Fremd-Word (“Extraneous Word”) | Keiko Sei (2023)

The terms Ihave chosen originated and became established in the West, in their own senses and contexts, were brought to Asia during the modernization period of many Asian countries, and have caused confusion ever since. The confusion prevails, as these concepts are fundamentally foreign to Asian culture. As aresult, the proper translation of these concepts—whether they were translated in the past or are in the process of being translated now—is still debated, even today. Moreover, the fact that these words are used today—even though they have not been fully understood in their original senses—is further aggravated by nationalists, fundamentalists, and political leaders. How, when, and why each term has been introduced, translated, and used, as well as the degree to which local populations understand each term all clearly reflect the current political situation in the different Asian countries. Asia is now undergoing one of the most dramatic transformational periods in its history and these terms are playing avital role in this process, even though they are sometimes misunderstood. The translated terms Iuse here are Japanese and Thai; both Japan’s and Thailand’s monarchies have been transformed in one way or another during the modernization period. Japan officially began its modernization and Westernization process during the Meiji Reformation in 1868. The translators of these terms—mostly intellectuals and academic technocrats who traveled abroad thanks to government grants—based their translations on Chinese literature and adapted Chinese characters and terms to Western concepts. Then, when the Chinese tempted their modernization process, they (mostly Chinese students studying in Japan) borrowed terms such as “communism,” “capitalism,” and “economy” from the Japanese. They still use the terms widely today (many of them are also used in Korean).2 In Thailand, in contrast, these terms were thought about carefully by its rulers and their intellectual circles so the terms might benefit their political aims. This legacy can be seen in both the development of modern Thailand and in its turbulent political history, including the country’s most recent crisis. Kasian Tejapira of the Faculty of Political Science at Thammasat University has written numerous books and essays on the subject3 and the Thai translations Iuse are based on his work. Tejapira explains the background of how the Western terms have been translated into Thai and why this process is significant in Thailand’s modern history:

“Modern political history in Thailand has long been marked by explicit debates about the translation of foreign concepts. Successive generations of bilingual Thai intellectuals argued about translation as both an apparatus of capture of and also abuffer against Western-style modernity. Given Thailand’s distinctive state-nationalized language, scripts, and sounds, Western modernity has been consciously hindered from coming to the Thai public in its pristine, original, or direct linguistic forms. Thai intellectuals of all political persuasions have guarded these linguistic borders and the integrity of the Thai nation-state’s ‘body cultural.’ Each tried to screen new translated lexical immigrants, turn away suspicious ones, or retranslate them in such away as to civilize, harness, or domesticate them. Meanwhile, their unofficial counterparts incessantly sought to smuggle in and procreate illegitimate lexicons of their own unauthorized translations. Hence the highly politicized nature of the process of translation-as-transformation through which key foreign political and ideological words were scrutinized, mediated, negotiated, contested, selected, modified, and kept under constant surveillance as they underwent their cross-cultural metamorphoses.”

Whereas in the case of Thailand translation was consciously used as apolitical tool, Japanese translation—whether it was handled by elite intellectuals and academics, aristocrats, and even Freemasons—was basically carried out by enlightened civilians who did the job with the enthusiasm of the French encyclopédistes. In China there were attempts by some intellectuals to replace these Sino-Japanese words with pure Chinese translations, but these attempts failed largely because the Japanese translations sounded more modern. Ironically in Japan, as one linguist points out, the Chinese words were used liberally because they looked and sounded more mysterious and were therefore deemed intriguing and modern. They were used also to emphasize the maleness of the modernization process (in contrast with the Japanese hiragana script,4 which was invented by women and therefore more associated with femaleness).5

Fremd-Word (“Extraneous Word”) | Keiko Sei (1)

