Mislaid in Translation


My town is probably the only town in Japan with sister schools in Turkey. Over a hundred years ago, a Turkish ship ran aground on the coast here. Most of the sailors perished, but a few were rescued by local people, and Turkey was grateful. There’s a small museum nearby commemorating the event, a few Turkish expats who live in town, and every year a few students participate in an international exchange. This week, there’s four Turkish students and two teachers in town.

I happened to be assigned an office day today, as happens every so often. With no classes to teach, I had planned a fairly low-key day of lesson planning, laminating and a little Japanese study. Peace and quiet, broken only by occasional offers of cups of tea, sounded quite attractive after a hectic weekend in Osaka.

My supervisor sits at the desk opposite mine. He speaks almost no English, but he’s friendly. But I knew something was up when he started talking to me in English. It seemed there was a problem with the Turkish students. Another teacher who works for the Board of Education was with them, but apparently they needed expert help. In the absence of expert help, I was the best they could come up with.

I went with my supervisor to a nearby restaurant, a favourite lunchtime haunt for all the nearby office workers (and the only one in town with tables that seat more than six people at a time). There I found the six Turkish visitors, one harassed-looking Japanese teacher, and some confusion.

The problem, it transpired, was the menu. The four students were typical teenage fussy eaters, and Muslim. The combination of no pork and no seafood and various personal preferences was giving the poor waitress headaches. The Japanese teacher spoke no Turkish. The Turkish teachers spoke no Japanese. Both had limited English – too limited, it turned out, to have enough overlap to get the point across. So they brought me in.

My Japanese isn’t great. My reading and writing isn’t bad after ten months of studying, but my speaking and listening both leave a little to be desired. I have a little GCSE French, and could probably understand a tiny bit of German, but my Turkish is non-existent. So I wasn’t the best choice for translation work, but the other two assistant teachers were both at schools, so they had to make do with me.

In an episode of the TV series The West Wing, some unofficial negotiation is carried out between White House advisors and an Indonesian diplomat through two intermediaries – a professional interpreter (who speaks English and Portuguese), and a White House chef (who speaks Portuguese and the Indonesian dialect of the diplomat). Pleasantries take five minutes to exchange, and it’s hardly an efficient way to conduct negotiations.

Of course, it transpires that the advisors have been misinformed, and the diplomat speaks perfect English after all. I wasn’t so lucky. The waitress would explain the food to me in rapid Japanese, sprinkled with local dialect. My supervisor pared it down to simple Japanese for me (he’s used to that by now). I put it into very simple English for the Turkish teacher, who translated it into Turkish for the others. Who would raise objections, that went the other way.

It was exhausting. But interesting – and successful. We settled on karaage (fried chicken) and vegetable tempura, and chips just in case. The Japanese teachers were a little bemused by the amount of salt added to all the food, and the Turkish kids were confused by the cold noodles and raw eggs happily wolfed down by the Japanese, but I chalked all that up to “internationalisation”. Everything was eaten, and went down well. Job done.

After lunch, I went with everyone to one of the elementary schools to help translate there. Lunch seemed to have perked everyone up, and the “game afternoon” the kids there had planned went off well. Though I still had to do some simple explaining, it was easier to demonstrate games through sign language than it was food. The Turkish kids were bemused by the game that involved guessing the names of famous Japanese celebrities from imitations, but then so were most of the Japanese teachers. They played along well, and a good time was had by all.

The Turkish people are here for another week. But I’m booked up with schools, so my supervisor and the other teachers in the office will have to draft in other help. I don’t think translation is my forte, but it was an interesting experience. It made me think about how I must sound when I speak Japanese, and how patient everyone is here with foreigners. And I have a lot more sympathy for all the people who helped me out when I first got here, and still do. It will be a while yet before I’m fluent enough to do everything myself. But I’m working on it.


2 Responses to “Mislaid in Translation”

  1. 1 ieatmypigeon

    All we can do is work on it – I struggle a lot, too, but as long as we put in the effort things can only get better. I think just putting in the effort means a lot to the people around us. For me, not being able to do everything for myself is perhaps the hardest thing about living in Japan. Dealing with my ADSL company has been a nightmare! But that’s how it is – now. You said you’ve been here for 10 months; did you study before you came? Thinking of taking the JLPT this December?

  2. 2 Laura

    I agree – I’m always amazed at how patient people are with me (much more than they would be with a non-English speaker in London, I’m sure), but I think relying on other people to do *everything* for me would be much worse, and somewhat pathetic too.

    I didn’t know any Japanese when I arrived – I had a phrasebook and a self-introduction written out in romaji, and that was it. I passed JLPT 4 last year, and I’m thinking of sitting 2 this winter – not that I have much hope of passing it, but it will certainly give me something to aim for, and more of an incentive to work than if I sign up for 3. Though I’ll see how I feel about it come September…

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