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Thursday, December 21, 2006

 
Horse Mackerel by Any Other Name Would Apparently Taste Better
A while ago, my aunt loaned me Karin Muller's book Japanland: A Year in Search of Wa, since it had reminded her somewhat of my year in Japan. It's an excellently written book, which you'd expect from someone who makes documentaries for PBS and National Geographic. I'm actually sort of in awe of Muller, since she is really able to go out and really do things all by herself, where I often need at least the presence of another person to make me be adventurous. But after I finished the book, I noticed an item of linguistic interest.

At one point, Muller is staying in a ryokan run by a woman who apparently finds serving Westerners to be a huge chore, and delights in watching them fail to eat real Japanese food. Muller describes her breakfast like this:
I march downstairs, determined to disprove her Western stereotypes and polish off my plate. The meal is already laid out on the table: dried grilled horse mackerel, as stiff as sawdust soaked in Elmer's glue; pickled radishes and strips of seaweed; rice and tea and soy sauce; and – my heart quails – two servings of natto. (113)
The passage is of course followed by the requisite, in-depth, appalled and disgusted description of natto. (I can't recall having much of a reaction to natto, though I'm sure I must have had some at some point. I'll reserve my disgusted description for the stinky tofu dish encountered in China.) The thing that struck me out of the description above, though, was the part about the "horse mackerel." I've had this breakfast before, when the teachers went on the end of year trip to the really nice ryokan, and I knew the breakfast fish bits she was talking about. I actually thought they were good on the rice, and I thought it was interesting to find out it was called "horse mackerel," having been told the name only in Japanese.

Turns out, it isn't called horse mackerel. At least, not anymore. A week or so later, when I was read Forbidden Words, I read this:
Antipodeans are dubious about eating something called shark (perhaps it is because they sometimes eat us); so when shark is intended as food, it is called in Australian English flake, and in New Zealand English lemon fish. Well, why not? Apparently, no one would eat tuna either until the name was changed from horse mackerel – 'tuna' tastes better than 'horse mackerel', it seems. (182)
So my question is, did Muller use horse mackerel as a conscious choice to make the breakfast sound intentionally that much more weird and unappetizing? Or was it a dictionary translation problem? The Japanese do use the English loanword "tuna", or rather tsuna, but only to talk about tuna-in-a-can, not regular tuna meat. So do Japanese-English dictionaries translate whatever the real Japanese word for tuna is as horse mackerel still? I wouldn't be too surprised. Or was she using an old dictionary? We may never know…

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