Repast.

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!)

Comments

  1. The quoted passage all seems pretty accurate to me. Repast is a reasonably good movie title, but it’s a terrible translation for meshi – pseudo-poetic rather than everyday and intimate like the Japanese word. (It’s also worth noting that the title is written as hiragana めし rather than as the kanji 飯, further emphasizing the implied intimacy and informality of the word.)

    Meal would wrongly suggest that the whole movie was about a single meal. Perhaps Meals would have the right quality of suggesting household life in general – but there is something unappealing about the sound of that word in isolation. Rice and Food might be considered as alternatives, since meshi (like Chinese fan 飯) encompasses both these concepts in a way that suggests they are essentially the same thing. But to English-speaking audiences, Rice might carry a hint of The Exotic Orient—precisely the sort of connotation we would want to avoid here. More colloquial terms for food tend to be restricted to particular varieties of English. (Nosh?)

    So perhaps Food is the best direct translation I can come up with, but it doesn’t convey quite the right sense of intimacy, and it isn’t especially appealing as a movie title. It might be better to try coming up with something that sounds good in English rather than trying and failing to capture all the subtle nuances and connotations of meshi in Japanese. Hmmm…. how about Repast?

  2. I think that along with intimacy and implied informality of “meshi” is the lack of what you might call modern refinement. It’s a word made of morphemes already present in the same combination in OJ, although apparently the meaning “food” didn’t appear until much later. So ideally if you were translating it with a single word or phrase you would want one that goes beyond mere “food” to evoke some more primal feelings. Maybe “Sustenance”, if that weren’t so… Norman. One big problem, the flip side of the Exotic Orient issue mentioned in DMT’s post, is that all the powerful words or phrases along these lines include or strongly imply “bread” in Western European languages: “staff of life”, “daily bread”, etc.

  3. A couple of afterthoughts…

    I have a vague impression that Japanese women use meshi when talking to children. (Or perhaps only when talking to boys? I’m not at all sure about this, and I’d be interested to hear other people’s comments.)

    The history of the word meshi is also fascinating. The verb mesu (originally “to call, summon”), became a very general-purpose honorific verb (“to rule, wear, eat, do, buy, etc.”; this honorific usage survives in the contemporary honorific verb meshiagaru “to eat, drink”). During the Muromachi period (14th-15th centuries), the noun form meshi began to substitute for the now archaic ihi as a term for rice and other grains. During the Tokugawa period (17th-19th centuries), women of the pleasure quarters used the form o-meshi (with added honorific o-).

  4. Matt – Can you elaborate on “made of morphemes already present in the same combination in OJ”? My own notes on the word history are straight from the concise version of Nihon kokugo daijiten, which notes that there are other proposed etymologies but doesn’t go into details.

  5. When did meat cease to mean “food in general”, as the Scandinavian cognates still do, and take on the current meaning?

  6. DMT – The etymology I carry around in my head for “mesu” is “mi (look) + asu (honorific auxiliary)”, giving “myesu” in (e.g.) Frellesvig’s transcription, giving “mesu” in modern times. In the Man’yoshu you can find “myesu” written with 食 AND 見 (as well as 召, the standard kanji today, and phoneticaly). Some examples I just grabbed at random from the Oxford Corpus of Old Japanese:

    御念食可 = omoposi-myese ka
    所聞食 = kikosi-myesu
    見之賜者 = myesi-tamapeba
    所聞見為 = kikosi-myesu

    I’m not sure if the “mi-asu” etymology is considered standard or proven yet but it makes sense to me, as does the expansion from “see” to “do”, “own”, “reign over”, “eat”, etc. in the case of an exalted person like the emperor (which is who most of these poems are about, anyway).

    I think that the “call, summon” etymology is based on a different analysis where the “su” is interpreted as causative. I don’t find this as convincing as the honorific etymology, because (a) “the emperor augustly saw [=summoned] the man” strikes me as a more likely circumlocution than “the emperor caused [the man?] to see [him?]”, and (b) the honorific -asu is well attested as are the processes that would give you mi+asu = myesu > mesu, whereas the causative -su is more sporadic thing in the OJ lexicon.

  7. Max Pinton says:

    How about “Grub”? It doesn’t have the dual meaning, but might capture the male informality.

  8. Juha: The transition took centuries. The ‘food’ sense is recorded last by the OED3 in 1794 (not counting the idioms like meat and drink, whose figurative sense still survives), but the sense ‘flesh’ is recorded first in 1385.

