I wish I could speak more languages.  My French, though far from fluent, is quite sufficient to feel myself to be subtly different while speaking it. The less said about my German the better. That old saw “you gain another language and you gain another soul” has a truth to it, provided one is sufficiently generous in allowing the use of the word ‘soul’.

Flaubert described human speech as “like a cracked tin kettle, on which we hammer out tunes to make bears dance when we long to move the stars”, which sounds pretty much like all language. But some languages do better at some things than others.

Japanese, for instance, has issues with blue and green. There are words for blue, ‘ao’ and green, ‘midori’. But a green light at the famous pedestrian crossings outside Shinjuku station in Tokyo is described as ‘ao’ – blue, even though it is not discernibly different from the green light at Piccadilly Circus or Times Square.

Ao’ is also surrounded by a dense thicket of associations, being linked to notions of freshness and youth, or even unripeness. This means that just as we would say a piece of fruit was too green to be good to eat, a Japanese speaker would use ‘ao’ rather than ‘midori’ – saying it was ‘too blue’. The connotations of rawness extend to metaphors such as a ‘green recruit’ – although in Japanese we would say that she was blue (have a look at James Stanlaw’s chapter on this in “Color categories in Thought and Language” edited by Hardin and Maffi). The reasons for this… I have no clue. I think that until several hundred years ago ‘midori’ was barely used at all. I do know that other languages have similar features and will be delighted to be educated if anyone out there knows the answer.

To play with how different Japanese and English are, not to mention the limitations of online translators, check out Translation Party. This website takes an English phrase, translates it into Japanese, and then back into English, and then to Japanese again. It keeps doing this until it stops changing, at which point it stops and proclaims that ‘equilibrium’ has been reached. Occasionally, the equilibrium contains a surprisingly resonant image which was buried in the original.

For example, this is the equilibrium reached by a famous passage of science writing.

Support for parents CHEKKUWAMU complex plant, using the birds, many kinds of insects, forest soil fun, creative songs flitting, Banking Law, a disease that is crawling.

If you are in the aftermath of longevity, maximum power, and law and, in the case of this form, the evolution of this change, the beauty of my life, I have to create a gravitational pull of the Earth, adding a solution.

What is forest soil fun? And ‘Banking Law, a disease that is crawling’ makes it sound like it has been reading the financial pages. And CHEKKUWAMU?

And as for the second paragraph… well the aftermath of longevity can be only one thing, yet it seems to lead to ‘this change, the beauty of my life’.

I will buy a pint for the first person to work out what this started out as in English. Just so you know it is two sentences, which were input separately. And it is really rather famous.

And I am more in awe of Haruki Murakami‘s translators than ever.