Translate This


Last year on January 1st, all of the unincorporated counties, townships, and villages around Tsu became part of Tsu. One of the difficulties of incorporation is the need to change names of just about anything publicly owned: parks, community centers, schools, public offices, …

About a month back, I arrived for my normal Wednesday afternoon preparing classes while relaxing at the Board of Ed. office. When I arrived, one of the administrators urgently delivered a message that someone from another department wanted to be notified as soon as I arrived. She promptly rang him up after conveying the message.

Unfortunately the apparent urgency and the vague nature of the caller’s need and identity got me wondering what I had done wrong. After lunch he dropped by with a most exciting request. Although it had been almost a year since incorporation, the lengthy task of translating and replacing signs was still under way. We had a thorough discussion about a few signs in Ichishi: the town offices, a campground, a branch office out in the sticks.

The process gave me a lot of insight into how so many bilingual signs in Japan have odd things written on them. It also gave me a proud feeling that I was able to help make something correct and useful that will last for awhile. I am a person that prefers monument building and heroic acts over repetitive or maintenance tasks. Of course, both types of activities are required, so I am very appreciative of people who have a propensity toward maintenance.

Last week a nurse came into our office from a public health facility. She was standing two desks away from me and talking with my superiors. My curse of very wide peripheral vision revealed that she kept looking at me between sentences, which drew my attention.

“Excuse me, but we are trying to translate documents.”

“We are trying to find someone who understands English well.”

Several comments like this were made before I finally stopped my activity and turned to face them directly in preparation to join the conversation. This prompted a direct comment to me about translation, followed by the inevitable, “I wonder if you understand…” Many people can’t fathom that a foreigner would care enough about Japanese (and have the ability) to learn it well, so I often hear this comment added to discussions.

I chose to make a pun about, “Let me see if I understand. ‘Translate’ has something to do with ‘adding medicine to books’, doesn’t it?” This, coupled with my bosses assurances, gave them a little confidence in my comprehension. We had quite a lengthy conversation about the strengths and weaknesses of automatic translation tools like Excite’s web page and about my availability to help. Still she kept vocalizing her ponderings on whether I could understand: yes, preconceptions die slow deaths.

Presumably she will be sending some documents for me to see what they are about and have a go. It sounds like they will be personal health surveys for the public health facilities. My understanding is that she wanted things translated to English, Spanish, and Chinese; however, if they are personal information of foreigners, I am guessing they want things translated to Japanese so the doctors and nurses can read them.

Translation to one’s native tongue is far easier than the opposite; this could be a bit of a challenge, but I have learned the names of a few allergies and diseases already. (Because of my kids classes, I learned ‘autism’ and ‘ADHD’ fairly early on.)

2 Responses to “Translate This”

  1. kevenker Says:

    As long as one thing you translate reads “All your base are belong to us” I’ll be happy. 😉

  2. びっくり Says:

    Funny that you mention that. I might have to go looking for the original Japanese script to see what the video game really said.

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