expressions available in existing dictionaries. Today, that need may to some extent be met by online sources, but as a volume prepared by editors at Asahi Press, who are experts at responding to the needs of language students, it can be a valuable resource.

The 3,345 entries in the third edition are selected to help users find appropriate ways to express what they want to say or write in natural English. The headwords are drawn from Japanese usage with English translations and explanations provided. The original edition had the headwords given in romaji and in English alphabetical order. The 1982 edition kept the romaji headwords but shuffled them to follow the a-i-u-e-o order of the Japanese syllabary, as is standard for dictionaries in Japan. In the third edition the romaji headwords have been deleted.

To tell us what led to the updating of a paper dictionary in this era of e-books and free online dictionaries, we contacted Sato Hisayo, veteran editor at Asahi Press. Sato studied English at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, where she first developed her interest in the language. Soon after joining the Asahi Press staff, she helped with clerical work on the revision of the second edition of MC. In the 40 intervening years, she was involved in the compilation of a number of dictionaries of spoken English including 『会話作文 英語表現辞典』(Japanese-English Sentence Equivalents), 『アメリカ口語辞典』(Modern American Colloquialisms), and『英和イディオム完全対訳辞典』(All-Purpose Dictionary of American Idioms and Expressions), and she also edits books related to English-language study along with the company’s monthly published CNN English Express. She was managing editor in the revision of MC for the recent republication.

Asahi Press decided to issue a third edition of MC to commemorate the company’s sixtieth anniversary. How did that choice come about?
The first edition, published in 1977, sold unexpectedly well. Asahi Press’s forte as a publisher has been language, and with MC an important title on its list for four decades, the company’s president was very invested in it. The second edition was published in 1982. Nearly four decades have gone by, and with a whole new generation of readers now, it struck us that many of the headwords and examples in Japanese had become outdated. With the company’s sixtieth anniversary coming up, it was decided to issue a third edition.

One of the authors, Edward Seidensticker, passed away in 2007. We are interested in learning how the rights issue was handled for the newest edition.
After Seidensticker’s death, we were notified by his lawyer that rights to his works had passed to the literary executor of his estate. When we decided to publish the third edition, it was apparently sufficient to inform him of this and we were given a free hand to make changes and additions.

This was certainly a major project for Asahi Press. What sort of difficulties did you encounter, and how long did the project take?
The process took a year and a half from start to finish, which is rather a short time for a project like this.

For the first and second editions, the procedure was that headwords in Japanese were selected, their meanings were explained, and corresponding English headwords were then chosen. Next, examples using those English headwords were created and translated into Japanese. In other words, the English sentence came first and was translated into Japanese. There were numerous cases where translation went ahead even though the headword translated into Japanese did not correspond exactly to the English. For the third edition, natural-sounding Japanese examples were created for the newly selected headwords, which were then translated into English.

For example, in the second edition, for the expression いちじつのちょう (p. 66), the English of one of the examples was natural, but the Japanese was a bit forced.

一日の長(がある) have been at it a little longer (than)
Don’t let that one victory go to your head. You were just lucky. He’s been at it a little longer than you. Be careful.

The expression「一日の長がある」is usually used with the nuance of acceptance yet deference as in, “. . . because I’ve been at it a little longer.” For the third edition, then, the example finally settled on was (p. 95):

Everyone praises my work, but it’s only because I’ve been at it a little longer, not because I have any special ability.

Did you base third-edition revisions on feedback received concerning previous editions, or did the editorial department decide which material to include?
Feedback from the previous editions referenced those works, so for the third edition, revisions were determined by the three editors and the editorial department.

We also had five Japanese writers on the project. They were all former Asahi Press employees or outside editors and all had been involved in the work on the second edition in 1982, so their familiarity with the dictionary was immensely valuable.

How much of the content was changed for the third edition? Could you compare specific entries from the first, second, and third editions to illustrate the process of adding, removing, or changing the explanations.
One example might be that for “menopause.” The second edition (p. 310) reflects the euphemisms of its times:

