Romance of the Red Dictionaries

by Leanne Ogasawara

DictionaryWe were so young back then.

Maybe that's why the absence of a shared language never seemed to slow us down much.

Arriving in Tokyo on Easter Sunday 1991, I was a recent college graduate and spoke no Japanese at all.

And Tetsuya spoke not a word of English.

In those days before smart phones and the internet (and with neither of us having enough money to buy an electronic device to help), we were stuck with his old student dictionaries to facilitate communication. He said they were from his 10th grade English class in high school. With their red leatherette jackets, one was Japanese to English and the other English to Japanese. We took them everywhere! In the early years, we hauled them in our bags all around Tokyo, placing them right in front of us at the table in restaurants and cafes; almost as if marking off the two worlds: English here and Japanese there.

We were endlessly looking things up. Too hard to read the foreign words out loud; one pointed to a definition, and the other read the translation, smiling and nodding— understanding at last.

Our romance with the red dictionaries lasted for ten years into our marriage; despite the fact that within a few weeks, we came up with our own means of communicating to supplement the dictionary definitions. Speaking a kind of made-up language, we disregarded grammar and often dumped the verbs (preferring to act those out in mime); he avoiding all pronouns, in the style of spoken Japanese, and me (having Italian blood) doing a lot of arm gesturing and pantomiming. We made do communicating in this manner, and the two red dictionaries became colorful accessories to all of our outfits—from formal gear to pajamas. And, although communication between us involved some physical effort, it was rare that one of us would feel frustrated at the inability to communicate something. Onlookers would laugh and shake their heads—perhaps attributing our ability to communicate without a shared language to young love.

In later years, after we were married and living in the Japanese countryside, we spoke exclusively in Japanese. Tetsuya came to prefer it, as he claimed that listening to my English made him tired. I often wondered if he didn’t prefer to have me restrained by all those polite forms of speech demanded in Japanese. So often, rather than speak my mind or try and make my point, I would concede to a point and avoiding conflict and the hardship of getting it right without being abrasive, just keep quiet.

And so I often thought back on the early days fondly. Our early conversations reminded me of one of my favorite stories by Italo Calvino; in which Marco Polo and the Great Kublai Khan also engaged in mutually unintelligible conversations. Calvino described the two as whiling away their afternoons together, where one imagined asking a question that the other would imagine answering. In this way, without a language, we too imagined ourselves talking of ancient empires or the color of the sky after a monsoon shower. Sometimes we would even talk of death.

(At least I think we talked of those things. I will never really know if he understood what I was trying to say and vice versa-it took many, many years of studying the language before I could be sure of anything).


It’s like opening one’s mouth and hearing someone else’s voice emerge, said Iris Murdoch about speaking a foreign language.

It's true. And, it's not just the mental somersaults of speaking and thinking in a language so linguistically different from English that made thinking about things in Japanese so stimulating. Living with verbs at the end of the sentences opened up many possibilities for playing around or for being ambiguous–but what was really mind expanding was to see myself over time transformed by the language itself; to discover that my mind has so many other chambers in it, and that I am capable of being so different –and yet remain the same person.

I mean, I definitely think I am a funnier person in Japanese. My friend Sachiko once complained that she disliked seeing me speak in English because I looked so different; older and more serious, she said. At that time, I thought she was teasing me for being sillier in Japanese, sounding like a child. But, now I think I see what she meant. I do think I am much more humorless and less apt to be conversationally generous in English. Of course, I no longer have to worry about female forms or polite language and can just say whatever I am thinking in English—but in the end, I wonder if I am as considerate and kind-hearted?

I have a friend who is proficient in multiple languages and one day he up and decided that he no longer wanted to think in English. One thinks different thoughts in different languages, he said, and he preferred thinking in French.

I do miss talking about the weather and the seasons. Of course, one can do that in English but people don't. Japanese has many poetic ways of talking about the changing seasons and it is a topic that people enjoy. I have heard British friends say as much, though, so maybe this is less about language than culture. I also miss shared allusions to poetry. I miss lighthearted joking and the ever-present imperative not to be unpleasant or cause any discomfort in whoever was on the other side of the conversation.

