Being Awkward (Or Singlish)


Despite the title, this is not an essay about psychology – but rather an essay about this thing called ‘awkward language’ or ‘awkward translation’. All my thoughts on this issue comes from ruminating on the whole Persona 5 localization/translation fallout and looking through the thoughts of both parties involved.

This is not an essay about choosing sides (although I fall in the ‘readable translations’ camp) but a larger rumination about the nature of language and its fluidity in general. One of the most interesting things that has popped up is this idea of the ‘fetishization of awkward English’. This is such an interesting concept to me – because it reminds me a lot of the debate over Singlish that has been happening for a long time in my country.

In the pro/anti Singlish debate, the pro-faction are those who view Singlish as a unique thing that brings ‘local colour’ to the country, while the anti-faction are those who view it as just another form of pidgin English that completely overturns the English grammar (rather than having its own ‘unique grammar’) and perpetuates a hermetic speaking style that closes off Singaporeans to the greater world around them. In a sense, you could also link the pro-faction with the Persona 5 fetishization camp, and the anti-faction with the good localization camp.

The difference here is that the fetishization camp seems to be defending awkwardness as an exoticism that supposedly ‘fits’ how the Japanese speak (although detractors view it as just racist Orientalism), while the pro-faction are defending awkwardness as a way to FIGHT against what they perceive as Western Racist intrusion on a unique culture. It feels so strange that defending Awkward/Grammatically Incorrect English (although Singlish can’t exactly be defined as Awkward English the same way that bad localization can be defined as it) can be both viewed as Racist & Not-Racist depending on where you stand.

One distinction between both debates, though, is that when people use Singlish – they use it with a clear understanding as to what is being communicated to other Singaporeans. On the other hand, awkward localization makes things harder to parse for a predominantly Western English audience. But I’ve had great fun thinking about how to turn those ‘awkward English’ Persona lines into their Singlish counterparts.

For example – there’s the “Suguru Kamoshida was a scum” line – which fails because it makes more sense in English if you put ‘scumbag’ instead of scum. But, a Singaporean could make it work with something along the lines of

“That mother Suguru Kamoshida was very a scum hor?”

And “Start by telling me what you all schemed…” sounds better when rewritten as “You’d better tell me what all of you were planning…” – but a Singaporean could make it work by saying

“Don’t purae purae y’all better start the telling of what y’all scheming lah!”

(Note: the Singaporean y’all is different from the Texan y’all. It sounds more like y’orr.)

Of course, if a Westerner wrote a book about Singaporeans and he wrote all the dialogue in Persona 5’s version of awkward English with the defense that it’s how Singaporeans speak, the literary community here would probably smack his ass for being a goddamn chou ang-moh mothachibai because the dialogue of Persona 5 lacks the true rhythm of how a pidgin English sounds like – but all this brings up a very interesting idea:

How do we ‘weaponize’ Awkward English?


The calque ‘long time no see’ is very interesting – derived from Chinese & adapted, in all its ungrammatical glory – into the English language. Such additions are unpredictable, and what determines whether a calque is taken in or not probably depends on certain memetic qualities as well as the general constitution of the English-speaking populace at the time. Yet, because it is only a phrase, it does not create as much of an upheaval as the complete swap over to Singlish grammatical (or ungrammatical) structures.

One of the knocks against Singlish as its own proper language is precisely this lack of structure. I don’t think anyone can exactly give rigid grammatical guidelines as to how to speak it – there are no exhaustive textbooks, although there are countless linguistic papers analysing it – and as a result, it’s transferred merely by pure intuition. The grammatical (un)structure is mainly derived from Chinese, which is why a literal translation of Japanese might sound like Singlish – because Chinese can also be context dependent & have a topic in front. Singlish also uses some onomatopoeia derived from Chinese & emotionally charged sentence-end exclamations (lah, lor, sia, hor, wah etc…).

Anyway, because I live in a place where language-fuckery like this happens everywhere – and because I like poetry – I am always wondering about what constitutes as ‘creative violation’ as opposed to plain batshitness. There is no either/or, but there are certain degrees to everything. The Persona 5 violations are deemed unacceptable because they imply laziness & do not contribute to consistent meaning, as opposed to the ‘creative leaps’ of modernist poetry or the stream-of-consciousness style – which, if done well, are consistent in their purpose and communicative thrust (though most are meandering experiments that go nowhere).

(This reminds me that our local playwright Alfian Sa’at actually has a play that is purposely written like a bad Japanese Drama sub. I forgot which one it was but I remember reading it before.)

Singlish, as a language, boasts of being a whole lot more efficient than English because of how much you can cut, as well as having a faster tempo. I sometimes think how cool it would be if English people everywhere adopted such quirks to streamline their communication, but everyone has a different style. From my experience of Scorcese movies, maybe Italian-Americans speak at the same tempo.

So, all of my above digressions are leading up to this main idea: if there exists a segment of the population who are willing to prioritize some elaborate exotic fantasy over proper grammar – then could such tendencies within the human being be utilized to affect change on the English language into more interesting grammars and patterns? If such strange translations were continually perpetuated among the Western population – would they start speaking in context-based/topic-focused ways like Singaporeans? Would they adopt those accursed honorifics that have been such a bane to translators everywhere?

The answer is probably no, but it’s an interesting thought experiment to consider. After all, people believe that poets like Shakespeare, Dante, Goethe, and Pushkin are powerful enough to determine the linguistic fates of their various languages. Could there be a potential for a ‘bad localization’ poet to totally send the English language into a spin? The ‘Shakespeare’ of Bad Localization & Awkward English? A person who has enough creativity to tap into the primal rhythms within the heads of all English speakers, to turn bad grammar into THE language itself?

From such a thought experiment – I imagine a Borgesian story (though Borges himself had his great essay on the translators of the Arabian Nights) – about an imaginary translator who works on such phantasmagorias of broken grammatical structures and warped tongues, secretly injecting memetic & poetic conceits into the heads of speakers of such a language – stretching the grammar a bit more with each book – until the target language has become totally indistinguishable from the original language.

Could such a thing be possible? Only a fantasy – but a fantasy in the same way that the fetishizers of Awkward English have a fantasy Japan in their own heads, and that fantasy is secretly twisting the foundations of their language into something other than itself. Whether this ‘other’ is a narrowminded simplification in the sense of a false Japanglish, or a strange colourful thing like Singlish – is up to the poets who play with language to decide.