I want you to try to picture some fresh celery and parsley chopped up and mixed in a lettuce salad. And pour some Italian dressing on it. Imagine that until you can smell it and taste it.
You got that? Okay.
Now, follow me closely. The word for “celery” in Japanese is “serori”. What can I say? It’s an imported word. There is no Japanese word for celery so we Japanize the name and call it serori. Parsley is called “paseri” and lettuce is called “retasu” and salad is “sarada”. So now we have some chopped serori and paseri in a retasu sarada seasoned with Itarian doressingu. Any takers? I didn’t think so.
Still don’t get it? Take your time and let the sound roll off your tongue.
A retasu sarada with serori and paseri.
How is that supposed to smell and taste?
That said, what do you associate with the word “lemon”? Yes, I am talking about that citrus fruit with a sour juice, not the ones made in Detroit that you are tricked into buying by the fast talking Chevy dealer with a Stars-and-Stripes lapel pin. What else can a lemon be?
Can you sustain an open mind? I am NOT asking you to suspend your disbelief. I am just asking you to step back and accept the idea that some people have different perspectives of the world. One man’s lemon is another man’s salvation, is all that I am saying.
Maybe not exactly “lemon”. How about “remon”? Not all of you will be able to see this properly unless you reconfigure the settings on your computer, but the word is actually “檸檬”, and it carries a whole different array of connotations.
“Remon” is the title of a short story by Kajii Motojiro. It is also the title of the collection of short stories that was the only published work of his lifetime before he died prematurely of tuberculosis. A liberal arts student at Kyoto University, he struggled with both tuberculosis and his literary career in the early 20th century.
Like celery, parsley and lettuce, lemon was an imported item. In fact, it was much more than that. It was an imported concept. Here is an except from The Fight Club to give you some perspective:
“Do you know what a duvet is?”
“It’s a comforter…”
“It’s a blanket. Just a blanket. Now why do guys like you and me know what a duvet is? Is this essential to our survival, in the hunter-gatherer sense of the word? No. What are we then?”
“Right. We are consumers. We’re the by-products of a lifestyle obsession.”
A lot of people resonated with this dialog because a “duvet” seemed like such a fancy pansy foreign word.
Now picture two regular guys in a non-descript bar in turn-of-the-century Kyoto, getting drunk on cheap sake.
“Do you know what a lemon is?”
“It’s citrus fruit.”
“It’s a condiment like sudachi or yuzu or kabosu. Just a sour fruit. Now why do guys like you and me know what a lemon is? Is it essential to our survival?”
In reality, of course, Japanese men would have called it “remon” instead of “lemon”.
And, of course, a “remon” was a very foreign item.
Which brings us back to Kajii Motojiro.
This man wrote a very short, minimalist, highly distilled description of what it is like to die from a slowly progressing lung disease. You cough a lot, but that is not directly described. You keep wondering if you are coughing more today than yesterday, but that is not directly described either. You live in a state of panic fatigue because you panic many times a day thinking “Is this it? Is this the moment I choke to death?” but that is only hinted at. You are lifeless, but you are somehow distantly aware that you have a mild fever, and that is described, but only because the you pick up a lemon, a very stylish foreign agent of modernity and frivolity that you can surely live without, that feels cool against the ever-so-slightly feverish skin of the palm of your hand. Of all the things in the world, a fresh lemon is what tells you that there is still some warm human blood in your body.
You wander aimlessly around the city. You walk into Maruzen, a veritable Ikea catalog of the turn of the century, searching for something, anything, that can quicken you like fresh blood would a vampire. You flip through art books of Matisse and all you feel is the weight of the volume. You try Picasso and you feel no different. You pile the books of art that failed to inspire you in a stack and you suddenly remember the lemon in your pocket. You place the fresh lemon on top of the stack of the visually colorful but spiritually stale books, like a secret time bomb that would blow up the place. You leave the fashionable, cultured, artsy store, leaving your time bomb behind. What would the store clerk think when he finds that stack of forsaken books topped with a living, breathing, radiating embodiment of freshness? That refreshing thing that felt cool against your slightly feverish dying flesh, that thing you left behind in the book section of Maruzen in Kyoto, my friends, is a remon.
Thanks to that short story, a “lemon” in the Japanese language projects a very different image as does a lemon in any other language.
A lemon is still a lemon. We are still talking about the same citrus fruit. But the impression we get from the same word is totally different.
This is not fiction, this is true. In Japan, you can actually compliment a lady by telling her that she reminds you of lemons. Not roses and not daffodils, but lemons.
And that is the problem of the bilingual writer. You want to project an image of something in English, perhaps the image of lemons, but it does not translate into the language you are writing in.