The most prominent example of aterm that has troubled Asians in numerous different ways is doubtless “democracy.” Ongoing political turmoil in Southeast Asia as well as ideological conflict within Eastern Asian nations are all directly linked to the fact that this term, introduced in Asia well over 100 years ago, has not yet been well assimilated. In Thai homes, offices, and schools as well as in the media, web forums, and countless numbers of panels people discuss daily what democracy is at this very moment, whereas from Singapore to Burma the leaders’ dictatorial tendencies prompt the use of adjectives in front of the term—for example, “disciplined democracy” (Burma) or “guided democracy” (China, Suharto’s Indonesia). The Republic of Korea and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea use the term differently and China is challenged by Hong Kong and Taiwan, which have amplified the Western connotations of the term in their governance as if to imply that no government in Asia would voluntarily practice it unless there was an ideological enemy in the immediate vicinity. In Burmese, the word is not even translated. In Japanese it is translated as minshu-shugi (-shugi means “ism”). The history of the word minshu, taken from an old Chinese history book, has taken asomewhat convoluted path. While min means “people,” shu means “leader” or “owner.” When they are combined asyndetically, the meaning is either “people are the leader,” or “people’s leader,” or “an owner of people.” Japanese translators used it in the first sense despite the fact that the original sense is either of the two latter senses. In China today, the term is used in the first sense after it was imported back from Japan. In the Thai language, as Tejapira explains, “the present Thai equivalent of ‘democracy’ is prachathipatai which, curiously enough, was coined by King Rama VI as early as 1912 to mean a‘republic’ (i.e., agovernment with no king). The shift in its meaning from ‘republic’ to ‘democracy’ followed from acompromise between the People’s Party and King Rama VII during the revolution of 1932, when aconstitutional monarchy was chosen instead of arepublic. Thus, Thailand’s present political system is characterized as ‘rabob prachathipatai an mi phramahakasat song pen pramuk’ or, if one takes the original meaning of prachathipatai, a‘Republic with the King as Head of State,’ an oxymoron made possible by the successful taming of aforeign-derived signifier.”6

Fremd-Word (“Extraneous Word”) | Keiko Sei (2)

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Just as the Thai translation of “democracy” has met with an ironic fate, the translation of “republic” in Japanese (Chinese) was equally ironic. The word kyouwa, describing aperiod during which ministers governed the country when the monarchy was corrupt, was discovered in an ancient Chinese book. The word was chosen despite the fact that the word refers to acountry with amonarch as its head, in contrast with the Western original, which distinguishes sharply between amonarchy and arepublic. The Japanese (Chinese) word also connotes “cohabitation in harmony and peace.” Subsequently, this distorted retranslation of the Chinese word was imported back to China from Japan.

Fremd-Word (“Extraneous Word”) | Keiko Sei (3)

As is the case with prachatipatai (the Thai word for “democracy”), the meaning of the word kakumei has undergone an ironic twist. Originally appearing in the ancient IChing, or “Book of Changes,” it referred to the replacement within amonarchy of aking by another with adifferent family name. The word was adopted by aJapanese intellectual, used for adifferent purpose and then reintroduced into China. Legend has it that Sun Yat-sen was inspired by the translation while he was in Japan before going on to lead the 1911 revolution and founding the first republic of China.

In Thai, the word patiwat was coined by Prince Wan, achairman of the Royal Institute who carefully coined numerous Thai words to translate Western concepts7 shortly after Thailand abandoned its absolute monarchy. To quote Tejapira, “patiwat, literally means ‘turning’ or ‘rolling back.’ It thus connotes restoration, somewhat conservatively, rather than denoting aradical break with the past or aprogressive and qualitative change of affairs, as in the English original. Dissatisfied with the conservative connotations of Prince Wan’s patiwat, Pridi Banomyong, himself ademocratic socialist revolutionary and leader of the 1932 constitutionalist revolution, coined the word aphiwat instead, which literally means ‘superevolution.”8 The use of these words is still equivocal, as there have been 18 military coups in Thailand since the 1932 revolution and in every coup the military abolishes the constitution. Therefore, the word patiwat, which is sometimes used to refer acoup, has acquired aconnotation of both regime and constitutional change, whereas the Thai word for “coup,” rattabprahaan, means only a“change of regime.”

Fremd-Word (“Extraneous Word”) | Keiko Sei (4)

The word jiyuu appears in both old Chinese and Japanese literature; in either case it describes somebody who behaves freely, often in an asocial and egocentric way. In Zen Buddhism, it is used to describe an absence of absolutes. There are many books dating back to Japan’s Meiji period that describe the difficulty intellectuals had in finding an appropriate translation of John Stuart Mill’s sense of liberty.9 After trying numerous different words, the old word jiyuu was used to capture the Western sense. The word, with its new Japanese sense, was then reimported into China.

