Friday, April 18, 2008

Japanese-English? English-Japanese

Sometimes I wonder how the human brain works. I am very good at remembering names but numbers and sequences I have a terrible time. My brain must not be too bad because I do manage to remember two languages but this is what prompted my musings.

The other day I was helping a friend translate some English into Japanese. This is a bit more difficult for me than translating Japanese into English. The Japanese language is so complicated with sentence structure so completely opposite from English, not to mention the formal-informal language, the nuances and poetic vagueness etc. It is one thing to understand the Japanese language but quite another to be able to speak (don't even think about write!). I get along pretty well in normal conversation but I'm not so good at literal translating because I omit the niceties and I probably sound harsh and crass to the Japanese around me.

One traumatic experience I had over 20 years ago was to be asked to interpret at a city festival. Some sister-city representatives from the States were invited and the official translator couldn't attend so I was asked to translate. And I thought I'd be able to do it! Once at the event I realized this wasn't a drink and appetizer party, it was an official presentation and the American was scheduled to give a speech on the technical contributions his company and city had introduced to Japan. I backed away saying this was not in my scope of abilities but people began to get very irritated with me because I had agreed and was getting paid for my services. Fine time to be saying I couldn't do it when I was about to step on stage!

Conclusion? I went up on stage and could not interpret worth beans. I couldn't pull the Japanese vocabulary out of my head (if it was ever even there). I couldn't adjust the language into formal Japanese. I couldn't even complete some sentences. What a fiasco! As soon as I left the stage I ran home in shame and embarrassment and it spent a couple days in tears and refused to meet with the people who had arranged the whole circus. Since then I've spent years running away from translating jobs! Trauma, big time!

I'm not so bad though when it comes to translating Japanese into English. I understand the nuances of the Japanese language and the thinking and culture behind it. I can speak the English perfectly (well, some of my American friends think my English needs polishing these days) and I do a good job of getting information from the Japanese language into English.

Another interesting thing about language and the brain is that I tend to answer a person in the language that I'm spoken to. This would become confusing when visiting the States because I'd be chatting with friends in English and Leiya or Takumi would say something to me in Japanese and my brain would shift into Japanese and I'd find myself continuing my conversation with my friends in the Japanese language much to their amusement. It always takes me a few seconds to get back into the right language mode.

I used to annoy my kids when we were in the States because we'd step off the plane in Los Angeles and my English brain would kick in and I'd have a hard time understanding Japanese for the rest of the summer.

"Sorry. My brain forgets Japanese while I'm in the States. You'll just have to use English!"

The kids would think I was just being mean to them or wanting to force them to use their limited English but it was really true. My brain would close down and I wouldn't be able to shuttle the vocabulary around in my head! I'm sure others of you who are bi-lingual (or more!) have had situations like this.

I should have used this picture for yesterday's post but you get the picture. Do any of you know this website It is hilarious (though I'm warning you, it can sometimes get a little earthy!) Translating and interpreting can be tricky!


Mel & Seigo said...

There's not a person who understands this more than I do Tanya!

Sympathy all around ;)

I COULD NOT have handled the translation job you spoke about either - I'd have nightmares just thinking about it!! :(

Hope you're well,


Diana said...

I'm impressed that you can get along in both languages--Japanese seems so different than English. Thank you for the link--I haven't laughed so hard for weeks!

Bobbie BentNeedle said...

At least it sounds like you switch to your "other" language, or shut down. Many years ago, after spending a couple of years in Germany, I returned to Texas. When I encountered a patient at the hospital where I worked who "only spoke Spanish," I tried to press my very limited 7th grade Spanish into use, and wound up grabbing whichever "foreign" word I could come up with at that second. After enduring a couple of sentences of my grade school Spanish mixed with street German, the young man told me to "just speak English - at least I can understand that!" It is much harder to switch from one language to another seamlessly than many people could imagine - it's is something I have never come close to mastering.

Clare said...

During the summer months when we have a lot of English friends to stay my French goes out of the window. It takes me ages to get back into the swing of things. Alexandra, on the other hand, can switch from one to the other effortlessly. Perhaps she ought to become an offical translator. She's doing Latin this year and will start Spanish next year. Four languages!!!!!!!!!!

Lazy Gal Tonya said...

buy a USED tissue for the restroom? eeek. excellent sign though. I'm definitely not bi-lingual and these days barely feel lingual. Keep using the wrong word. I'll say "no" even though I was distinctly thinking and meaning "yes". sigh.

Sew Create It - Jane said...

You've made me giggle with that sign! I have the same problem with French and English. Every so often I'll be talking in English and mid-stream this French word appears out of no where....often when I can't think of the word in English. My kids just look at me funny, but there use to it!

Shelina said...

I couldn't handle a translation job, in any language! Once I was watching a Bollywood music video and the ex asked me what they were singing about. I thought it would be pretty easy, since I was just translating the subject of the song and not each line, and said well they literally said this, and in switching the word order, and fine tuning some meanings, they are trying to say "you crept in and stole my heart" or something like that. He got so frustrated with me taking so long to get the words just right. I wound up saying "they are all love songs" which he should have been able to tell from looking at the video anyway.

Mrs. Goodneedle said...

I've lived in two places where English was not the spoken language and I have struggled with both Spanish and French. I was passable, barely. I understand fully the concept of another language flying out the window completely when the plane lands on American soil, oh yeah, I do! My communication problems while living abroad was formulating the translations in my head before speaking them out loud and that taking an inordinate amount of time!

artfilstitch said...

The tissue machine is a hoot! We saw this kind of machine while we were in Japan recently....didn't know what it meant. I carried tissues and also a small roll of Bounty towel with me at all times. I love the small towel hand cloth that the Japanese carry with them.I purchased several to bring home. They are just the right size and feel wonderful.
I purchased several to bring home.
Our minds are suppose to be able to store more than a mainframe computer :>) I wish that I could just figure out how to program it.
Hope your day is going well!

andsewitis Holly said...

I think I'll pass on the used tissues - lol. Your kitty tissue holders are darling!

Hedgehog said...

Love this post, Tanya! My world here is quadralingual (I'm only passable in three of the four, including English) and I find I have so much trouble switching from one to another - it's like getting huge rusty gears going every time. I really worry when I'm searching for English words, because I use plenty of English every day!

Love the link! I'm sure I've said it before, but I so enjoy the bicultural aspects of your blog, in addition to all the quilting goodness!!