Unwarranted Confidence

by Doreen Simmons

It may seem amazing that some people think a casual hunt in a pocket-size Japanese-English dictionary will produce the same result as informed knowledge, but they do.

Dear Aunt Eva,

I specialize in producing art catalogues. Important clients think so, anyway. I have, however, had an adverse experience: I worked on an art catalogue with a Japanese publisher and found it to be both the most exasperating and most challenging job I’ve ever had. I still remember the amazement I felt when the Japanese designer, who didn’t know any English, made changes to my edits in the proof stage because he felt they were wrong. Getting him to stop, without his losing face with his employer, was a lesson in cross-cultural sensitivity.

Aunt Eva, am I missing something here? Why did a man who obviously had to look up every word assume that he could correct my English?

Bubbles R. Poppin

Aunt Eva answers:

Dear Ms. Poppin,

Unwarranted confidence is not confined to Japan, but foreigners working here at a fairly high level do seem to encounter it rather often, especially in the case of words that can be looked up in a dictionary. One has only to observe the use of kanji dictionaries by the Japanese themselves to begin to understand. In offices where a high level of Japanese reading and writing is demanded, even well-educated Japanese can often be seen confirming a character or refreshing a hazy memory of an uncommon variant. It comes naturally in such a culture to assume that an English dictionary can be used the same way. But Japanese looking up kanji are dealing with their own language; the character they find is merely the written form of a word they already know as native speakers.

It may seem amazing that some people think a casual hunt in a pocket-size Japanese-English dictionary will produce the same result as informed knowledge, but they do. And this behavior is not confined to printers or designers. An academic friend of Aunt Eva’s once found herself opposed to the rest of a board of examiners, all distinguished male professors, because they were relying on an inadequate definition of ‘paragraph.’ They claimed that a long continuous passage was, in fact, three ‘paragraphs’ because they were using a dictionary that defined a paragraph as ‘a section of a longer piece of writing devoted to one idea’ without adding that it was separated from the preceding and subsequent paragraphs by a line space or an initial indent. Unfortunately, in my friend’s case this missing information mattered rather a lot because the board members were using their definition to locate examination questions in ‘the first, second, and third paragraphs’!

Even the compilers of dictionaries commit errors. Many errors in Japanese dictionaries, some of which still have not been corrected, arose when the compiler took an inadequate definition and equated it with the nearest short definition in Japanese. The Kenkyusha dictionary commonly known as the Green Goddess still defines kesa, the stylized begging bag that Buddhist priests wear slung across their chests, as a ‘surplice,’ which is actually a voluminous wide-sleeved white garment worn by priests, choristers, and others in some Christian churches. Apart from being made of cloth and worn as a sign of religious affiliation, the two items have nothing in common.

Another assumption that is not unique to Japan but has cast a blight over its education system here for years is that everybody is capable of reaching the same level of attainment simply by making enough effort. The Ministry of Education sets curricula considered to be within the reach of every child and teenager in Japan. The snag is, of course, that while teachers make heroic efforts to keep to the middle level, the ultrafast thinkers, who got the point in five minutes, will be just as bored as the ultraslow learners who lost the thread some time ago and have given up. And those who are ‘too clever for their own good’ have a far greater potential for mischief. Remember the elites of AUM Shinrikyō?

A basic problem with assuming that everyone is, or should be, the same was recognized long ago by George Orwell: ‘All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.’ The early stages of any subject or skill can be treated in this way, but there comes a point when something more than assiduous practice is needed. There are several words for it; ‘talent’ is one. The Suzuki system of teaching the violin is based on the idea that all children can reach a certain level of performance, and if you ever attend one of their concerts, you will see that this is true. Why, then, are there not more Suzuki-taught violinists among the world’s top artists? Because, Aunt Eva would respectfully suggest, beyond a certain point of technical skill, something more is needed, and no amount of lessons, confidence, ambition, or effort can develop it if not already there. As it says in the Good Book, ‘Can any of you grow taller or older just by thinking hard about it?’

Unfortunately, this is not the message communicated by many educational systems. ‘You can do it!’ is fine to encourage a child to run faster, but only if ‘You did your best, and I’m proud of you!’ or ‘Congratulations! That’s the fastest you’ve ever run!’ is added when the child’s best has not won the race. But among the ranks of Japanese whose best efforts have won acceptance by a top university, out the other end of the sausage machine, and into an elite position in a government ministry or world-renowned company, the assumption is all too often ‘I can do anything I set my mind to.’ If these people are in a position of power, it is not always a good idea to confront them with their shortcomings.

Aunt Eva recalls that budget constraints once led such an ‘elite’ to volunteer to edit a company publication that had been translated. He found numerous faults with the translation (which frankly was not very good, since we were economizing on that, too) and brought them to Aunt Eva for a second opinion. His editorial eye was unerring, but it always worked in reverse: anything he objected to as ‘bad’ English was invariably correct. But as Aunt Eva’s eyes strayed above and below the passage he was querying, she saw a plethora of typos, grammatical errors, and infelicities that he had missed. What to do? The problem was solved with a quiet word in the ear of the old hand in charge of publications: the entire editing job would have to be redone, behind the back of the volunteer. Fortunately, he was transferred before he discovered what we had done.

Eva Hartupp

From Newsletter Number 101 (May 2003)