English Side of Meishi to Translator

by Doreen Simmons

The foreigner in Japan has, alas, long been seen as offering an opportunity for English conversation to those brave enough to make the attempt. This attitude dates back at least to Fukuzawa Yukichi, who as a young man eagerly tried out his Dutch on the first American he met. The result of this unsuccessful encounter was to turn his attention to English as a more effective means of communication. Is it possible for the blue-eyed Japanese specialist to reverse the situation?


Dear Aunt Eva,                

What is a poor body to do? I spent years and years learning Japanese, and nobody will believe I can speak it—much less read it. I tell people (in Japanese) that I am a translator, and they kindly turn their business cards English-side up for me so I can read them. After all, how could I “possibly” read the Japanese side. I’m only a translator—which, because I have blue eyes, “must” mean I have somebody else do the translations and I just polish them up a bit. My interim solution is to turn the card over and read the Japanese side, but I wonder if   there is a better way to make the point—or if there is even any point in trying to make the point.

Evan Elpas

Aunt Eva answers:
Make the point bigger. Memory darts back to the day I had my first driving lesson with a man who not only taught you not only how to drive, but how to pass the test. The first thing he taught was the survival practice of looking up at the driving mirror to see what was behind the car. The second was how to convince the examiner that you knew about it: “Don’t just glance at the mirror; the examiner might not notice. Put your hand up to the mirror and pretend to fiddle with it until you’re sure he’s seen what you’re doing.” Aunt Eva is still the Driver from Hell; but that “it pays to advertise” advice has stood her in very good stead in Japan.                                                         
What you do, therefore, when a Japanese naturally assumes that you are an idiot who cannot possibly understand his uniquely complex and difficult language, is to assume, quietly and courteously, that he is inviting your opinion on the English side of his business card. To accomplish this, first flip the card over, without looking at the English side at all, and read the Japanese silently; then turn it back to the romaji side and study that. The following scenarios, needless to say, have to be conducted entirely in fluent Japanese; if you can’t cut it, you aren’t ready for this technique.                           
There are two main possibilities: either the English on the card is perfect, or it isn’t.  In the first case, smile and say with quiet admiration, “Remarkable! Very few Japanese realize xxxxx is not the equivalent of yyyyy—this card is very well planned. You are to be congratulated on your staff.”  More likely, there will be something wrong. Decide quickly, at this point, whether you need the goodwill of the person whose card you are scrutinizing, or whether you wish to go straight for the jugular. If the former, blame the printer for his criminal carelessness in reducing the dignity of such a personage by producing such a blooper as zzzz. If the latter, smile (DON’T LAUGH), tap the offending word lightly (DON’T JAB with a stiff forefinger), and observe, in a spirit of commiseration, “Ah, very few Japanese realize that xxxxx is not the equivalent of yyyyy. That is why it is better to have your English checked by a native speaker.” Then, the clincher, “Of course, for such simple work you need only an experienced rewriter, not a full translator like my humble self.” 

Eva Hartupp

Quickie question:

Aunt Eva, do you think it is still correct to use Latin plurals, such as “fora”  instead of “forums,” and “croci” not “crocuses”?     
A: Generally, only when writing Latin. With words ending in -a (plural -ae) and -um (plural -a), a good general rule is to use the English plural in ordinary writing, and the Latin in technical or scientific writing.  Thus, “formulas” and “formulae” are used in different senses. Places for discussion are “forums” while the ruins of Roman market-places are “fora.” Likewise, “indexes” belong in books while “indices” are mathematical.                               
The correct use of classical plurals used to be a status marker in the days when everybody with a paid-for education was force-fed Latin. Once places like Oxford and Cambridge stopped demanding it in their entrance exams,  Latin became the plaything of certain special interest groups: a tiny minority of people who actually like Latin and don’t want to see it die;  botanists and garden enthusiasts who delight in tacking fake Latin endings onto words like “cacti” that were never Latin anyway; the Pope and his inner circle; and, the people we are most likely to encounter, English teachers who once, long ago, attended a lecture on vocabulary building and have been repeating it to their students ever since. These are the people who perpetrate such monstrosities as “syllabi.” Use of an etymological dictionary will nearly always prove them wrong.                                                       

From Newsletter Number 70 (May 1996)