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Essay

Lost in translation

By Kip A. Cates

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Interpreting from one language to another can seem like a daunting task, achievable only by professionals with years of training and advanced language skills. That's not always so.

The reality is that anyone can act as an interpreter — even you! — if the situation requires it. All it takes is basic language skills, a willingness to help and the courage to make a difference.

My first experience as an interpreter took place many years ago in Kobe, where I was learning Japanese. I was taking a walk one day when I came upon a group of American tourists talking to some local Japanese residents. They seemed to be having problems communicating. I approached to see what was happening.

"We want to try a Japanese bath," said the Americans. "Where can we find a bath?" The Japanese had no idea what they were talking about. The only English word they caught was "bath." Unfortunately, they misunderstood and thought the Americans wanted a bus.

Things went from bad to worse. The Americans began shouting "Bath! Bath!" and pretended to take their clothes off to convey their meaning. Naturally, the Japanese were startled by this strange behavior. In reply, they shouted "Bus! Bus!" and pointed to a nearby bus stop.

The problem was clear. The Americans wanted to go to a sento, a public bath, but didn't understand Japanese. The Japanese wanted to help but couldn't understand English. Both groups were trying to communicate but couldn't connect. The frustration on both sides was mounting.

It was obvious that they needed a translator to solve their problem. I looked around desperately but there was no professional interpreter at hand. What to do?

Slowly, it dawned on me. Maybe I could translate... The idea seemed absurd. I was only a beginner who spoke basic Japanese. Everybody knows that translators are professionals with official certificates and high-level skills.

Yet the need was clear and the timing was urgent. I stepped forward, positioned myself between the two groups and got to work. "You want to visit a Japanese bath, right?" I confirmed with the Americans. They nodded their heads in agreement. I conveyed this to the Kobe residents in basic Japanese. "So that's what they wanted," they replied. "We thought they wanted a bus!"

In two short minutes, the problem was solved. Soon, the Americans were happily on their way to a nearby sento guided by their helpful Japanese hosts.

Professional interpreters play an invaluable role on the world stage. But the world also needs individuals who can use foreign languages to promote communication in daily life. You don't have to be an expert to become a bridge of understanding between people. If you see a need, don't be shy. Step up and start translating!

ロスト・イン・トランスレーション

通訳や翻訳は専門的なトレーニングを受けたプロだけができることだろうか? 筆者は基礎的な語学力があれば誰でも、通訳をして人と人とのコミュニケーションを助けることができると考えている。

The Japan Times ST: December 29, 2017

The Japan Times ST 読者アンケート

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