According to Pavin Chachavalpongpun, the Thai word issaraphab had never been perceived as denoting an inherent trait possessed by all individuals before it was adopted and popularized as apart of Thai national identity by leaders during the modernization period. For the first time, ordinary Siamese people felt they were “free” when slavery was abolished during the reign of King Rama V (the beginning of the modernization period). The word was thus associated with “supremacy over others”; it meant freedom as aprivilege of those who reigned supreme. According to Chachavalpongpun, this conception lives on in Thai people and, because the concept of democracy is closely tied with the idea that Thailand is a“land of freedom” (the literal meaning of Siam’s modern name of “Thailand”), when the Western concept of freedom is misunderstood, democracy is also misunderstood.10

Fremd-Word (“Extraneous Word”) | Keiko Sei (5)

The word geijyutsu appears in the ancient literature of both China (used in the IChing to describe afortune-telling technique) and Japan. In both places the word was used primarily to mean “technique,” “skill,” “talent,” or “academic study”—afar cry from the Western sense of “art”—until the late 19th century. In the Meiji Reformation period in Japan, the word bijyutsu was coined with hope that it would encompass the Western sense, but at the same time there were attempts to use the word geijyutsu in the Western sense as well. Meanwhile, numerous other words were coined to capture the Western sense of “art” in countless texts by numerous academics and intellectuals. Nonetheless, geijyutsu and bijyutsu survived; the meaning of the former was transformed as it acquired the Western sense. Again, these two words with their new meanings were then reimported into China. In Japan, however, the transliteration of the English word “art” in katakana script (pronounced aato) has also been used in the last 30 years when awriter or aspeaker wants to emphasize anew trend in art.

In Thai, both sippa (of Pali origin) and sil-lapa (of Sanskrit origin) are used, though the latter is more popular today. Both words refer to craft and ornamental art and are associated with arts and crafts commissioned by political and religious leaders. This misrepresentation of the concept of “art” in the Western sense is still evident in most of the art of Thailand, including contemporary art.

Fremd-Word (“Extraneous Word”) | Keiko Sei (6)

There is still much discussion as to how to translate this term properly into Japanese. At present, the transliteration a-i-de-n-thi-thii in the katakana script is used alongside many other Japanese words, depending on the context. One of the reasons why it is so problematic to translate it into Japanese, according to some linguists, is that unlike in Western society, where individual and nation are clearly separated, the Japanese tend to sacrifice individuality for the sake of the public in general and the Western word does not quite account for this. The problem is similar in China, where various words—some reimported Sino-Japanese—are used depending on the context. This problem is likely to continue, as new issues concerning identity are arising in connection with cyberspace.

I have only dealt with six terms, but there are many more that have caused similar confusion among translators and other language users due to the cultural differences that hold in non-English speaking Asian countries. In Japan, such terms include “society,” “nature,” “architecture,” “love,” and “right.”


1 / Words that come from other cultures, words that users feel do not belong to them. Icoined it to describe Western words that confuse Asians to this day because of the alien ideas behind them. The German word fremd means “extraneous,” “foreign,” or “alien.” When combined with the English word “word,” the term itself produces an effect of estrangement that emphasizes its meaning. At the same time it makes the word neither German nor English. For Asians, Western words are all lumped together as “Western” and the specific origin of each word does not really matter on the level of daily use.

2 / Dictionary of Loan Words, Shanghai Dictionary Publishing House, Shanghai 1984.

3 / Kasian Tejapira, “The Politics of Translation,” Commodifying Marxism: The Formation of Modern Thai Radical Culture, 1927–1958, Kyoto University Press and Trans Pacific Press, Kyoto and Melbourne 2001, p. 196–199.

4 / Unlike other languages, Japanese uses three different types of scripts: kanji, of Chinese origin, and hiragana and katakana, of Japanese origin (the latter is used in amore limited way—to transliterate Western words, for example).

5 / Akira Yanabu, Iwanami Shinsho, Honnyakugo Seiritsu Jijou, 1982.

6 / Kasian Tejapira, “Thammarat/Good Governance in Globalizing Thailand,” Words in Motion: Toward aGlobal Lexicon, ed. Carol Gluck, Anna Lowenhaupt, Duke University Press, Durham 2010.

7 / Here is Prince Wan’s explanation of the coinage: “It is the Thai language that will guarantee the security of the Thai nation. This is because if we favor the use of Thai transliterations of Western words about ideas, we may walk too fast. That is, we may imitate other people’s ideas directly instead of premodifying them in accord with our ideas. But if we use Thai words and hence must coin new ones, we willhave to walk deliberately.” Tejapira, “Thammarat.”

8 / Tejapira, “Thammarat.”

9 / Yukichi Fukuzawa, Seiyō Jijō (1867, 1868, and 1870).

10 / Pavin Chachavalpongpun, “Thai Politics: In the Land oftheFree, Democracy in Chains,” Bangkok Post, October9, 2008.

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