Though sound symbolic words (onomatopoeia and mimetic words, or giongo and gitaigo in Japanese) exist in other languages, it would not be so easy to compare them to those in Japanese. This is because unlike in Japanese, in many other languages (here we see English and Spanish) sound symbolic words do not have distinctive forms that separate them immediately from the rest of categories of words. In Japanese, a sound symbolic word has a radical (that is based on the elaborated Japanese sound symbolic system), and often a suffix that shows subtle nuance. Together they give the word a distinctive form that differentiates it from other categories of words, though its grammatical functions could vary, especially in the case of mimetic words (gitaigo). Without such an obvious feature, in other languages, it would not be always easy to separate sound symbolic words from the rest.
These expressions are extremely common and used in almost all types of text in Japanese, but their elaborated sound symbolic system and possibly their various grammatical functions are making giongo and gitaigo one of the most difficult challenges for the foreign students and translators. Studying the translation of these expressions into other languages might give some indication related to the comparison of Japanese sound symbolic words and those in other languages.
Though sound symbolic words are present in many types of texts in Japanese, their functions in traditional forms of text (letters only) and manga (Japanese comics)are different and they should be treated separately. For example, in traditional types of text such as novels, the vast majority of the sound symbolic words used are mimetic words (gitaigo) and most of them are used as adverbs, whereas in manga, the majority of the sound symbolic words used (excluding those appear within the speech bubbles) are onomatopoeias (giongo) and often used on their own (i.e. not as a part of a sentence). Naturally, the techniques used to translate these expressions in the above two types of documents differ greatly.
The presentation will focus on i) grammatical functions of Japanese sound symbolic words in traditional types of texts (novels/poems) and in manga works, and ii) whether their features and functions are maintained (i.e. whether they are translated as sound symbolic words) when translated into other languages (English and Spanish). The latter point should be related to a comparison of sound symbolic words in Japanese and other languages, which will be also discussed.
Grammar of Mimetics (Conference) SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies, London University) 10-11 May 2013, London