    Max Pinton: Grub, like many such “home words”, is regionally specific: to an American it would suggest an insect larva. Indeed, I think expecting such a word as meshi seems to be to have a single equivalent across all Englishes, a language with far more cultural range than Japanese, is futile.

  9. Do we not use “grub” for food here? I can’t say I’ve ever used it much, but I’ve always been aware of it and haven’t thought of it as non-American. But it’s true that if I just saw the word alone as a movie title, I might well think of the larva meaning first and imagine it was some kind of Cronenbergesque sci-fi horror film.

  10. Alon Lischinsky says:

    @John Cowan: out of the first 50 hits for grub in COCA, only 15 are in the ‘insect larva’ sense, vs 27 for ‘food’.

    Even so, the undesired association would probably make the term an unwise choice. What about chow?

  11. I didn’t mean that Americans would think only of larvae, just that the unwanted association would be there.

  12. “Chow” and “grub” both feel kinda jokey to me. Not really good for this film. Could be a good match for a comedy though.

  13. When Chinese men want to parade a Japanese word they know, they frequently trot out mishi mishi, which is supposed to mean ‘food’ or ‘having a meal’. It looks fairly obviously a wartime word. One can imagine rough Japanese soldiers peremptorily shouting “Meshi! Meshi!” (“Food! Food!” or “Hurry up with the food!”) at the hapless Chinese.

    For some reason it’s been corrupted to Mishi! Mishi! The avenue of transmission to modern day China isn’t clear, but it could just as easily be movies as word-of-mouth transmission.

  14. @JC: Thank you very much!

  15. Trond Engen says:

    I think that along with intimacy and implied informality of “meshi” is the lack of what you might call modern refinement.

    In Norwegian I think the connotations might be rendered with forms of the verbs spise and ete. In urban usage the former is used at home and in formal settings where the latter is considered rude, the latter is used in tough talk between boys and colloquially between men. Rural usage will be different, especially among older speakers.

  16. Is tucker an exclusively Ozzie word?

  17. Well, since /me/ isn’t a valid Mandarin syllable, it would become either /mə/, /mi/, or /mei/.

  18. @juha: From my American perspective I only know “tucker” as an Australian word, yeah. But we do have the verb “tuck in”, meaning to eat heartily.

  19. Wow, I’m glad I asked! And it does seem clear that there’s no good way to provide even an approximation of the connotations of meshi in English, so why not Repast? As DMT says, it’s a good movie title.

  20. “Repast is a reasonably good movie title, but it’s a terrible translation for meshi – pseudo-poetic rather than everyday and intimate like the Japanese word”

    Is “chow” standard enough to carry this?

  21. John,
    “Max Pinton: Grub, like many such “home words”, is regionally specific: to an American it would suggest an insect larva.”

    Not necessarily. “Grub” and “grub-stake” are very old in the US (“Grub stake” sounds like an old prospectors expression from the 19th century.) More recently “grubbin'” was teenage slang in the 90’s.

  22. Why not use the Japanese word, since it seems to be hard to translate… That worked for Tampopo, after all.

  23. Trond Engen says:

    I’d guess that the Japanese word used alone is rather neutral and its unkempt connotations especially noticeable in the circumstances explored in the film. Could it be done in English by pitting something simple and blunt like ‘eating’ against a formal-ish expression like ‘having a meal’?

  24. Not necessarily. “Grub” and “grub-stake” are very old in the US (“Grub stake” sounds like an old prospectors expression from the 19th century.) More recently “grubbin’” was teenage slang in the 90′s.

    You’re surely not suggesting that either of those is more prominent in the mind of Americans than the ‘insect larva’ sense. The point was not that that was the only possible meaning but that that meaning was strong enough to color the use (without context) as a movie title, which I think is inarguable.

    Could it be done in English by pitting something simple and blunt like ‘eating’ against a formal-ish expression like ‘having a meal’?

    Hmm, now that you mention it “eating” might work as a title, though probably not as well as “repast.”

  25. Mealtime?

  26. “You’re surely not suggesting that either of those is more prominent in the mind of Americans than the ‘insect larva’ sense. ”

    There are Americans and Americans, I guess, and I think we may have come up against a regional difference. You are basically East Coast as I recall, and that may be the difference. Or you may be right, it may be personal – I think about food a lot more than beetles.

  27. I am in fact East Coast (though I went to college out west), so that may have something to do with it. I think a lot about food, too, but I don’t think I’ve ever referred to it as “grub” unless I was taking on the persona of an old cowhand.

