where the writers are
Learning a Foreign Language: Esperanto

Five foreign languages have I learned in my time, to varying levels of fluency. The first was German, at high school and later at a college in Germany. Then came Korean, because I was living there, working as an English teacher. Then came Japanese, which I learned for the same reason as Korean. After that came Esperanto, which I'd been interested in since childhood, and last came French, just reading it, because I like comics and want to be able to read a bande dessinée (pron: bond DES-in-ey) if I want to, as there are so many of them. I'm best at Esperanto. My German has become rusty. I don't use Korean anymore but can remember a lot of what I learnt, especially the alphabet which is terribly easy and logical. Japanese is tortoising along.

I'll tell you about my experience learning Esperanto. First things first: Yes, a lot of people think it's weird. I know it. I was in a bookshop the other day, trying to get them to take a few copies of my Esperanto translation of Egg Story, Rakonto de Ovoj, on consignment. I had noticed that both comics and Esperanto tends to attract people of a similar mind. I've also sold a few Esperanto zines at comic conventions, and conventioneers are generally interested and supportive. But back to the bookshop; the reaction was a surprised if doubtful fascination: "But who actually speaks it? There's no country where it's the language." I told her honestly that I knew or was acquainted with 50-odd Esperanto speakers in Japan and Australia, and that we'd sold around 100 copies of Rakonto de Ovoj in those two countries (of a print run of 300) since publishing a few months ago. I said it's not to hard to find people who speak it. But I didn't convince her. I'd say that's a very normal reaction to something like this, so it doesn't bother me. Besides, you can buy it from here and there. Soon also to be available here.

What I did not tell my friend in the bookstore was that one of the best things about this language, perhaps the best thing, is that when you do meet someone who speaks it, you automatically feel at ease. It's like meeting an old friend. Imagine being the only one from your country in a strange foreign land where all the customs are different. You're there for a long time. Then after several years, you meet someone from your hometown by chance. You might have nothing in common with that person if you met them back home, but in that specific context, to have instantly so much in common with someone else would be grand.

So, why the Dickens did I learn this strange language, and how? It all started with Tintin, the famous Belgian comic book (bande dessinée - do you remember how to pronounce it?) by Hergé, which I loved as a child and is the main reason I make and still read comics today. I started reading that comic when I was about seven years old. In the front of any Tintin book is a list of the languages into which it is translated. As a young boy I was probably highly impressed with a list like that, it meant the book was really famous. One of the many languages was Esperanto. My interest was thus aroused. However I did nothing else with it until 2003, when I made Egg Story. I had a scene of a Street Fighter-type video game and I named one of the characters 'Amikino', which sounded sort of like a Japanese name, and means 'girlfriend' or 'female friend' in Esperanto. (It means, if written 編み機の, something like 'knitting machine's'. Thus later I gave her the full name 'Amikino Knittingmachine'. She cameos in most of my other comics.)

Egg Story contained a lot of Japanese language that I did not provide translations for. This motif, of putting untranslated foreign languages, has been repeated in almost all of my comic books since then. The Japanese in Egg Story is actually gibberish, ('volapukaĵo' as we say in Esperanto), as it came from the translation machine altavista.babelfish.com, circa 2003. Such inaccurate machine translations are fine if one doesn't happen to be able to read Japanese. It just looks like something exotic. However, when we translated Egg Story into Esperanto, my Japanese proofreaders suggested, rightly, that any Japanese reader of this book would be bothered by such crummy sentences, and proposed some finely-wrought new sentences, written in a classical, samurai-style idiom, of which I am very well pleased. We even have an allusion to the Japanese novel by Soseki, I am a Cat, or 吾輩は猫である, which is hard to translate accurately but is closer to something like, 'My lordly self is a cat' or, 'I am a cat, peasant.' In Rakonto de Ovoj, it's 吾輩は卵である, 'I am an egg.'  (Coincidentally, 'I am an Egg' was one of my possible titles for Egg Story, due to Soseki's novel.) All these new Japanese sentences in Rakonto de Ovoj have translations in the appendix, which is something the English edition lacks.

Do you remember how to pronounce bande dessinée?

In 2009 I finally started learning Esperanto, mainly at first by means of flashcard software at smart.fm, which was free in those days. I then started a simple blog in Esperanto to practice it. A fellow blogger in Kyoto, where coincidentally I was living, found my blog and contacted me. Some time later I met him in person. In 2010, I started going to the weekly Esperanto meeting in Kyoto, held in this slim green building downtown. Esperantists like green.

