Before i explain this absurd claim, I have to explain the little bit of Twitter “drama” that spurred me to write this.
Scans of a manga about a high school girl getting drawn into the world of freestyle rap have recently been making the rounds on Twitter lately. In response to a number of people saying they hoped it could get translated someday, someone named Extra Feety Umami quote-tweeted manga twitter personality Minovsky (Follow him, he posts the good content) and said that, based on their experience trying to translate rap for a manga, it would be nearly impossible to translate well because Japanese rap has no rhyme or meter.
So my gut reaction, and probably yours, was to think “what the shit? That’s not true at all!” or something similar. Feety’s notifs got blown to hell by people calling him an idiot and saying that of COURSE Japanese rap has meter and rhyme. I almost got in on the dogpile, but then decided not to because that’s a dick move but also because I started thinking Feety was onto something.
Then Nick Rowe (Also a poster of great content, follow him too) discovered that post and went on a tear. I offered my thoughts and ended up regretting it. Maybe I didn’t communicate as effectively as I could have. Maybe my thoughts weren’t fully formed enough. Maybe Nick was just too far down the warpath to see what I was getting at. Either way having a Twitter person I respect own me online in front of God and everyone got me thinking hard about linguistics, poetic tradition, music, and translation, and I decided I had to write something about it to make myself feel smart.
Feety ultimately came to the wrong conclusion, or maybe just worded their conclusion poorly, but I think they was coming from a place of linguistic expertise. Just not rap expertise. He was almost right but not quite. Here’s why:
English poems are often described in terms of their meter – the number and organization of stressed and unstressed syllables in a particular line. Western poetic tradition has many different codified poetic forms that use particular meters. Shakespeare for example was well known for using Iambic Pentameter. Poetic meter is not to be confused with musical meter, which is related but not the same. Musical meter is just what time signature your song is in – how many beats per measure (worth noting here that “measure” and “bar” are interchangeable in music terms, which could be causing more confusion here).
We have meter in western poetic tradition because it’s baked into the way we talk. Words in English naturally have stressed and unstressed syllables, and putting the emPHAsis on the wrong sylLAble will make you sound like a lunatic.
That’s why when you read the lyrics of a rap song, even without a beat playing, you can still have a pretty clear idea of what the flow is supposed to be. For example, if you rap the lyric “my name is Bill, and I’m here to say/I suck a dozen large brown eggs every day” out loud, I can almost guarantee you read it in one of two rhythms:
As you can see, there incredibly similar. And maybe you read it slightly differently still, but I bet the bulk of it would be the same if you wrote it out.
That’s because music has stressed and unstressed syllables too, in a manner of speaking. Downbeats and offbeats. Our brains want the way we stress syllables in normal speech to line up with the downbeat when our words are put into a lyrical context. Which is why, allowing for some syncopation and rhythmic looseness, the most heavily stressed syllables (my NAME is BILL and I’m HERE to SAY, I suck a DOZen large BROWN eggs EVery DAY) outline the 1 2 3 4 count of a typical rap beat.
Japanese doesn’t have anywhere near as much emphasis baked into normal speech. It’s a very “flat” sounding language. Which is why in Japanese poetic tradition lines are described in terms of on, a term that basically just means syllables (specifically refers to the hiragana used to represent particular sounds in Japanese speech), with stress unaccounted for because there really is none. Japanese poetic tradition also tends to place far less emphasis on rhyming.
Now, we can all agree that hip hop is poetry. We can also agree that there probably wouldn’t be Japanese rap without American rap. American rap is informed by, among other things, the rules of English pronunciation and western poetic tradition. Japanese rap is informed by American rap, so Japanese rappers purposefully stress syllables where they might not in normal speech so that there’s a more American rap-like flow. They also rhyme, because American rappers rhyme, despite Japanese poetic tradition not being that concerned with rhyming.
So basically, Japanese rap absolutely has meter and absolutely has rhyme. So Feety was 100% wrong, right? Well….remember, this whole argument was about translation in the first place. As I demonstrated earlier, when you read written English, the meter makes itself apparent, but that doesn’t happen when you read written Japanese. You can use slashes to indicate line breaks, but the flow the author imagined is still probably going to be hard to parse. Japanese rap has meter but *Japanese* doesn’t.
So to translate Japanese rap into English phrases that both maintain the meaning of the lyrics and actually sounds like rapped lines is going to be INCREDIBLY FUCKING HARD. Which is what I think Feety was getting at, and they just worded it like an idiot. It’s certainly not impossible to translate though.
But he was entirely wrong about the no rhymes part. Just fuckin the wrongest.
[header pic from wikipedia]
I was stone cold sober when I wrote this post, partly because I wanted to sound smart, but mostly because I wrote in at 9am while waiting for my turn in the barber’s chair and I’m not that much of a fucking heathen to be drinking bright and early and in public.