  28. I think a lot about food, too

    My father, complaining about a visit from Churchmouse after his departure: “He talked of nothing but his dinner, and after dinner, he talked of nothing but his breakfast.” My father was the only member of my family who didn’t give a hoot about his food.

  29. Alon Lischinsky says:

    @languagehat:

    You’re surely not suggesting that either of those is more prominent in the mind of Americans than the ‘insect larva’ sense.

    Surely that’s impossible to determine without actual psycholinguistic experimentation, but if frequency of use can be considered a reasonable proxy, the food sense seems about twice as prominent.

  30. Yeah, I may have been underestimating the number of Americans who still use what I think of as an outdated regional colloquialism.

  31. David Eddyshaw says:

    What! Setsuko Hara is dead?
    I’m bereaved. I always liked the idea of her out in Kamakura refusing to see journalists.
    Films are pretty good, too.

    Glad someone has mentioned Tampopo. The ultimate food movie.

  32. marie-lucie says:

    Here in Canada I know what grub is: food of any kind that you are eager to get when you are hungry. A grub is something different, a kind of short, thick worm-like creature that lives underground. The adjective grubby must derive from the second meaning: how you get when mucking around with dirt.

  33. Indirectly. It comes from grub ‘dirty child’. The PIE root has to do with digging, which of course tends to make you dirty: grave is related.

  34. David Marjanović says:

    German Grab “grave”, graben “dig”.

    To avoid a major stylistic fauxpas, we “shovel” our own graves instead of “digging” them.

  35. But in English we still dig ditches.

  36. I was struck recently by how much subtitles of Japanese films leave out. I was rereading O’Neill’s wonderful Reader of Handwritten Japanese, which offers a translation (with transliteration and grammatical notes) of the first 25 items and Number 100 – and for the remainder offers only transliteration, grammatical notes, and a glossary of unusual vocabulary. The effect is naturally to bring to the fore grammatical elements of items one, ahem, would need to go to a lot of trouble to decipher. And these frequently focus on aspects of a verb, noun, or adjective which are humble or honorific. Example:

    6o. ORAREMASHITA The combination of a humble verb (here oru = neutral-level iru, “be”) with an honorific passive/potential ending (-(ra)reru) is used when the speaker wishes to express respect for both the third person, the subject of the verb, and the person he is addressing: the use of the humble verb indicates respect for the person addressed, and th honorific ending shows respect for the third person. The phrase here thus = (itte) imashita. The only other verbs commonly used in this way are mōsareru, “(he) says,” and mairareru, “(he) goes/comes.”

    I don’t expect an English subtitle to capture all this in a language which doesn’t mark such distinctions grammatically (or even otherwise, much of the time), but I saw that these nuances would matter in many films I particularly admired. I could not help longing for DVDs with something extra, the option of displaying grammatical comments on the original script…

  37. I could not help longing for DVDs with something extra, the option of displaying grammatical comments on the original script…

    Great, now you’ve made me want yet another impossible object of desire. World peace, move over…

  38. Keith Ivey: And sing songs, and even dance dances.

  39. I think there’s a name for that rhetorical figure, but I’m damned if I can remember it.

  40. Trond Engen says:

    Figura etymologica.

    Every time Helen DeWitt turns up here I wish I could tell how much I, too, love The Last Samurai without being embarassed. Well, I, too, do, but I really hate reading it on my Kindle, so it’s been going on for almost six months and counting, in many minor binges rather than one major.

  41. Figura etymologica.

    Thanks, that’s it!

  42. I use the term “cognate objects”.

  43. gwenllian says:

    For what it’s worth, as an ESL speaker, I’m aware of the other meaning, but food is by far the first thing that comes to mind when I hear grub. No idea where I picked it up.

  44. David Marjanović says:

    For what it’s worth, as an ESL speaker, I’m aware of the other meaning, but food is by far the first thing that comes to mind when I hear grub. No idea where I picked it up.

    That’s interesting; before this thread, I didn’t know this meaning at all and was only aware of “big insect larva”. The things a biology background will do to you…?

  45. marie-lucie says:

    In my case, unless the conversation was about garden pests, grub is more likely to refer to food. Not really a word that I would personally use, though, as it does not sound very appetizing.

  46. Gordon Bennett making an appearance in the swearing thread reminded me how grub was cemented as food in my mind. Only Fools and Horses!

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