One of my Japanese teachers way back when implored that we keep in mind that less important than what we are saying is how we say it! It was in a class full of fluent kids of Japanese parents. They were fluent in the language but not knowledgeable about its use. She said, “You are all speaking Japanese as in translation. Japanese is not like English. You can’t just plug in the words. We think and say different things in different language so it is never a matter of just plugging in words, like some sort of machine translation.” She paused and then tried to explain some more, “When we speak Japanese it is like catch ball. Someone tosses the ball up and the other person needs to catch it and toss it back.” That means, no take downs and no in your face arguments. Whenever possible, find the common ground. Seek harmony in conversation and always aim to please!!

The LA Review of Books published an essay by Ilan Stavans in which the writer and translator reminisces about his Memoir of Language: On Borrowed Words.Born in Mexico to Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, Stavans was raised with two native languages: Yiddish and Spanish. When he was a young man, hes left Mexico to work on a kibbutz in Israel; later he married an American and moved to New York. Reflecting on his lives in Spanish, Yiddish, Hebrew and English— the translator engages self- translation:

I firmly believe that how one perceives the world in any given moment depends on the language in which that moment is experienced. Take Yiddish, which is, at its root, a Germanic language, but is strongly influenced by Hebrew. It also features Slavic inclusions. These distinct elements give the language a taste, an idiosyncrasy. The life I lived in Yiddish was defined by the rhyme, the cadence of the sentences I used to process and describe it. But this wasn’t my only life. I was born in 1961 in Mexico City into an immigrant enclave of Eastern European Jews, and so began speaking Spanish right alongside Yiddish. I have two mother tongues — di mame loshn and la lengua materna. Both shape my viewpoint. Eating in Spanish — dreaming, loving, and deriving meaning from life in that language — all these actions differ from their counterparts in Yiddish. The taste of things is determined by the words used to express it.

In Spanish, he feels unconstrained. He says he waves his arms more but the lyrical quality of the language grates on him. English, being much more “rigid and logical,” is preferably to think in, he says. But, he always prefers joking in Yiddish. He says the rhythm of the language lends itself to joking around. While liturgical and metaphysical, Hebrew is the language for praying…And I love his words that The taste of things is determined by the words used to express it.

After my marriage fell apart, and I returned to the US, I was not just returning to my country but was returning back to thinking and living life in my native language again after two decades. At first, I thought I would be so much more efficient in English.

Linguistically finally back ahead of the power curve, I no longer had to endlessly worry if I was being polite or using female forms of Japanese (this latter being one of my biggest fears in Japanese since I heard so much male Japanese at home and if I wasn't very careful, I was liable to stun people by using the verbs or vocabulary not associated with women). Back to thinking in English, I had high hopes about how much easier it would be to communicate with my new lover.

And surely being married to a man who speaks the same native language ought to make life easier, right…?

You would think it would and yet– as the years pass, I find that I miss myself in Japanese. Like Sachiko used to say about her discomfort in seeing me speak in English, my mom used to tease me as well, wondering how it was that her feisty and outspoken American daughter had become so polite and sweet? In Japanese consideration of the feelings and position of the other person is woven into the language and the innumerable choices one is forced to make expressing every thought. To speak true Japanese is to speak with empathy, mutuality, and community. Somehow the Japanese language, maddeningly simple in structure but complex in meaning, light and lovely in the ear and mouth, with it’s beautiful characters and rich seasonal vocabulary, reflects the people’s appreciation for the beauty and poetry of everyday life, the deeply observed passing of the seasons, and the variety and solace found in the natural world. Of course, it is possible to all of the above in English, as it is possible in any language, but for me speaking in Japanese lent itself perfectly to these things.

And so I wonder, what new possibilities might be open in thinking in a different language. Maybe in a different language I could become something else entirely yet?

But what language to learn?

Perhaps a dead language; for it would be a form of time travel. In the same way that the Japanese worldview was embedded in the language itself, I imagine the languages of cultures long past would open more archaic and timeless ways of being in the world. Think of all the metaphysical vocabulary in Sanskrit or the the way Ann Patty in her memoir, Living with a Dead Language describes reading ancient Roman poetry with its concepts of empire and paganism. Like learning a stringed instrument, the older one gets the more challenging language learning becomes, and Ann Patty decides to stay mentally fit by taking up Latin at the age of 57. Language learning, she concedes, is an activity for young people with their more plastic minds….. and yet, the allure of this idea (evoked so beautifully by Stavans in his memoir and Patty in hers) of the existence, in various languages, of different versions of ourselves, remains strong.