こうねんき[更年期] the change of life
40代半ばから50歳ぐらいの女性を言う。英語も決まり文句である。My mother is going through the change of life.(母は更年期だ)のように、動詞はgo throughとなる。ただ、若い世代の人はこういった間接的な表現を使わず、ズバリmenopause(月経閉止期)と言うのが普通のようだ。したがって、相手の年齢とか、さばけた話ができる人かどうかによって、見出しの英語とmenopauseとを適宜使い分けられたい。「更年期障害」にあたる英語はmenopausal discomfortしかない。Hot and cold flashes are said to be typical examples of menopausal discomfort.(急に発熱したり寒気を感じたりするのは更年期障害の典型例だとされている)。また、中年になってめっきり精神力や体力が落ちた男性のこと、つまり「男性版更年期」のことをmale menopauseと言う。Some doctors say that there's such a thing as male menopause.(男性にも更年期があると言う医者もいる)。男女を問わず、中年になって肩凝りや神経痛が出だすと、これはa sign of ageである。You’re getting a stiff neck and shoulders pretty often these days. It must be a sign of age. (最近、よく肩が凝るようだけど、年だね)。*未開人も都会の女性も更年期に入る年齢は同じなのだろうか。I wonder if primitive natives and city women go through 《the change of》 life at about the same age.

The revised version (p. 365) is updated in various ways.

こうねんき[更年期] menopause
かつてはthe change of lifeという婉曲的な言い方が一般的だった。My mother is going through the change of life.(母は今、更年期だ)。最近はこういった間接的な言い方をせず、ズバリmenopause(月経閉止期)と言うのが普通のようだ。「更年期症状」「更年期障害」はどちらもmenopausal discomfortで、英語では特に区別しない。Hot and cold flashes are said to be typical examples of menopausal discomfort.(急に発熱したり寒気を感じたりするのは、更年期症状の典型例だとされている)。また、男性でも、中年になってめっきり精神力や体力が衰えるケース、つまり「男性更年期」があるが、それはmale menopauseと言う。1語でandropauseという専門用語もあるが、一般的な言い方ではなく、口語ではmale menopauseが普通。Some doctors say that there’s such a thing as male menopause.(医者によっては、男性にも更年期があると言う)。男女を問わず、中年になって肩凝りや神経痛が出だすと、これはa sign of ageである。You’re getting a stiff neck and shoulders pretty often these days. It must be a sign of age. (最近、よく肩が凝るようだけど、もう年だね)。*最近の体の不調が更年期からくるものとわかり、何か大きな病気でなくて安心した。Now that I found out the physical discomfort I've been experiencing lately comes from menopause, I'm relieved to know I don’t have any major illness.

The second edition had some entries that have long-since been judged to be inappropriate and are no longer part of common parlance.

スケ a broad (second edition, p. 439)
「スケ」とは「女性」を意味する下品な言葉。broadもやはり日本語の「スケ」に輪をかけた下品なスラングなので、使う際は要注意。ただし、抜群の美人を評してShe’s some broad.(すごい女だ)のように使う場合もある。a chickと言えば同じ「スケ」でもbroadよりも少し上品になる。She’s my chick. (あれは俺のスケさ)。このほかone’s old ladyというのもある。学生などが好んで使うスラングで、これをone’s old manとすれば、女性の方から見た「恋人」「男」の意味になる。昔は、old lady、old manはそれぞれ「母親」「父親」の意味だった。*彼女に手を出すなよ。俺のスケだからな。Keep your hands off her—she’s my broad.

The third edition sought to update for diversity.

かれし/かのじょ[彼氏/彼女] one’s boyfriend/girlfriend (third edition; p. 269)
boyfriendやgirlfriendは、ただの「男友達」「女友達」ではなく「恋人」の関係を表す言葉。このほかone’s ladyとone’s manという言い方もある。昔はone’s old man、one’s old ladyと言っていたが、近頃ではoldをつけないで言うのが一般的。“Are you guys interested in seeing this movie this weekend?” “I’ll have to check my schedule with my lady.”(「お前ら、週末にこの映画を見に行くってのはどう?」「僕、彼女との予定をチェックしなくちゃ」)。以下、「恋人」関連のさまざまな言い方を紹介しよう。one’s partnerは「決まった相手」のことで、男女問わず使える。ただし、結婚相手・配偶者を指す場合もある。昔はやったone’s steadyという言い方は今では古くさく聞こえる。one’s partnerの代わりにoneʼs significant otherやoneʼs significant someoneという言い方もよく使われる。「大事な人」といった意味合い。sig-oという略語まである。面白いところでは、a friend with benefitsという言い方がある。性的関係があるという含みがあるが一対一で付き合っているわけではない関係を指すので、「割り切った関係」「セックスフレンド」にあたることもあろう。“Are you two dating?” “Not exactly. We’re more like friends with benefits.”(「あなたたち、付き合ってるの?」「というわけでもないけど、お互いに楽しくやってるってとこね」)。ついでに、「恋人はいますか」という聞き方は、Do you have a girlfriend [boyfriend]? でもよいが、Are you seeing anyone?とかAre you dating anyone?といった聞き方がさりげなくてお勧め。*シンディに手を出すなよ。俺の彼女だからな。Keep your hands off Cindy―she’s my girlfriend.

