Don’t ask why but the other day I found myself trying to discuss the French revolution with a Japanese friend and colleague. In Japanese. This topic falls way outside my usual vocabulary set, and not knowing how to say “absolutist monarchy,” I brought up that famous line attributed to King Louis XIV: “I am the state.” (In French, L’État, c’est moi.”）
I had no idea how that could possibly be expressed in Japanese, but fortunately my friend did: 「朕は国家なり」 (chin wa kokka nari). Whoa — never would have guessed that. My friend explained that “chin,” is an archaic male pronoun once used only by emperors and high-ranking nobility. When emperor Hirohito made his famous radio address to the Japanese people on Aug. 15, 1945 to announce Japan’s unconditional surrender, for example, he used the pronoun “chin.” (As an aside, that speech is called the 玉音放送 (gyokuon-hōsō), which literally means”Jewel Voice Broadcast.”)
Anyway, this got me wondering how other famous lines from history are expressed in Japanese. While we’re on the French Revolution, how about that infamous quote supposedly uttered by Marie Antoinette when she heard her people were starving for lack of bread: “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche.” (“Let them eat cake.”) I looked it up, and in Japanese that gets rendered as 「ケーキを食べればいいじゃない」 (Kēki o tabereba ii jyanai).
Next, let’s try that oft quoted line from Karl Marx: “Religion is the opiate of the masses.” (In the original German, “Die Religion ist das Opium des Volkes.“). Seems that one got translated as 「宗教は民衆のアヘンである」(shūkyō wa minshū no ahen de aru.)
I’ve always liked “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” which comes from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inaugural address. In Japanese, that’s 「恐れるべき唯一のものは、“恐怖” そのものである。」(osoreru beki yuiitsu no mono wa kyōfu sono mono de aru.)
And of course there’s that famous line (lie) by former U.S. president Bill Clinton: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” That got translated as 「あの女とは、性的な関係を持たなかった。」(Ano onna to wa, seiteki na kankei o motanakatta.) In Japan, Monica Lewinsky (モニカ・ルインスキー, monika ruinsukii) will go down in history as ano onna (“that woman”).
Feel free to add your own contributions in the comments sections below. I’m sure other readers will appreciate them. And for the record, “absolutist monarchy” is 絶対君主制 (zettai kunshusei).
I suppose there is a book of famous quotations in Japanese–but I guess it doesn’t come with ah English translation.
Thanks for your column. It is always interesting.
That is fascinating! Thank you so much!