Stuck in the Middle.

Stuck in the Middle: A Bilingual, Multicultural Comic Series by Ru Kuwahata is obvious LH fodder; I particularly like the suggested European responses to “How are you?”: French “It is what it is,” Dutch “I am terrible but such is life,” and Eastern European “We live, we die, so what.” (Obviously, these are not what people actually say but the cartoonist’s version of their general attitude.)


  1. The translations from (or to) Japanese are very interesting. They are very free but smooth and appropriate renditions.

    For example, the very first sentence goes:

    One day, somebody offered me very generous opportunities.
    Aru hi, shinsetsu na kata ga, watashi no tame o omotte iroiro to tasukete kureyō to shimashita.

    Translated quite literally, that means, “One day, a kind person, thinking of my benefit, tried to help me in various ways.”

    Of course no one would want to go with a literal translation like that, but it’s striking how many differences of a large and small nature there are between the English and the Japanese.

    For instance:

    then…Who am I?
    Are….? Watashi wa nihonjin yo nee?

    “Huh…? I’m Japanese aren’t I?” (Again, an inadequate literal translation.)

    Or at customer service:

    I’m terribly sorry for making you feel sorry.
    Gomeiwaku o okakeshimashite makoto ni mōshiwake gozaimasen deshita

    The Japanese is standard polite speech: “I am truly sorry for giving you trouble”

    Followed by:

    It’s a “sorry” battle.
    Ayamatta mono gachi ?

    The Japanese is literally “The one who apologises (the most) wins ?”

    The differences are delicious. This kind of thing could only be produced by a Japanese who has lived overseas at formative periods in her life. Someone who slaved through Japanese high school could never produce such free, smooth, natural equivalents in the two languages.

    Truly the mark of someone stuck in the middle 🙂

  2. Thanks, I was hoping you’d weigh in with some good explication!

  3. I agree that the translations are great!

    The point about “where are you from” being a difficult question is interesting to me. As someone whose pie chart looks similar to Ru’s, but who looks non-Japanese to Japanese people (although half of my ancestry is Japanese), I’m also not quite sure what to say when I’m asked in Japan. I did have a phase in my life where the question annoyed me, and I would point out that I was born in Japan. Recently I usually just say that I’m from Denmark and explain further if people ask why I speak Japanese.

  4. It’s sad that most people everywhere are uncomfortable with complexity and prefer to put other people in tidy boxes.

  5. Talking about “tidy boxes” – that’s exactly what Ru Kawahata’s “eastern european” is. What a tired depiction of a cold war stereotype. It’s like people who talk about Africans or Asians as if they are all the same.

  6. @ zyxt

    You may be right. But the Japanese is subtly different from the English.

    French person:

    It is what it is.
    Jinsei wa sō yū mono yo
    “Life is like that”

    Dutch person:

    I am terrible but such is life
    Taihen da kedo, sore ga jinsei da kara ne
    “It’s tough but that is life you know”

    Eastern European:

    We live, we die, so what
    Tadoritsuku no wa shi. Da kara nani yo
    “(We) end up at death. So what (do you want to say)”

    Perhaps this doesn’t alleviate your problem with pigeonholing, but the English is arguably more in-your-face with the differences than the Japanese.

  7. “Tidy boxes”—sure. There are blunt Japanese, short Dutch, and thrifty Americans, too. It’s a cartoon of the accepted manners of the dominant class for each country.

  8. marie-lucie says

    European responses to “How are you?”: French “It is what it is,”

    I have not lived in France for many years but I do go back once in a while, and there I interact with family members of all ages as well as other people, and I sometimes hear unfamiliar words or sayings. But I can’t identify the actual “French response” above! It does not ring any bells. Can someone provide a (re)translation?

  9. C’est la vie.

  10. marie-lucie says

    Bathrobe, merci!

    But C’est la vie does not mean ‘It is what it is’! “That’s life” or “Life’s like that”, anyway some mention of “life”.

  11. I would think that “it is what it is” is a rather lengthy translation of ça va.

  12. >It’s a cartoon of the accepted manners of the dominant class for each country.

    Yes, despite the fact that in each case, possibly excepting Japan, the cartoon is ancient and no longer applies. Any Americans here who’ve been offered a monetary discount in return for late delivery? Is “great” a common reply to “how are things going?” in your world. “Pretty good” or “ah, fine” would be close to modal in mine. (And as my young daughter, reading now-ancient children’s books, points out; “fine” used to mean really good, dad. It doesn’t mean that any more.)

    And I don’t get how someone who lived in Japan 16 of her first 20 years can pretend to have trouble answering the question “where are you from?” This is not exactly the classic American-raised, Asian-phenotype, every-day accented person justifiably tired of the question. Is this question also subtly different in the Japanese?

