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I am reading Thousand Cranes (千羽鶴, Senbazuru) by Yasunari Kawabata at the moment after finding the slim booklet in my late grandfather's library.

In chapter two, in english titled The Grove in the Evening Sun, in German Die Abendsonne über dem Wald, I came to the sub-part number two. Suddenly, I noticed that the protagonist, Kikuji, was explicitly talking about Chikako Kurimoto - at least in the translation into German by Sachiko Yatsushiro - not using a form like "Fräulein Kurimoto" (Misses Kurimoto) like Yukiko Inamura he was talking to but instead using the somewhat rough "die Kurimoto" (the Kurimoto). The most noticeable section, after this has happened 3 times, explicitly calls this out for the fourth time:

Und was mochte sie von ihm denken, daß er ihre Lehrerin einfach "die Kurimoto" nannte?1

My best translation into English would be this:

And what might she think of him that he called her teacher simply "the Kurimoto"?

This implies, that in the Japanese original, there was a very specific form of formality that was different from the normal, possibly expected form of "Kurimoto-San" or "Kurimoto-sama".

To a European reader, it might not be noticeable at the first mention - and indeed it slipped my mind till that sentence above. However, it should be quite more noticeable for a reader of the Japanese original, as honorifics and formal language (Keigo) are often lost in the translations. In this case, Sachiko Ytshushiro did a tremendous job of using the closest formal addresses when possible, yet it still is impossible to see which form of formality - or rather informality Kikuji used to refer to Chikako Kurimoto.

So, how does Kikuji refer to her?


1 - Yasunari Kawabata, Sachiko Yatsushiro (transl.): Tausend Kraniche, Fischer Verlag Frankfurt am Main & Hamburg (1956), p.54.

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# I don't quite remember the story, correct me if I'm wrong.

The sentence you quoted seems to be originally

菊治がちか子を栗本と呼び捨てにするのを、令嬢はどう聞いているのであろうか

I suppose Chikako = Kurimoto = Inamura's teacher and 令嬢 (a girl from usually rich family) is Inamura.

呼び捨て(Yobisute) means calling someone without honorifics (-san, -sama, -kun, etc.). So the above sentence literally means How does the girl listen to the way Kikuji calls Chicako by Kurimoto, without honorifics?, and the informality you are asking is the lack of honorifics, where Kurimoto is someone to whom some respect is supposed to be shown.


I guess it is very untranslatable to Western languages, and at least "the Kuramoto" in English won't work because it would mean the family when it refers to Chikako. It may be similar in German. At the same time, just using Kurimoto would look too normal to Western ears.

One thing I can think of in English is using "that Kurimoto", but I feel calling-without-honorific isn't that rude.

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  • Not directly relevant, but the following could give an idea about the complications of honorifics in Japanese How does last name-kun/chan compare to 1st name-san?
    – sundowner
    Commented Apr 22 at 5:31
  • Using "[article] [surname]" is a construction that does exist in german and english and is used in some areas to refer to a specific person. E.g. "die Merkel" would generally be understood to refer to the retired politician Angela Merkel and would be a little on either the rude side or somewhat familiar, creating the slant from context.
    – Trish
    Commented Apr 22 at 5:35
  • @Trish Yeah, but do you use it for someone you personally know? I kinda understand I can say Heute habe ich die Merkel auf der Strasse gesehen (since of course I don't know her), but (mostly thinking in English) using the/die/... surname in a context like the conversation feels unusual.
    – sundowner
    Commented Apr 22 at 5:45
  • EIther way, though I'm not 100% sure, there can be a discrepancy between the ... and 呼び捨て like I mentioned in the last paragraph.
    – sundowner
    Commented Apr 22 at 5:47
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    In Bavaria using it for people you know is more acceptable than in other areas if germany, but it is generally on the socially acceptable side, which is where the cultural disconnect in translation stems from. It's actually standard form if talking about someone not present, though using honorifics like Herr/Frau is often preferable.
    – Trish
    Commented Apr 22 at 6:03

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