Another example from the second and third editions shows how the editors gradually tried to address issues of bias.

ぜんだまとあくだま[善玉と悪玉] the good guys and the bad guys (second edition, p. 469)
西部劇からきた表現。末尾の例文にある映画、テレビの中の「善玉」「悪玉」だけでなく、次のようにも使える。In this case, the Americans were the good guys and the Soviets were the bad guys.(この件では、アメリカは善玉、ソビエトは悪玉であった)。善玉が「白」なら悪玉は「黒」を連想させるのは万国共通。The good guys are usually in white and the bad guys are usually in black.(普通、善玉は白い服を、悪玉は黒い服を着ている)。ちなみに、「主役」はa leading roleまたはthe lead、「脇役」はa supporting role、「端役」はa bit partである。*多勢に無勢だったが、奇跡的に善玉は悪玉全部を片づけてしまった。The good guys, though far outnumbered, managed miraculously to wipe out all the bad guys.

ぜんだまとあくだま[善玉と悪玉] the good guys and the bad guys (third edition, p. 541)
西部劇がらみでよく使われた表現。末尾の例文にあるような映画、テレビの中の「善玉」「悪玉」だけでなく、次のようにも使える。From the West’s perspective, during the Cold War the Americans were the good guys and the Soviets were the bad guys.(冷戦時代、西側の見方では、常にアメリカが善玉、ソビエトが悪玉であった)。善玉が「白」なら悪玉は「黒」を連想させるのは万国共通。The good guys are usually in white and the bad guys are usually in black.(普通、善玉は白い服を、悪玉は黒い服を着ている)。ところが最近では、映画『スター・ウォーズ』シリーズのダースベイダーのような準主役級の悪役も登場し、善玉・悪玉と単純にくくれなくなった。an antihero(アンチヒーロー)の誕生である。ついでながら、健康に気を使う人の間でよく話題にのぼる「善玉菌と悪玉菌」はそのままgood germs and bad germsまたはgood bacteria and bad bacteriaでよい。「善玉コレステロールと悪玉コレステロール」もgood cholesterol and bad cholesterolでよい。多勢に無勢だったが、奇跡的に善玉は悪玉を全部片づけてしまった。The good guys, though far outnumbered, managed miraculously to wipe out all the bad guys.

In some cases, the revision involved simply adding new examples reflecting recent usage.

につまる[煮つまる] boil down (second edition, p. 649)
この英語の第一義は、むろん料理法における「煮つめる」だが、転じて「(いくつかの案のうちどれを選択するかを決める上で、議論が)煮つまる」の意にも使われるようになった。「(結論に向けて議論が)煮つまる」ならprogressである。The discussion progressed and it seemed like we would reach a conclusion at last.(議論も煮つまってきて、ようやく結論に到達できそうに思えた)。ほかにnarrow downがあるが、これはむしろ「(論点などを)絞る」という感じ。To save time we have narrowed down the subjects for discussion.(時間を節約するため、討論の議題を絞った)。時にwork out the detailsをあてている例も見かけるが賛成できない。この表現は「(基本的なことは終わり)細目について検討する」という意味だからである。*行く先は熱海か伊東のどちらかにしようというところまで煮つまった。Where we would go boiled down to a choice between Atami and Ito.

につまる[煮つまる] boil down (third edition, p. 738)
この英語の第一義は、むろん料理法における「煮つめる」だが、転じて「(いくつかの案のうちどれを選択するかを決める上で、議論が)煮つまる」の意にも使われるようになった。「(結論に向けて議論が)煮つまる」ならprogressである。The discussion progressed and it seemed like we would reach a conclusion at last.(議論も煮つまってきて、ようやく結論に到達できそうに思えた)。ほかにnarrow downがあるが、これはむしろ「(論点などを)絞る」という感じ。To save time we have narrowed down the subjects for discussion.(時間を節約するため、討論の議題を絞った)。時にwork out the detailsをあてている例も見かけるが賛成できない。この表現は「(基本的なことは終わり)細目について検討する」という意味だからである。なお、近年、「議論が煮詰まってしまって、もう誰からもいいアイデアが出てこない」のように「議論や考えなどがこれ以上発展せず、行き詰まる」という使われ方をすることも多いが、このような状況はDiscussions have come to a standstill lately, and nobody has been able to come up with any good ideasと表せる。*行く先は熱海か伊東のどちらかにしようというところまで煮つまった。Where we would go boiled down to a choice between Atami and Ito.

