Understanding Dr. Seuss in Japan


I grew up on Dr. Seuss. Japan didn’t. That’s sad to me, but I’m sure a childhood without Anpanman is just as sad to Japanese people.

Why Didn’t It Come To Japan?

Do I have to answer every question I present? Geez.

To be honest, I’m not sure. Why things happen has never been restricted to a single factor or motive. You might say that you like RPGs because Chrono Trigger converted you. But there were a thousand other factors brewing under the surface:

  •          Past game experiences
  •          Past storytelling experiences
  •          Views about the world
  •          Who your friends were
  •          What your culture had to say
  •          What you were reading at the time
  •          What you had to eat the day you sat down to play
  •          Your relationship status at the time
  •          Your work status
  •          Your exposure to elements of culture that made a game easier to digest
  •          Your knowledge of the language the game was presented in
  •          Whether the sun is or was out when thinking about the game

Oh, did I say “under the surface”? My bad. We’ve been talking about the surface all along. I could go on all day, but I don’t want to bore either of us. The point is simple: there are lots of reasons for something happening. In fact, when anything happens to you, take solace in the fact that it was the pebble from a landslide you felt. Take solace in your simplified understanding of how everything affects everything around you—it’ll help you sleep at night.

I like to believe in cause and effect. 因果 Nice and simple. Not like an infinite amount of factors involved in every effect that becomes a new cause of something else the moment it became an effect. I was going to write the Japanese translation of the above, but I gave up. It wasn’t worth it, in the same way that thinking about all the reasons for something happening is worth it.

So, here’s my simple-minded thoughts:

Looking at the last one, his translations feels too literal, which is a problem. The content is important, but its delivery is even more important. Oh, the nature of translations: focus on style or content? It’s a difficult task to translate style, so most opt to focus on content, but in Seuss’s case, his style was the main reason for his popularity.

Compare the Japanese to the English in this scene from The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. For the benefit of the Japanese, I’ll put it first.

I mean, it's still a fun scene. Merry, anyways.



……ダレモ村の こどもたちが
あさっぱらから はやおきを する。 おもちゃめがけて さっとうする。
そしたら! ああ もう るさい! るさい! るさい!
るさいったら! グリンチの きらいなことの ひとつは これだ。
うるさいこと! うるさいこと! うるさいことさ!

English Version:

. . . All the Who girls and boys
Would wake bright and early.
They’d rush for their toys!
And then! Oh, the noise!
Oh, the noise! Noise! Noise! Noise!

It makes an attempt to rhyme, like with the これだ and うるさいことさ. Perhaps the うるさいったら and あさっぱらから were supposed to rhyme or work together, but I couldn’t feel it. Am I biased? Yes. Am I a native Japanese speaker with years of Japanese language children’s books and Japanese-style poetry behind me? No. Will I stand by my belief that his style doesn’t hold up? Until good evidence to the contrary, yes.

“Not Getting It”

As I’ve said before, I can’t possibly comprehend the reasons why Dr. Seuss is virtually unknown here in Japan. In an effort to bring the “need for English” to the classroom, I got a nice collection of English books for young students (Most of them as Christmas presents! Thank you guys! 😀 ), which included Green Eggs and Ham. A classic!

When I read the book to my elementary students, a lot of them liked it. The teachers liked it too, but compared with the students, didn’t seem to understand it as well. The grammar confused them, it seemed. Interesting; the more grammar they had, the more caught up they were by the style…the worse their understanding overall. I spent time with the ones who wanted to understand to help them understand it better, which was good. Bringing it was more or less a success.

Then, the test I’d been waiting for. I brought it to my middle school English teacher. His English was good and conversational. He still had problems watching movies and following conversations between foreigners, but as far as I was concerned, he was an advanced learner nearing fluency.

“I don’t get it,” he said, after flipping through it. “What’s the point?”

“The point?” I mean, I guess it’s for children, so the point might seem a little juvenile. “Don’t hate something before you try it? Judge something after you’ve tried it?”

“Huh. I don’t understand. It’s a little hard to read.”

HARD TO READ!? And Thoughts On Grammar

Ugh. This is the problem with grammar teaching. People put their failures on their current knowledge of grammar. They blame misunderstanding on grammar. It’s like blaming your textbook for failing a class. It was always just there to help you. Using your helper as a scapegoat is quite sad.

Green Eggs and Ham is not hard to read. It’s odd to read, perhaps, but not difficult. The pictures always show exactly what the words are saying. The “high-level grammar”, such as using ‘would’ and ‘could’ interchangeably and employing odd conventions like calling the antagonist Sam-I-Am, seemed to confuse the heck out of adults. For kids, it’s whatever.

I’m not about to make an argument that kids learn languages better than adults. I don’t think that’s true. The only reason kids acquire second languages at all is if there’s a need for them. When you’re surrounded by a school and friends in a language you don’t understand, you pick it up. Adults are just really good at finding easy ways out of not doing something. That, and they’re rarely put in situations where they have no control over the language surrounding them.

Adult expats can find the foreigner bubble and avoid the need to learn the language.
Child expats who find a foreigner bubble at school will also have language troubles.

People often equate disparate scenarios. Adults who move to a foreign country and work in a expat environment see their children pick up the language “effortlessly”. Well, kids are just good at learning languages, they think while walking to their favorite expatriate bar. Never mind that your daily routines are polar opposites—you use English for 90% of your job, and he uses the local language for 90% of his schooling.

But I’ve gotten off topic. The point is thus: children don’t care about grammar. They’re not limited by it. They do their best to understand what’s given to them. They understand that the most important part of a language is context.

If you point to a chair and say, “this is a chair,” then point to a table and say, “this is a table,” then point to a door and say, “this is a door,” then point to a TV and say, “this is a TV,” and then ask another speaker, “What is this?” while pointing at the table, and they respond, “this is a table”, and then point to a TV and ask the same person, “What is this?” and they respond, “this is a TV”, and then ask a learner, “What is this?” while pointing to the chair, if they remember the word for chair, they’ll likely say “this is a chair”. Forget the fact that English questions employ fun things like word switching (“What is this?” “This is a…”). Someone who cares about grammar might ask why the words switch or what the words “this” or “is” mean. But unless you’re a teacher or a translator it doesn’t matter, and even for those jobs, whether or not it matters is debatable.

The point is the function of the words:

“What is this?” requires a response.
“This is a […].” varies on the object and can be used as a response to the above question.

That’s all that matters. And when you read a book in a foreign language, your goal is to understand. Poetry is especially difficult in this because it differs from speaking and writing conventions. But Dr. Seuss has a pretty understandable style. The problem lies in caring about the wording.

In context, the message is easy. It’s obvious. Students with almost no knowledge of English were outpacing teachers in comprehension. Why? They saw the patterns without seeing the grammar. For the teachers, it was the reverse.

Unfortunately, in most cases, grammar is broken. With poetry, meaning comes out almost in spite of the grammar. Understanding a language is about making sense of the words coming at you, not about adhering to grammar.

I like grammar. She’s my best friend.  So don’t you dare blame her for your misunderstandings. When you don’t understand Green Eggs and Ham after 6+ years of grammar study, you know that there’s something lacking in language education, and more years of grammar doesn’t look to be the solution.


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