  13. Her experiences are just different than yours, that’s all.

    And I don’t get how someone who lived in Japan 16 of her first 20 years can pretend to have trouble answering the question “where are you from?”
    I always have had trouble with that question, which people often ask me as soon as they hear me talk. Certainly four years after coming to the States it would not have been an easy question for me to answer.

  14. I don’t know, I’m a 40-yr-old American, & I’ve recently heard people respond, “Great!” when asked how they were doing, and I’ve never received a monetary discount for a late delivery that I can remember, but I’ve at least a few times (=at least three, maybe more) received a monetary discount for bad service, as with, especially, the cable/internet company), and (tho this was almost 20 yrs ago), I used to do tech support for a website, & many Americans would call up obviously looking especially for a discount for some perceived bad service (& they usually got it from me, too, regardless of circumstances, unless they were really a jerk about it). And I’m lucky enough to never have been in this situation, but I know that the question, “where are you from,” can be really difficult to answer for lots of people, especially in circumstances such as those depicted in this comic

  15. Anent C’est la vie:

    I originally noted that the translations from and to Japanese are very free but smooth and appropriate.

    I need to modify that. Ms Kuwahata is translating between two of her native idioms: ordinary colloquial Japanese and ordinary colloquial English. I suspect that these both have their limitations, especially her English.

    To be more specific, the language that she has picked up in the U.S. appears to be based on the modern pet phrases, turns of speech, and general attitudes that typify U.S. English in recent decades. These are the kinds of thing that people pick up very quickly in a new linguistic environment, especially if they are young.

    I am not immersed in American media or culture. The first time I heard “It is what it is” was from a Chinese friend who had spent a number of years in Canada and the U.S. She had a great repertoire of such turns of phrase that she’d picked up during her time in those places. I didn’t think much of “It is what it is” at the time but I was certainly impressed by her ability to come up with such a succinct way of encapsulating a situation. It was only later that I found out that “It is what it is” is rampant in recent American English and that her usage wasn’t particularly creative. As for myself, even now “It is what it is” doesn’t have a firm place in my stock of everyday expressions.

    I suspect that Ms Kuwahata is of the same generation as my Chinese-Canadian friend. She appears to have picked up fairly demotic English during her stay in the U.S. and in most cases her language seems fairly close to what I imagine are typical American speech ways. On the other hand, I also suspect that, being so demotically based, at some points her English lacks some of the deeper background that we might expect in a translator. “C’est la vie” is a case in point. Even uneducated English speakers probably have at least a nodding acquaintance with this expression. I suspect, however, that Ms Kuwahata does not.

    The Japanese that she uses, Jinsei wa sō yū mono yo “Life is like that”, or more literally “Life is that kind of thing”, is a fair approximation of the French. Another way of saying it might be Sore wa jinsei sa “That’s life!”. Either will work.

    The problem is that Ms Kuwahara, while knowing the Japanese equivalent of the French, is possibly not aware of the French original. In order to render the meaning of “Life is that kind of thing”, she has resorted to one of the pat American expressions she knows. In an American setting it could be regarded as a reasonable translation as far as it goes. In representing the prototypical French expression “C’est la vie”, however, it falls rather flat.

    I still find her differing renditions of English and Japanese “delicious”. They are, as I said, fairly free but generally appropriate translations between her two native idioms. If there are limitations, they are due to limitations in her mastery of the two idioms, but this does not detract from their freshness. They are the kinds of translation that people brought up in a monolingual environment are unlikely to hit upon.

    Anent “identity crisis”:

    The English says “Before I suffer further from this identity crisis…” The Japanese is Jibun o mi-ushinau mae ni “Before I lose sight of myself”.

    The whole point of the cartoons is that Ms Kuwahara doesn’t feel that she is totally from anywhere. 5 to 7 in Alaska would have been a period of childish dislocation but could have been written off if she had gone back to Japan and remained there for good. But 16-18 in California is at the tail end of the identity creation period. Two such absences from her homeland, followed by two periods of fitting back in, would surely have loosened her moorings to her own culture. Her ‘rootlessness’ or ‘internationalism’ (however you want to look at it) was enough to propel her back to New York as soon as she was 20. Ten years working in an American environment would have sealed her feeling of separateness. After several years in a Dutch environment, I can see why she no longer feels that she fully belongs in any of those three cultures.

    Of course, we don’t know her background (parents in Japan? husband in Holland? visits back to Japan?), but it seems to me that periods of immersion in non-Japanese cultures during childhood would be sufficient to make a person feel like she is not a typical inhabitant of her own native country. The fact that a Dutch person was surprised at her willingness to say no, unlike ‘the Japanese he knew’ (this isn’t rendered in the English), underlined her sense of wonderment at her own identity, which was the impetus for doing the cartoons.

  16. is possibly not aware of the French original.