Revision or deletion followed two main patterns:

  • The Japanese itself had become outdated, so headwords were either eliminated or changed to an equivalent. Similarly, examples describing situations or mindsets that have changed were modified.
  • Political correctness/demeaning expressions. Headwords and examples which are avoided today because they are considered derogatory or non-inclusive were dropped or changed.

Approximately 100 headwords were dropped. They included (the English versions are those used in the second edition) 老いらくの恋 (December love); オールドミス (spinster); 社用族 (“expense accounters”); 唐変木 (a damned fool); ニヒル (a cool aloofness); 順法スト (a slowdown strike); ハッスルする (hustle). About 70 headwords were updated. Some examples are: イカす (neat) →カッコいい (cool) ; シャッポを脱ぐ →脱帽する(take one’s hat off to); 相好を崩す→満面の笑みを浮かべる (grin from ear to ear); ガールハント→ナンパする (pick up girls); 骨皮筋衛門→ガリガリにやせた(人)scarecrow.

How many copies of MC have been sold since it was first published in 1977? Is it a best-seller for Asahi Press?
MC is a paper dictionary, but it is also bundled with our E-DIC electronic dictionary. So, including the electronic version, I would say around 500,000 units have sold.

Who is the main target reader?
The target readers are Japanese users of English. By age bracket, the largest number of reader feedback postcards we received is from purchasers in their 60s and 70s, probably because this is the age group for whom writing postcards comes naturally. Younger people tend to have more active personal interests, so it is older people who are more likely to enjoy leisurely perusal of a work like MC.

Please share any other insights you have about this project.
I thought that the age for publishing a physical dictionary was past, but I was pleasantly surprised by the favorable reactions to the third edition. That may be because readers perceive MC as a work for reading rather than as a dictionary for simply looking something up. Readers mention how they become intrigued when looking up an expression and end up reading other entries. We have heard that some people would like an electronic version, but their numbers are not so large.

*   *   *

We also asked SWET member and veteran professional translator Julie Kuma, who served as proofreader for the third edition, about her experiences and impressions of the book.

We hear that you worked on the revision of Modern Colloquialisms in the capacity of “proofreader.” How did you come to get involved and was the work something your interests and experience had prepared you for?
I first came on board this project in November 2019 as an “informant,” but that job description actually covered a wide range of tasks. Initially, I provided feedback to the Japanese writers who had selected certain new entries or examples to be included in the revised edition, and on-the-spot translations into English for their Japanese sample sentences, during several face-to-face meetings. I also revised some of the existing translations of the English examples. That work continued through December, and then proofreading began when the book was in galleys, around March 2020. Sato-san also often asked follow-up questions by email.

While the publisher’s editors surely had their priorities, what were the things that you saw in the older editions that seemed problematic and in need of revision for a 2021 edition?
What caught my attention especially were the words reflecting outdated gender roles and sexist language. For example, every keisatsukan was a “policeman”; I suggested “police officer.” And when women were mentioned, it was usually in the context of spouse, office assistant or similar, and there were often references to their appearance or their competence or lack thereof, so I tweaked those as well. The original edition entry nikumenai-otoko (a man impossible to hate) evolved to nikumenai hito (someone who’s impossible to hate, p. 734), and incorporated a more inclusive sample sentence.

There were also some expressions in the text that today would be considered pejorative, for example, “to welsh,” etc. I would explain why a certain word or phrase was a problem, and we would change the sample sentences accordingly.

One interesting tidbit that Sato-san related was that when the dictionary was first compiled in 1977, many of the people (ahem, men) involved were veterans of the 1968 student movement and subsequent political activism, so the “class struggle” element was apparent in some entries even in the 1982 revised edition.

Can you give some examples of the entries that you worked on and how that went? Was the translation being done by other members of the revision team?
I’m not familiar with those details. I assume that the initial translations were done by the translators listed in the front pages, but I don’t know whether they were part of the revision team.

One somewhat problematic aspect was how to handle references to shachō and other business-related titles in the entries. In Japanese it’s perfectly natural to say “shachō so-and-so” or “the shachō did this and that,” but most of the time, it does not sound natural to use “company president,” directly translated as a title or term of address. I usually recommended “boss” or “manager,” except in some cases where “company president” was appropriate for the context.

