Repetition in Japanese vs. English

by Doreen Simmons

Once again kindly Aunt Eva is here to cluck over your problems and give you a shoulder to cry on. You take her advice at your own risk, of course; only you can gauge your own situation.


Dear Aunt Eva,

Writers of good English eschew repetition, but writers of good Japanese seem to have a much greater tolerance. (Not to mention writers of bad Japanese—I once translated a white paper in which the term “environmental conservation” occurred six times in a single sentence.) In my translation, when I’ve exhausted all the available synonyms I am sometimes reduced to using the same word twice, but editors always pounce. For your average words, such as “eschew” or “pounce,” how many pages should have elapsed before reuse? Are there any words which can only be used once in an entire book?

Evvie Anded

Aunt Eva answers:

Ah, memories, memories. Aunt Eva well recalls the narration job she did for the Welfare and Self-Insurance Section of the Federation of Small- and Medium-sized Enterprises—a name that is fairly snappy in Japanese, but a bit unwieldy in English. The translator, her old friend U. Piszov, had used all the tools of the trade—for example, merging clauses so that the subject was used only once, and using short forms like “the association,” “it,” or simply “we”—and had thereby most capably reduced the frequency of the name from once a line to once a paragraph.

No dice. The sponsors were paying big money (by their standards) to glorify their achievements at a world congress of benevolent societies, and they were not going to let themselves be short-changed. The full name was reinstated throughout. Fortunately, the technical challenge of getting her mouth round the organization’s name every nine or ten seconds prevented Aunt Eva from ruining her professional reputation by laughing out loud at the result.

But let us return to our muttons. A good general rule is that the more unusual and seductive the word, the less it can be used. Because it is memorable, the alert reader will notice it the second time it comes up—and will like it less. Fancy words are like cream buns: two are not twice as nice as one, and ten eaten at one sitting definitely do not make you feel ten times as good.

In the case of regular, bread-and-butter words, your strategy depends on the context. In a specialist paper, especially one that has a lot of long names, it is essential to find a usable abbreviation and sell the client on it in advance. This is how those apparently silly United Nations acronyms came into being. IMF is three letters; it represents International Monetary Fund, which has 25 letters and 10 syllables. FAO represents 30 letters, and 11 syllables; you can work out the Intergovernmental Maritime Consultative Organization (IMCO) for yourself.

Eva Hartupp

Quickie question:

In your last sentence you used ‘represent’ twice in two lines. Is this repetition acceptable?

Aunt Eva answers:

Especially in Japan, we find translators struggling not to repeat themselves at all: “26% of the respondents replied . . . , another 10% were of the opinion . . . , while 33% opined . . . , and a further 23% stated . . . ; on the other hand, 8% denied having any interest in the subject.” Fowler’s Modern English Usage, under “Elegant Variation,”  provides a suitable rejoinder: “It is the second-rate writers, those intent rather on expressing themselves prettily than on conveying their meaning clearly, and still more those whose notions of style are based on a few misleading rules of thumb, that are chiefly open to the allurements of elegant variation. But the real victims, first terrorized by a misunderstood taboo, next fascinated by a newly discovered ingenuity, and finally addicted to an incurable vice, are the minor novelists and reporters.” So there.

Unfortunately there are people in high places in Japanese academe who could do a clause analysis of that sentence and yet not get the point of what Fowler is saying.  In that case, Aunt Eva’s advice is: Negotiate. Failing that, weep.

From Newsletter Number 72 (October 1996)