The In-house Dogsbody

by Doreen Simmons

How far is an employer justified in changing or adding to the job description of a new employee?  Our lovable old tabby is positively cross-eyed with benevolence, but lately she has been seeing some ominous extensions. We should be willing to try something new—who knows, this may be our next good career move—but how far are skills transferable from one job to another? And what are the underlying assumptions that can lead to misunderstandings?

Dear Aunt Eva,

I recently landed a job as an in-house translator in a Japanese company.  This was very exciting for me, as I had been teaching English but wanted to make a move in a new direction. (I should mention that I have qualifications as an English teacher, but have been working hard on my Japanese and my translation skills in order to broaden my horizons.) When I was still settling into my new job, however, one of my superiors said it would be very helpful if, in addition to my translation work, I could also teach some company English classes.  This is rather a problem.  Business English is a new field to me, Aunt Eva, and these lessons will need a lot of preparation; in any case I was trying to get out of teaching.  Have you any advice?

Helena Handbasket

Aunt Eva answers:

Dear Helena,

I hate to say it, but your teaching qualification was probably one of the factors that landed you this job.  The candidate who can teach as well as translate will have an edge over a one-trick pony. But why was this not brought up when you were interviewed? And more to the point, why is a big company asking its new in-house translator to teach some company English classes when this job is normally farmed out to specialist teachers?

It is ominous that, at the same time as you were writing to Aunt Eva about your job, she heard that two of her friends had just lost their livelihood. They had made a decent living for years teaching precisely this kind of specialized company class. Suddenly the rug was pulled from under them. All their company work disappeared, leaving them in a very serious financial situation.  Several different companies were concerned, too; with that synchronicity that astounds newcomers, apparently the word has got around that nobody can afford to hire these pricey outside teachers. One hopes that the word has not spread too far that the job can be now wished upon in-house translators, at considerable cost-saving.

What to do? As a new employee you’re not in a position to refuse outright. Always start your negotiations with, “Of course I’d be happy to do as you wish; but is there a textbook?” (if there isn’t, you will have to prepare the course work); “will I be allowed preparation time during office hours?” (if not, and you have to create courses in your own time, you may need to rethink the whole job). As a rule of thumb, teaching new courses requires at least 30 minutes’ preparation time for every hour’s teaching. Your Japanese employers, on the other hand, are likely to be under the impression that all you need to do is walk in and speak your own language.

This raises the much larger question of assumptions about what qualifications are needed to do a given job.  Anyone who has spent even two weeks in Japan has probably run across the assumption that any native speaker of English can do any job connected with English—though not necessarily very well. Hence the invitations to become a free “conversation partner”, coming from people who assume that they can become fluent merely by talking with a foreigner.

Those of us in any English-language business, including teaching, translating and rewriting, will also be familiar with the person who assumes that a native speaker, however well qualified, is actually working from instinct,  whereas the superior educational grounding of a Japanese enables him to explain where the native is wrong and correct his or her work extensively.

Another common assumption among Japanese is that years spent in an English-speaking country, and especially an educational qualification gained there, confer native-speaker status upon them. Woe betide the real “native” who offers criticism of someone’s favorite daughter or niece. Take, for example, this cover note: “I am sorry for make you busy.  Those documents have to hand in by Friday.”  This was written by a woman with a degree from a 4-year American university who assumes she can converse on equal terms with Aunt Eva at native-speaker level. 

There is another very common assumption—and this seems to be world-wide—that once something has been committed to memory, it is ready for use without conscious thought. In the day of the computer memory, and in particular the spell checker, this way of thinking is taking on a new and sinister life. These are a few of the new-style mistakes that have appeared on indefatigable Aunt Eva’s desk lately:

  • We have pressure (pleasure) in sending you our daft (draft) proposal
  • Modem (Modern) Japanese Political Documents Division
  • Intentional (International) Labor Office
  • The present government is a collision (coalition)
  • Accept, Excellency, the assurances of my highest condition (consideration)
  • contempt for competent (Aunt Eva leaves that one to the imagination)
  • cretin for certain (even more so!)
  • Tranceport Committee (transports of delight?—this is the level of the “unmature sports” encountered several years ago—amateur, that was)

Aunt Eva predicts that we are going to see much more of this kind of thing.  Now that stored phrases can be activated at the touch of a key, problems of frequency will become even worse.

There is one final assumption: when faced with a tricky situation, the Japanese on the permanent staff will try to manoeuvre the foreign help into taking the blame. For instance, there was the letter from abroad, which was translated into Japanese and passed on to the man in charge. On the basis of his specialized knowledge (which was all in Japanese) he drafted a reply. The same translator put the reply into English and passed it to the “native” for a final check.  It read, “The information you asked for unfortunately has not yet been translated into English. We enclose the Japanese text.” “But the English translation of this information is already available in print!” Aunt Eva said to the translator; “you and I worked on it six months ago—why didn’t you tell the man who drafted this letter?”  “It wasn’t my place to tell him he was wrong; I thought it would be better coming from you.”

And here we are, Helena, back to the world of the in-house dogsbody. Let’s hope your negotiating skills are up to the standard of your other accomplishments.

Eva Hartupp

From Newsletter Number 104 (March 2004)