It’s been a month since George Floyd, a Black man, died when he was assaulted by a white police officer, and protests are continuing across America. There are many opinions about how to translate the protest movement’s slogan, “Black Lives Matter,” into Japanese – “kokujin no inochi mo daiji” (“Black lives are also important”), the more direct translation of “kokujin no inoch wa daiji” (“Black lives are important”), or something else entirely.
While some readers criticize the use of “mo” or “are also” as being too loose of a translation and for sounding strange, others claim that using “wa” or “are” is too direct and fails to capture the meaning of the movement. The political considerations behind emphasizing Black feelings of discrimination or stressing that “All Lives Matter” are intricately entangled, and the roots of the problem of how to accurately express this with a limited number of characters or broadcast time run too deep. If people reach consensus about a translation, readers may wonder why that translation is appropriate or why people are rejecting the direct translation of “Black lives are important.”
I will leave the history and background of BLM to the many other articles that explain it, but I want to tell you about the message of a Black girl which clearly explains the current situation. It’s noteworthy that when the phrase Black Lives Matter first appeared, Japanese articles used both “Black lives are also important” and “Black lives are important,” and “are” and “are also” are still intermingled, without agreement on a translation.
They are intermingled because a direct translation fails to capture the nuance of the language.
Natsume Soseki’s “Wagahai wa Neko de Aru” loses much of its flavor when it is translated into English as “I Am a Cat.” You certainly can’t say that Black Lives Matter is the same thing, but there is a common thread in the difficulty of directly or loosely translating foreign languages.
I think it’s important to find an accurate translation. Yet at the same time, readers want to know the implications of the language which are not expressed in the words, or the context in which those words were created.
’Wa’ and ‘Mo’ Used About Equally
Among the articles published between 2012 and 2019 found in a comprehensive search using Fujitsu’s G-Search service, “Black lives are important” and “Black lives are also important” were used about equally.
I went on to search articles in national newspapers, NHK*, etc., since Floyd’s death in late May to find out whether there was a trend regarding “wa” and “mo.” Likewise, there was not much of a difference.
There were occasional cases of variation; within the same newspaper company, articles using “Black lives are” were intermingled with other articles using “are also.” Furthermore, “Black lives are” and “Black lives are also” were almost always used as translations of “Black Lives Matter.”
NHK explains that there are many points of view among those in the know. “Based on the outcry that ‘Black lives are as important as those of other races, including white people,’ this can be translated as ‘Black lives are also important,’ but there are many opinions about how to translate this.” The Asahi Shimbun explained the context behind the words in a June 13 article, “Understand from the Beginning! What Does ‘Black Lives Matter’ Mean?” I’ve listed articles that discuss the subtleties involved in translating Black Lives Matter below. The list explains the difference in using “Black lives are” and “Black lives are also” along with other ways of saying this.
They’re Not Saying Only Black Lives Are Important
Rather than debating the merits of these explanatory articles, I’d rather introduce a message that briefly summarizes Black Lives Matter. It was written on a poster carried by a Black girl named Armani:
“WE SAID → BLACK LIVES MATTER
NEVER SAID → ONLY BLACK LIVES MATTER
WE KNOW → ALL LIVES MATTER
WE JUST NEED YOUR HELP.”
Her mother says she saw this on Facebook, showed it to Armani and made her message board. This should communicate part of what Black Lives Matter is all about.
*Translator’s note: Nihon Hoso Kyokai is the Japanese national broadcasting company.