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Lost in Translation?

I'm just about over the jetlag from Japan, and writing up a travel piece for publication elsewhere. Hopefully I'll be able to repost it on the blog in due course, but not for a month or two. Meanwhile, one impression of lasting strangeness stands out enough that I want to share it with you now:

On our last day in Kyoto, my wife and I headed out of our hotel to do some exploring. As we descended into Shichijo subway station, an elderly fellow rushed over. "Hello! remember me?" (Apparently we'd met him a couple of days earlier while exploring some of the Buddhist temples for which Kyoto is famous.) "Here, please help." He thrust a sheaf of papers at me. "Can you proof-read?"

It took us a quarter of an hour to disentangle ourselves from his polite but insistent demand that we check the English vernacular in his papers, which turned out to be part of the second edition of the Japanese-English dictionary that, being a Professor of English at Kyoto University, he was editing: between us I think we checked about five pages.

How often have you been accosted on the subway by feral English professors and forced to proof-read Japanese-English dictionary entries? Alternatively — how many countries have you visited where elderly English professors would feel safe enough to approach near-total strangers on the subway, and invite them to proof-read their dictionaries? I think it says something fascinating about Japanese society that none of the participants in this little incident realized just how outré it would seem anywhere else. Food for thought ...




In Seoul, about ten years ago, a stranger of about forty accosted me in the subway. He thrust some papers at my face, frantic with the demand that I review his homework for grammar and comprehension. Apparently his English-language teacher had assigned him a long, labyrinthine news article on mideast politics to summarize.

I read the article. Completely opaque. It had reduced the man to desperation. I gave him some cursory help and tried to escape, but each time I moved he just clung to me like we were conjoined twins. We were a comical sight, caterpillaring along the platform with a continually shedding sheaf of sloppy papers between. It took about ten minutes to give him the slip.


When I was stationed in Tokyo, I would get accosted all the time on the subway and the street, by people wanting to practice their conversational english. I have also proofread a paper someone was writing for school, two commercial scripts I ended up narrating, and a rather, um, erotic manga a young salaryman was trying to get published. Good times. Good times.



I worked in Japan for nearly two years, in Osaka (not far from Kyoto).

As I was also a verifiable "westerner" (African-American to be sure) I have frequent similar stories. But what strikes me about this is the fact that the English language (and its various vernacular forms) is a commodity. And having a sort of "natural" expertise, leant me a status a bit tricky to negotiate.

(Related example--Even though I'm hardly a hip-hop expert, I was the center of attention at urban night clubs in Osaka which played hip-hop. Every gesture I made was replicated later with intensity, even my drunken blunders on the dance floor...)

The corollary was that it was often assumed that I did not speak Japanese. I haven't gained fluency, but I did become competent enough to realize when I was the topic of discussion (on the train, in the restaurant, etc.) It is very interesting indeed to be a completely conspicuous fly on the wall...


I had something like this happen in a Chinese restaurant in Georgia once. The guy at the counter asked me a brief question about the proper meaning and usage of some word.

Maybe it was because I was always reading something when I ate there.


What a wonderful story. You seem to have inadvertently wandered through a William Gibson novel.


I had a similar experience to Ed @ #4. The counter guy -- Chinese restaurant in Spring Valley NY -- wanted help proofreading a letter to a friend.


Lots of impromptue English lessons in China. I've never been asked to proof-read a dictionary, but I have been asked to look at a couple of international agreements to see if the English translation said what the Chinese writer thought it did. Does that count?


Happens to me all the time here in Hanoi, I've stopped to count the number of (charming) students starting a conversation out of the blue in the over-crowded bus to practice english or french. Nothing like a little chat at 6am with a 12 years old girl apologizing about her "bad english" while I'm impressed that she speak so well...


I kind of wish it would happen to me in the UK. I'm losing count of the (recent) signs on historical monuments, often carved or cast in metal, which were obviously never proof read. All the usual catapostrophic errors apply.

Also, it may be Chinese, rather than Japanese, but this item posted to Language Log is too apposite not to share: http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/004932.html


People in Kyoto are known to be less shy than the average Japanese. Has something to do with the fact that Kyoto once was the captial. Actually, the only place where I was so far directly approached by strangers was Kyoto.

