23 March 2012

Do you speak Japanese?

When people ask me if I can speak Japanese, or how my Japanese is, I never know how to answer. I usually say something like, Well, my wife and I only speak in Japanese, so it's okay. It's okay.

The truth is that I can speak Japanese, but I'm not brilliant. I'm not bilingual, I'm not fluent in Japanese. I can speak Japanese, and that's enough.

So this week I am doing something I don't think I'm qualified to do: interpretation. I have a friend from Niigata who is here in the UK at the University of East Anglia with some nursing students and she asked me to do some interpretation for them. I agreed, but sort of on the condition that it was more in a sense of aiding their understanding of things rather than interpreting lectures or doing anything too official. After all, I've said, I only really just speak Japanese with my wife and kids: I haven't had any real training.

People who don't know much about language think that translation and interpretation is simply matching words in two languages and serving as a kind of walking dictionary. It's not that at all. Interpreters have to:
  1. Listen to what a (usual very nervous) person says
  2. Deduce the key meaning of the utterance past all the ums and ahs and false starts
  3. Consider the cultural assumptions and knowledge that go into that utterance
  4. Match key words in the target and source languages
  5. Consider the cultural assumptions and knowledge of the hearer
  6. Produce a sentence in the target language that conveys meaning on both the semantic and pragmatic level.
So you are constantly standing between two cultures and you have to be well aware of what everyone is bringing to the game. Add to that specialised terminology (like medical terminology) and the whole thing can be a very, very difficult endeavour. Example: standing in a surgical supply closet holding something called a 'rectal gun' and trying to explain what it's for without the word 'colon', which I, of course, don't know in Japanese (or didn't know, until yesterday). I've also found it difficult to not get involved myself, to join the conversation and be a part of the interaction. Luckily, given the people involved, I've been able to do that a bit. It's been about 70% interpretation, 20% teaching, and 10% logistics. 

But you know that scene in Lost in Translation where the director is telling Bill Murray's character what to do and he's got this big speech that the interpreter boils down to, 'Sit here and look at the camera'? It's sort of like that. People talk a lot but don't say much. When I get into a groove and a conversation is flowing well, I feel like I am able to get the nuance of a statement much better than a really choppy, truncated interaction. Sometimes are better than others.

I  had plans to work during the day and write at night--work on my thesis, the funding bid, mark student coursework... That hasn't happened. I've been exhausted and all I've wanted to do is eat and eat. I ran on Wednesday morning, but Thursday and Friday are off days... Back to running tomorrow morning at 5AM, thank god. 

(I got home yesterday though and there was a note that I had been invited to this seminar in June at NYU, with all expenses paid. I will turn thirty in New York, doing what I love, talking about the bid at Lancaster. Washington Square. NYU in June. What a gift.)

I've done my best with the Japanese and everyone seems happy enough with the work I've done, but who knows if it's been good enough or not. One of the teachers was taking video and I was like, god, I hope this doesn't get out. I hear myself repeating the same bad Japanese grammar, saying again and again, そういう感じですね. Ugh. Stop saying that.  The Vice-Chancellor of the University was talking with the students yesterday and I was translating his questions and the students' answers. The Head of Japanese Studies (a British guy) was there as well, and afterwards he said that I had done a good job, something I took more pride in then I probably should have. Whenever Japanese people praise my Japanese, I appreciate it, but I also know that they would probably not tell me if I sucked. So it's hard to tell. I ask the students, Do you understand? and they nod aggressively, but I've learned to tell sincere and insincere nodding. 

I also now know the words for nursing practice, aesthetic(local and complete), surgical theatre orthopaedic, midwife... It goes on and on.

I suppose I can speak Japanese. Enough to have a successful relationship with my wife and also do paid translation work. That's not bad.