The main problem was that three of the members were very high-level speakers (two of them later became proofreaders for Rakonto de Ovoj) and the rest of us, about three or four others, couldn't keep up so well. They liked having me there, though, as it meant they could not krokodili, or 'crocodile', which means to speak one's native language at an Esperanto meeting. Krokodili is frowned upon, as one would expect, but it's almost unavoidable, as at every meeting there are bound to be people who aren't fully or highly fluent yet, and except at international meetings, most of the people present will have the same native language.

Do you remember what amikino means in Esperanto? In Japanese?

Some time after this I decided to join a club, the Esperanto-Societo en Hirakata, which was the closest to where I was living. They meet up in a place only 35 minutes away by bike. We had 5 regular members, with a similar problem of difference between high-level and low-level speakers. But it was good, and my level gradually improved. I attended Esperanto meetings and events, and got to know a lot more Esperanto speakers in that part of Japan.

It is completely true what you've heard about Esperanto. It is simpler and more logical than any other widely-spoken language. However, becoming fluent in it is another matter. That takes time. What is fluency? Well, in your native language, you can express a thought seemingly without thinking, almost at the same speed as thinking. That is fluency.

Can you think of two examples of bandes dessinées?

By 2011, I thought I was good enough to translate Egg Story into Esperanto. I did, and some time later passed my draft on to an expert speaker of the language. He said it was riddled with errors, but did his best to fix them all. From his notes and corrections, I wrote a second draft.

Around the same time, my group asked me to do a presentation on something for Zamenhof Day (anniversary of the birthday of the creator of Esperanto, L.L. Zamenhof; a reason to get together). I decided to do a presentation on the Australian poet, Henry Lawson. As part if the presentation, I translated some of Lawson's poems, too. On balance, the whole thing went pretty well, I reckon. Later I translated the presentation into English and presented it again to a completely different group.

Henry Lawson presentation  

Sometime after that, my club began proofreading the second draft of the manuscript of Rakonto de Ovoj. We aimed to have the work done in enough time that the book would be printed and launched at the Kongreso de Esperantistoj en Kansajo (Kansai Esperanto-speakers Convention), a reasonably large convention, in late June, 2012. The translation was really taxing, draining work, but ultimately satisfying. My proofreaders did not know English, they had to rely on my own translations of sentences and jokes from English (nobody ever wants to explain jokes, do they? I had to explain quite a few of them, in a foreign language!) After a lot of work, we sent off the third draft to two more experts, who looked it over and offered some changes and suggestions. From those we made a fourth and then fifth draft.

Some of the corrections were simply a case of 'this sentence is not ungrammatical, but it just seems weird'. In other words, it was non-conventional usage. Sort of something like this example from English: "The dog, a lazy one, was vaulted by a vulpine fleet of foot and umber-hued." If I submitted that not-incorrect sentence to an editor, he might ask me to simplify it, make it subject-verb-object, and ditch the alliteration and the passive voice.

I put the script into the comic using a font I found at dafont.com, 'antipasto'. I had to erase every English word and add the new Esperanto sentences. Often, the translation would not fit in the speech bubble, or would look cramped, so we'd rewrite it.

I also changed many of the English sound effects by hand-drawing them in Esperanto. (For example, 'WHACK!' would be no good, as W is not a letter in Esperanto, the H is redundant as is doesn't really change the sound of the preceding W, and C and K aside each other like that would sound like 'tsk', so the whole thing needs to be changed to 'VAK!')

If someone is guilty of krokodili, what exactly is he or she doing?

The work done, the book was printed and launched on time. It was the top-selling book at that convention. Since then, one or two tiny errors have been spotted by clear-eyed readers. However I comfort myself by remembering that a lot of books in English often have a couple of errors which got past the proofreaders.

The experience was beneficial for me and now I am pretty good at Esperanto. My fluency has improved quite a bit, though I make small errors now and then. I occasionally have to grab a dictionary when I'm writing in Esperanto, but much less often than I used to.

It is said that the study of Esperanto has a propaedeutic effect on the learning of other languages. It resembles the way little kids at primary school learn the recorder in order to give them a solid musical grounding for when they learn more complicated instruments later on. I can report for myself that this claim is partly true. When I recently began teaching myself to read French, I found my knowledge of Esperanto and my method of studying it helped me somewhat. However I wouldn't say it helped the study of Japanese much. It may help a bit getting one used to looking at a block of a foreign language and not ignoring it, which is one's first instinct. It also may help one get used to composing thoughts in a foreign language, i.e. in a different way than one is used to, which is the key to fluency. However I think learning any second language will help with learning a third in those ways.

Kudos if you got all of my questions correct!


* In fact there are some native speakers of Esperanto. It happens now and then that men and women from different countries meet at an Esperanto convention, fall in love, and end up getting married. Their language at home is usually Esperanto, so any kids they have will pick it up. It's quite rare, though.