Andreas (2+ years Kobe, also near Kyoto)


How about managing to hide your origins?
Accosted by a delivery driver, on my way down from Sacre-Coeur in Paris, and asked for directions to a particular street. As it happened, I'd just walked past the street in question (I was staring idly at the little art-nouveau-esque street signs as I was wandering about)and gave him directions. After which he asked if I was from Marseilles, or the South. Not bad for a bloke from Manchester (UK)


Mike@9 - I've just been appalled to see a book which uses the grocer's apostrophe on the title page and the dust jacket: Through the Eyes of the World's Fighter Aces: The Greatest Fighter Pilot's of World War Two. Published by Pen & Sword too, a reasonably respectable publishing house.


I still remember a white gloved bank assistant in Tokyo taking my ATM card that wasn't working in a machine, asking for my pin all in english and basically withdrawing money for me from my account on another ATM machine. No where else on earth would I have trusted that man but hey Japan is different :)


Just to join the crowd or observations, during a recent train trip in Japan, my wife, daughter and I were engaged by a rather inebriated old gentleman who wanted to practice his English. I can't imagine another place when that would not have been a supremely uncomfortable encounter. Part of it is that the Japanese do not entirely regard us as a member of the same species; I've imagined myself as a one of the bobbing Shinto spirits frequently encountered in Ghibli movies.


Dave@5 -- or through a Charles Stross novel.


@12: Thanks for that. I've posted it to the Facebook group "Misplaced apostrophe's shit me to tear's". I'm sure the following groups would also censure it:

  • An apostrophe does not mean, "Look out, there's an s coming!"
  • Anti Greengrocers' Apostrophe Strike Team (AGAST)
  • Every time you misplace an apostrophe, God kills another kitten...
  • I like to pluralize with apostrophe's because I am a goddamn idiot
  • Your dumb if you cant use apostrophe's correctly
  • AAPAA (American Association for the Prevention of Apostrophe Abuse)
  • + a least a dozen more

    The potential for schism within the human race is truly unlimited.


    You know, actually, it is this certain type of naïvety in much of east Asia which is "normal" and the rest of the world which is suffering from delusion. It is quite easy to explain it away as a function of the various historical levels of cultural fusion and interaction in each society, but I think it is much deeper. I think is is an innate understanding of the basic potential for goodness that lies in most humans hearts which only appears as naïvety when one party in the interaction has lost contact with that goodness. I see this as being something deeply embedded in the human psyche in such a way that war and genocide cannot eradicate it, being short term albeit periodic aberrations, whereas basic structural social foundations can be very good at causing a disconnect when reinforced by a continuous and multi approach systematic message of confusion.


    I think is is an innate understanding of the basic potential for goodness that lies in most humans hearts which only appears as naïvety when one party in the interaction has lost contact with that goodness.

    So it's not really a transparent attempt at freeloading which would never in a million years be attempted on a member of their own culture who happened to have the requisite language skills?

    Presuming on people's basic potential for generosity to strangers is cheeky.


    Apparently you've never been to the Acadiana area in South Louisiana. Growing up, I've seen perfect strangers from, for instance, France and Pakistan, invited to our home for dinner after chance meetings. It wasn't until I began traveling that I found the general populace elsewhere aren't always as immediately hospitable everywhere.


    I almost forgot to mention that the other day, I was speaking with an old gentleman who was present when MacArthur accepted the Nipponese surrender.


    So it's not really a transparent attempt at freeloading which would never in a million years be attempted on a member of their own culture who happened to have the requisite language skills?

    Sometimes it definitely is just transparent freeloading. I live in South Korea (which, yes, is different in some ways) and while everyone who asks me to do proofreading these days offers money (or does me favors like researching things in Korean that I want to know more about or find online), back in the days when I lived further into the countryside, employers and total strangers very often attempted to make free use of my time. I learned to pretend I was a francophone who couldn't speak English just to fend off their attempts to extract free conversational English lessons and editing work in bars and coffeeshops.

