It’s Murphy’s Law if you don’t get the joke in Japanese

If you miss the punch line to a Japanese joke, don’t feel bad. It’s simply unrealistic to use something as elusive as humor to measure your ability to understand a foreign language. On the other hand, knowing what makes people laugh is a great incentive for language study.

Years ago, I found the lessons in my university’s Japanese textbook rather dull, and set out to supplement them with more amusing materials. I was reminded of those efforts last August, when I read the お悔やみ (okuyami, obituary) of veteran TV entertainer Takehiko Maeda (前田武彦), who had passed away at the age of 82.
I’d enjoyed a book by Maeda — long out of print, alas — titled 「毒舌教室」 (“Dokuzetsu Kyoshitsu,” “Lessons in Poison-tongue [malicious language]”), published by Kobunsha in 1969. Maeda’s “lessons” were basically sarcastic jibes or insults aimed at people in different occupations. One I recall, directed at a yakitori (grilled chicken) shop operator, involved a customer complaining about the grisly texture of the skewered meat by inquiring, この鳥、餓死したのか (kono tori, gashi shita no ka? Did this chicken die from starvation?). To which the proprietor laconically retorted, いや、 コレラで… (_iya, korera de…, _no, [it died] of cholera …). Japanese, to their credit, do not like to be left out of a good gag. One of the most successful examples of marketing American humor here was the translation of Arthur Bloch’s book, “Murphy’s Law and Other Reasons Why Things Go Wrong.”

Murphy’s Law postulates “If anything can go wrong, it will.” It’s said to have originated from an American engineer named Edward Murphy, who was working on deceleration research for the U.S. Air Force back in the early 1950s. In Japanese, Murphy’s Law is rendered as 失敗する可能性のあるものは、失敗する (Shippai suru kanōsei no aru mono wa, shippai suru, a thing with the possibility of failure will fail). While not a literal word-for-word rendering, this does a good job of conveying the meaning while retaining the brevity and irony of the original. By contrast, a well-known commentary to the law, マーフィーは楽天家だった (Māfī wa rakutenka datta, Murphy was an optimist), could be translated directly. Translated and published by ASCII in 1993, Bloch’s book was a resounding success, with more than 2 million copies sold. I suppose that had something to do with the timing of the book’s release: It appeared just after the collapse of Japan’s バブル経済 (baburu keizai, economic bubble). And what better way to describe a catastrophic economic crash than to invoke Murphy’s Law?

Curious to know how ASCII pulled it off, I visited the office in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, and met editor Satoshi Endo, who told me that the translation of Bloch’s book had gone through several stages of painstaking 試行錯誤 (shikō sakugo, trial and error) to make sure the meaning and the humor would shine through. As one example, let’s take one of the 選択的重力の法則 (sentakuteki jūryoku no hōsoku, laws of selective gravity), which states in Japanese, バターを塗った面を下にして食パンが着地する確率は、カーペットの値段に比例する (batā wo nutta men wo shita ni shite shoku-pan ga chakuchi suru kakuritsu wa, kāpetto no nedan ni hirei suru, the probability of the bread falling with the buttered side down is directly proportional to the cost of the carpet).

Just as in the English, the Japanese phrasing, while economical, sounds slightly もったいぶった (motaibutta, pompous) and ばかげた (bakageta, absurd) by turns, taking an otherwise trivial situation and expressing it as a universal truth. Actually, Japanese have their own native sayings that view the human condition with irony and wit, such as 転べばべったり糞の上 (korobeba bettari kuso no ue, if you fall down, it’ll be smack dab on top of excrement). Another expression about how things can go from bad to worse (similar to the English “when it rains, it pours”) would be 泣きっ面に蜂 (nakkittsura ni hachi, bees [stinging] a crying face). Following up on the success of the first book, ASCII invited readers to formulate and submit their original observations, which in 1994 it published in「続・マーフィーの法則:現代日本の知性」(“Zoku Māfī no Hosoku: Gendai Nihon no Chisei,” “Murphy’s Law Continued: The Sophistication of Contemporary Japan”), featuring several hundred contributions.

One that I liked was “Nishida’s law of natural shop decrease,” which postulates: 二日酔いの前日に行った店の数は、思い出せる数より一つ多い (futsuka yoi no zenjitsu ni itta mise no kazu wa, omoidaseru kazu yori hitotsu ooi, when hung over, the number of shops where you went [to drink] the previous night will be one more than the number you can recollect).

Truly, the disciples of the 日本マーフィー普及会 (Nihon Māfī Fukyu-kai, Japan Association for Dissemination of Murphy) have proved themselves to be apt pupils.