Were there some entries that captured your fancy or interest in particular? Some that reflect the history of this nearly 40-year-old book? Do the new entries fit in well with the old ones?
Among the new entries that I contributed to are shitataka (tough), p. 438; setsunai (one’s heart aches with sadness), p. 536, and sha ni kamaeta (cynical), p. 466. Some the existing entries for which I was able to provide fresh example sentences include dengeki (sudden), p. 660; fuminijiru (trample on [over]), p. 876; nanshoku o shimesu (have reservations [about]), p. 729; and yakubusoku (beneath someone’s abilities), p. 1,017. Sometimes there would be a Japanese sentence to gloss in English; other times it was necessary to come up with an original sample sentence.

See for example the entry for ハーフ (bicultural; p. 770). This was inserted in the 1982 second edition as (half—and half) but did indeed reflect its times; the third edition entry is considerably revised and gets rid of “Eskimo” (replaced with Inuit) and “half-breed.” Another expression that called for revision was 立役者 (a key figure; p. 584), which was added in the second edition glossed as “kingpin”; it is made more inclusive in the third edition with the more widely applicable “a key figure” and “star player.” Another interesting entry that was much expanded in the third edition is 玉の輿 (a Cinderella story; p. 589).

Many of the entries have remained through all three editions: torihada ga tatsu (get goose bumps), p. 702, and nameru (take someone for a fool), p. 726, reflecting the sound selections made by the original compilers and setting the tone for the dictionary.

We heard that you and Sato-san got together regularly to discuss the revisions. How did that help to move the project along that might have been difficult otherwise?
Initially, Sato-san thought we could do the back-and-forth by email and that I would send the marked galleys back to her, especially since coronavirus cases were surging at the time (March 2020). The first state of emergency responding to the coronavirus pandemic had just been declared and we were wary of venturing out. But it soon became apparent that we would have to meet face-to-face because going through the fine points was just too complex to do in writing.

So, we began meeting at a café in a mutually convenient spot, hesitant behind our masks, although we were sitting side-by-side to look at the galleys together, so that minimized the risk. I was given the galleys in Japanese alphabetical order (a-ka-sa, etc.) to review and correct beforehand, and we met once a week or so, depending on when the galleys were ready, to discuss various points, right into November 2020.

During and after this process, Sato-san frequently emailed questions as well. One example of a question that came up was regarding 縁の下の力持ち (an unsung hero; p. 166), where it is noted that if the person is a woman, it should be “unsung heroine.” Apparently, there was a recent TV drama with that as the title so the question was, could “an unsung Cinderella” be used in the definition. I explained that Cinderella had not done anything that could be called “heroic,” other than enduring her mean stepmother’s ill treatment, and was mainly rewarded for being a good person, and as far as I knew, the phrase “unsung Cinderella” was unlikely to be understood as fitting the 縁の下の力持ち meaning. I found an example online using “unsung heroine” for their reference.

In the case of めちゃくちゃ (p. 986), the example given, この文章はめちゃくちゃ had been mistranslated “This sentence is all screwed up.” Sato-san explained that the intended meaning of 文章 was a piece of writing, and asked for a better version, so I suggested that it be rendered as “This writing is all screwed up” and the interpretation “utterly confused” was added.

All in all, going through the process face-to-face was good because during discussion of some entries, a new angle might arise which might not have occurred to me if we had been going through the process by email.

After publication, a query received from a reader was about the p. 20 entry, 愛人 (a mistress), where this person wanted to know why “a” had been omitted from the example given, “She lived her entire life as 《mistress》 to a famous Dietman.” (彼女はさる有名な国会議員の愛人として一生を過ごした。) I replied that depending on the context, the Dietman could have one or several mistresses. “Mistress to…” implies that there is only one mistress, whereas “a mistress to…” would normally be taken as implying that the man has more than one.

Your already very deep knowledge of Japanese must have further improved in the course of associating with the project over the 14 months of your work. How was that?
I did come across some Japanese expressions that I had not heard before, but it was probably my English, or at any rate, my cultural literacy, that improved. Having been away from North American culture for 50 years, there were some turns of phrase that I had never previously encountered, and researching various points relating to some of the content also fleshed out my knowledge. I came to Japan in 1970, so I have to do research like anyone else when it comes to Western TV programs or popular music after that time!

This was a very interesting project, different from the usual straight J-to-E translation tasks, and I greatly enjoyed working with Sato-san, a person truly dedicated to her profession. As she mentions, there is much to be said for just reading MC, not only for young folks in the throes of learning language but for veterans alike, always looking for deeper insight into the nuances of Japanese and English words and expressions.

(Compiled and edited for the SWET website by Julie Kuma and Lynne E. Riggs, August 27, 2021)