    But on the other hand, I saw a lot of this kind of thing done by Koreans to other Koreans, too. Lots of Koreans are standoffish to new people -- you don't tend to introduce friends who don't know one another much here -- and I suspect part of it (especially in the countryside) is that new friends can often mean new potential to be obligated into some other boring or annoying task you don't want to do. (I don't know if Japanese are like this or not.)

    And meanwhile, some Koreans are quite free with their time for the benefit of others, too. I've had people happily teach me the language (once weekly for a year is the record), translate stuff, check my Korean writing, correct it, fact-check my writing about Korea, and so on all while refusing pay, out of the goodness of their hearts. I noticed some of this in Japan, too, while I was there. (In Yokohama. Enjoyed putting a face to the name, Charlie.)

    The funny bit to me is what Charlie pointed out: the assumption that white skin means skill level adequate to edit dictionary entries. Lots of stuff I've seen handed over for editing went to (foreign) people who were about as qualified for editing as they were for providing emergency medical assistance to burn victims (ie. not very).


    I've mentioned the two university students who asked me to proofread their speech in a cafe in Kyoto just after Nippon2007. A few days after that, in Nara, I got stopped by a trio of middle- or high-school kids to answer questions for a survey they were doing. Yes, all girls, all in their cute sailor-suits. Then, an hour or so later, as I was looking through the big shrine at Nara (which name escapes me just now), other groups of students started glomming on to me just to have their picture taken with me. But I didn't spot any other western tourists getting glommed on. I don't know if I acquired some kind of weird trophy value for them by answering the first survey?

    But then, when I was in Korea earlier in the year, at the Gyeongbukgung palace, I got approached by two sets of students to answer questions for their tourist surveys, which included being filmed on one of their phones. Maybe I'm just very approachable....


    Totally normal behaviour in China (where I live).

    I've been asked to:

    *edit a menu in a restaurant I was eating at (a major chain, actually!)
    *edit the admission paperwork for the university where I was studying Chinese
    *edit the "Start a Random Conversation With Foreigners To Improve Your English!" notes of a person starting a random conversation with me...

    I've even written an essay about this subject. It's here:


    In short, this is regular behaviour in Asia, where if someone wants to find out what book you are reading on the subway, they'll take it out of your hands.

    It's only strange the first time!


    Growing up, I've seen perfect strangers from, for instance, France and Pakistan, invited to our home for dinner after chance meetings.

    I'm thinking you may not have insisted on spoiling the occasion by making them proofread stuff, though.

    In Japan a great deal of English is used as a sort of advertising garnish, to add an air of fashionable sophistication to sundry products, and they don't particularly care if it makes no sense to native speakers, as the home market is large enough for them not to have to be arsed to peddle their wares elsewhere. But I have to say in nearly three years here I've never been importuned like Charlie was.


    On one occasion when in Tokyo I left my briefcase on the side of the road when getting into a taxi. I didn't realise what I had done until I got back to the hotel and took a cab back to the last time I remebered having the case. 45 minutes after I left it it was still sitting there at the curb with people walking around it. A different world for sure.


    Matt@15 - I think it's the old gentleman with the dictionary who may find he's wandered into a Charles Stross novel...


    Happens to me up here occasionally in Hokkaido too!



    "...the assumption that white skin means skill level adequate to edit dictionary entries."

    I think that's going a bit far, and comes off as the tiniest bit racist. There certainly is an assumption (in China at least) that "non-Asian" face == English speaker, but frankly that's understandable, and certainly a good first approximation if you're forced (and believe me, people are) to make one.

    The "assumption" of ability to edit is simply one of "your English might be poor compared to other native English speakers but it is several rungs up the ladder from my second language".

    The rest (the approach, the insistence) is cultural, and perfectly normal in context. Cue anecdotes (lost briefcases, communal children, etc).


    The "free English lesson" is common in Japan. Of course, foreigners are getting free Japanese lessons all the time, so it can be nice to return the favour. If you find the attention undesirable, you can always try some dodge like

    sumimasen ga doitsujin desu

    ("I'm sorry, but I'm German".)



    But quite a lot Japanese also had some German at school - and they have even less opportunity to use it. These people are usually even more interested to communicate ...

    Also that there are many language courses on Japanese tv (usually later at night).