Pronunciation Dilemma

Monday, November 3, 2014

I have a dilemma.

My current work-in-progress is a middle grade (4th-6th) historical novel that tells the story of a half-Japanese girl living in California during World War II. I need to use Japanese names and a few Japanese words to make it authentic. When I read, I pronounce words in my head, and I assume many other readers do, too. I’ve always been lousy at foreign languages, but I am doing my best to learn basic Japanese pronunciation using Internet and print/CD resources.

But my middle-grade readers aren’t going to do that, so I am trying to make it as easy as possible for them to hear the words correctly in their heads. It won’t happen with every word, and even when I can get close, I’m not looking for exact pronunciation. Some of the tongue and mouth actions that form the sounds are unfamiliar to Americans, and even the various sources I’ve listened to pronounce the same word differently, much like in the U.S. (Do you say tomayto or tomahto?) Still, I’d like to get as close as I can.

I have the biggest difficulty when two vowels are next to each other. Unlike English, in Japanese you get only one vowel to a syllable. That means contiguous vowels are in different syllables and are pronounced separately. At least that’s the theory. Americans have a tendency to run syllables together, and many of the Japanese pronunciations I’ve heard do the same thing. (The speakers don’t identify their nationality, however, so they may be American speakers.) It’s even more complicated when the vowels aren’t pronounced as an American reader expects. My natural inclination is to pronounce the name “Keiko” as Kee-koh, when it is really more like Keh-ee-koh.

I’ve gone out of my way to choose names without two adjacent vowels, but I can’t avoid all potential mispronunciation or I’d run out of names before characters.

Avoidance is also not a solution for double-voweled words like “Issei” and “Nisei,” which run rampant throughout my manuscript. They were common terms among the Japanese Americans and highlighted a distinction that was extremely important at the time. “Issei” were the first generation in America, and U.S. law denied these immigrants the right to become citizens. “Nisei” were the second generation, and they were citizens by virtue of being born here. I have to use those words.

I think I’ve done a good job incorporating the meanings of Japanese words into the flow of the story, but I’m also planning on putting a glossary at the end of the book. And that’s where the dilemma comes in. If I add pronunciation to the glossary, do I use the technical Japanese phonics, the formal American pronunciation key, or an informal one close to the actual sound?

Take “Nisei.” From what I’ve been reading, the formal Japanese pronunciation should be broken down to something like nee-seh-ee for the three syllables ni-se-i. The online dictionaries all use nē’sā (the formal American pronunciation key indicating that it is pronounced as two syllables with a long e and a long a) or the less formal nee-sey. When I hear it, I hear nee-say. So what do I do?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.


The Japanese characters at the top of this post spell “Nisei” according to Wikipedia.

1 comment:

Linda Glaz said...

Great post and important points for writers of ANY genre.

Post a Comment