As a tribute to the great actress Setsuko Hara, who recently died after decades of seclusion, my brother watched her in the 1951 movie Repast (めし) and sent me this piece about it by Catherine Munroe Hotes; it has a linguistically interesting section which I’ll share here:
If I were a teacher of Japanese, I could imagine using Naruse’s Meshi to teach students about one radical difference between men and women in Japan: the use of language. The different usages of language between men and women in Japanese is apparent in all family dramas, but in Meshi it is foregrounded by film’s title, which is also a key motif throughout the film. The difference between men’s and women’s Japanese rarely comes across in the subtitles because it is difficult to translate. The translators of Meshi had a real problem translating the title in particular and I’m not sure that they were successful. ‘Repast’ is a rather formal-sounding French loan word and it’s in my estimation, a bit of an archaic word for a meal in English. In contrast, the Japanese word ‘meshi’, as I will elaborate in a moment, is very informal. I can’t really criticize whoever came up with the title ‘Repast’ though, because there would also be the complication of the different usages of words for meals among different regions of English speakers (supper and tea have very different meanings depending on what side of the Atlantic you are one for example). The noun ‘meal’ itself also has multiple meanings just to add to the translation difficulties.
Focusing on the Japanese meanings of ‘meshi’ though, the first dilemma when translating the title of the film is that it can mean both a meal and rice. As rice is the staple of all traditional Japanese meals ‘gohan’, the synonym for ‘meshi’, also means both a meal and rice. ‘Gohan’ is the word that most students of Japanese will learn and it is what women will use with each other and when talking to men. It is more polite than ‘meshi’, which men will use with each other and when talking to their wives.
Does that ring true to my Japanese-speaking readers? And what do you think about the English version of the title? (Thanks, Eric!)