Interference by Overconfident Japanese

by Doreen Simmons

Need a friendly ear to pour your troubles into? A shoulder to cry on? Somebody, anybody, to whinge at? Write to Aunt Eva, who has been through it all and can share your pain. The names are changed but the situations are real.

Dear Aunt Eva:

I work as a checker and rewriter. I thought it was a good line of work, until my recent run-in with one of the ministries. This is what happened. I received the English version of a White Paper from the translation company late on Monday, July 24, and was asked to complete the checking in four days. The translation read pretty smoothly and appeared to have been done by a potentially good but rather inexperienced native speaker. Wanting to make a good impression, I pulled out all the stops and got the checking done a day early. I sent it to the Ministry on Thursday, 27, supposedly so their experts could check the technical terms. Ha! The translation was scheduled to come back to me for a final check on Monday, August 7; but it didn’t come till late afternoon on Thursday 10. They spent two full weeks on it; and when I took a closer look, I found they’d almost completely rewritten the English! None of their work was an improvement—and that is putting it very politely, Aunt Eva, for I do not care to use foul language to a lady of tender sensitivities. You see my problem. The schedule required me to finish checking on Friday, August 11. How could I rewrite in one day 188 pages of truly awful Japanese English, when the original native-speaker English took me three days? Aunt Eva, what would you do when this happens?

Ivor Paine, Tokyo

Aunt Eva answers:

Weep. Oh, no, wait; I’m supposed to be giving help and consolation, aren’t I? Well, let’s see. If you’ve been in your job for less than ten years, weep. If more, you could try refusing to initial the returned genkō, assuming that this means that it cannot be sent to the printer until someone overrules you. Think carefully at this point: who has the power to overrule you? Does that person also have the power to fire you? How long is that person going to be around? If the answers to these questions look ominous, try the gentler way: appeal to your immediate superior, probably the kachō. Speak softly, or bring the written word as evidence. Copy a really bad page of the returned script (don’t mess up the cleaned version), and draw circles in pretty colors around all the stupid changes that have been made—red for a grammatical mistake, green for a word that has replaced one of identical meaning, purple for obsolete English, . . . attach blown-up citations from respectable dictionaries or other authorities to prove your point, and write pertinent comments in the margin. Type a nice tidy page of exposition, and finish off with something like, “If the XXX ministry people do not trust native speakers, they should publish their own translation and accept the consequences,  instead of changing what the agency translator and I have produced—for if anyone points out any mistakes in their version, they will assuredly blame us.”  If all this fails, weep. Then go out for a few beers—and take the kachō with you. You may yet change his mind, and if not,  you will at least end the day feeling no pain.                       

Eva Hartupp

Quickie question:

Aunt Eva, is there any important difference between “sewage” and “sewerage”?   

A: The basic word is “sewer,” the pipe or, originally, trench (but let’s not dwell upon that) that carries our more unpleasant wastes to the sea, or if we live in an advanced country, to a sewage farm. A system of such pipes is “sewerage,” and the word “sewage” was coined by back formation to name the gunk that flows along inside the pipes. There is no connection with the verb “sew” which rhymes with “dough” and refers only to stitching clothing. This is why a person who sews is never referred to as a “sewer” but as a dressmaker or tailor. If you read that the government of a developing country is trying to spread, or diffuse, its system of sewers, remember that “sewerage” is the word. “Sewage” is diffused,  or spread more widely, only when it hits the fan.                               

From Newsletter Number 68 (January 1996)