Tuesday, May 23 2006

Lost in translation: “bokeh”

Every once in a while, I suddenly remember that I’m studying Japanese, and that I have the resources to figure out what things really mean, not just what other people claim they mean. Usually, this involves song lyrics or anime dialog, but today I was reminded of the trendy photographic term bokeh, and decided to sort it out.

Googling the term will turn up dozens of sites that carefully explain that bokeh refers to the quality with which a photographic lens renders the out-of-focus area of images, with a mix of technical jargon and artistic handwaving, and tell you that “boke” is the Japanese word for blur.

There are objective, measurable differences in how lenses render blurred areas of the picture. Minolta even made a monster of a portrait lens specifically designed to produce glorious blur (I tried it out side-by-side with a conventional lens here). Once artists get hold of a word, though, there’s no telling what it might mean, and I’ve seen a number of pretentious explanations of the true meaning of bokeh.

So you’ll understand my amusement when I looked it up and discovered that boke actually means “out of touch with reality”. Less politely, “idiot” or “senile fool”.

The actual Japanese photographic term is ピンぼけ (for the kana-impaired, “pinboke”). It’s a compound word; pin from the Dutch brandpunt = “focus”, and boke from the verb 暈ける (“bokeru”) = “to fade”.

[update! a comment on the Wikipedia page led me to an alternate choice: ぼけ味 (“bokeaji”), which is a combination of ピンぼけ and 味 (“aji”), meaning “flavor”. Supporting evidence for that can be found on Japanese camera sites like this and this (second one mildly NSFW).]

Oh, and the real “Japanese word for blur”? 不鮮明 (“fusenmei”). A related word that might come in handy occasionally is ぶれ (“bure”), meaning “camera shake”.