    Oh, judging from song titles, セ・ラ・ビ or セ・ラ・ブィ has the same resonances in Japanese just as in English.

  17. has the same resonances in Japanese just as in English

    Good point. So I wonder why she felt impelled to translate it as “It is what it is”….?

  18. So I wonder why she felt impelled to translate it as “It is what it is”….?

    It is not a translation of anything! As I said in the post: “Obviously, these are not what people actually say but the cartoonist’s version of their general attitude.”

  19. Is there any evidence that “It is what it is” is supposed to be a translation of “C’est la vie”? I understand it as Hat does: “these are not what people actually say but the cartoonist’s version of their general attitude”. For one thing, “c’est la vie” isn’t an idiomatic answer to “How are you?”, though maybe that’s true of “It is what it is” and the Japanese version too.

    Edit: Hat got there first, and more succinctly.

  20. marie-lucie says

    Typical French dialogue: Comment ça va? – Comme ci comme ça!

    ‘How are things/you? – So so! / Not too bad!’

  21. marie-lucie says

    You would only say C’est la vie as a comment to moderately bad news, same as That’s life (it can’t be changed, we have to accept it).

  22. Right, but “C’est la vie” is irrelevant here.

  23. marie-lucie says

    LH: Of course, but that’s my point (just in case it needs reinforcing).

  24. My Manx great-grandmother (b. 1879, but I knew her well, as she lived to be 101) would respond to “How are you?” with “Goll as gaccan” (“going and grumbling,” a characteristically Manx phrase).

    This is such a plausible response to the question that I think the Manx should be generally adopted as a default.

  25. I like that very much.

  26. Of course it’s not a “translation”, but still, why does she feel that “It is what it is” is a good characterisation of the French attitude when it literally drips contemporary North American — especially when her Japanese version is a translation of a real French expression. Given that she presents these as European stereotypes, I would call this one a ‘fail’.

  27. On the overall I find her Japanese slightly more apt than the English: it expresses typical Japanese attitudes in typical Japanese language. Her English works great for North America, perhaps slightly less so than for Europe, and at this particular place I found it a little jarring. But of course, she does call herself ‘stuck in the middle’, and that’s what she manages to convey quite brilliantly.

  28. And after all, it’s pretty much inevitable that English that works great for North America is going to work perhaps slightly less so for Europe.

  29. David Marjanović says

    Typical French dialogue: Comment ça va? – Comme ci comme ça!

    Ça va? – Ça va, ça va.

    Ça va? – Ça va, et toi? – Ça va.

  30. Trond Engen says

    When my kids were small and my sister still was still living in Paris .. dammit, it must be twelve, maybe thirteen years ago this summer … I taught the kids my School French response to Ça va? Ça va bien, merci, et toi?. I soon discovered that school learning has its limitations in the prectical world. No, I didn’t. It worked quite well, actually, since everybody wanted to say hello to the cute kids with the quaint greeting.

  31. I think there might be a reason for the author to avoid the precise formulation of “C’est la vie”. The purpose of the free translation, after all, is to deliver unfamiliar content in a deliberately familiar-to-a-fault language.

  32. marie-lucie says

    David M: Thanks for the ça va examples. Indeed, except in very formal contexts you could go a long way with just those two words and a choice of intonations at your disposal.

    I cited comme ci comme ça in an attempt to find a semi-equivalent to the phrase proposed in the Japanese list.

    Trond: Your own School French was pretty up to date. Older texts might have used Comment vas-tu? which (in France) would be considered ridiculously formal among children.

  33. I think “C’est la vie” and “it is what it is” both share the sense of “not perfect, but I didn’t expect that anyway”, so in a free translation, it works for me. I guess the awkwardness comes from the former having a very French feel, while the latter has a very American feel.

    > Another way of saying it might be Sore wa jinsei sa “That’s life!”.

    While grammatical, “wa” seems quite unidiomatic here. Do you mean “Sore _ga_ jinsei sa”?

  34. You are probably right. There are a lot more ghits on “Sore ga jinsei sa” than on “Sore wa jinsei sa”.

  35. Trond Engen says

    I thought the French answer/attitude was meant to render comme ci comme ça rather than ça va.

  36. > There are a lot more ghits on “Sore ga jinsei sa” than on “Sore wa jinsei sa”.

    For the benefit of others, the former can be glossed “That SUBJ life COP” and the latter “That TOP life COP”, so broadly, “ga” is a postpositional subject marker and “wa” is a postpositional topic marker. The ga/wa distinction is very important to Japanese, yet very hard to both teach and learn.

    By the way, in (at least my ideolect of) Danish, “det er livet” (that’s life) is actually a comment on a luxurious life. “That’s the life (I wish I could live)” or something like that. The version that accepts misfortune would be “sådan er livet” (such is life).


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