Monday, November 10, 2008

Lets Ecology! 16: How do you say "nematode" in Japanese?

The new project was a certification manual published by an American organization, the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF). CCOF was the official certifying organization for organic farming in California. Without their seal of approval, no product in the state could be labeled "organic." Their certification manual was about twenty-five pages of main text, followed by about ten pages of appendices, the largest of which was a list of chemicals and other things that were listed as either "approved," "restricted," or "forbidden" for use on organic farms.

I was told to translate this into Japanese so Recycle could publish it. I wasn't happy about the assignment. Although I was fairly confident in my ability to at least write grammatically correct Japanese, I didn't feel it was good enough to appear in print. Plus, my farming vocabulary was limited. Agriculture was not a subject that came up very often in my everyday conversations, so with the exception of the names of common food crops, I had never learned many of the simplest terms. I was constantly forced to resort to an English-Japanese dictionary not just for terms like "fungicide" and "nematode," but also for words like "plow," "fertilizer," and "crop." I painstakingly looked them up one by one.

This meant that my progress was very slow, and I wasn't confident in the accuracy. Even though the English manual was generally well-written and easy to understand, my ignorance of Japanese agricultural terms meant that I was often guessing at the proper use of the words I looked up in the dictionary. Most of the organization's agricultural expertise was located at Turnip Boy's distribution center way out in the Tokyo suburbs. There was nobody around to answer questions, assuming that they would have had the time anyway. It ended up taking me about five weeks of five-hour days to finish the job. Even as the beginning translator that I was at the time, going from Japanese to English I probably could have finished in less than two weeks.

The CCOF translation constituted the bulk of my work during the "testing period" while I was working part-time. I was a little worried about the quality; what if my bosses thought it was as bad as I did and decided not to hire me full-time? That never came into question, though, because no one ever asked to see the translation until about six months after I had already been hired as a permanent employee. Although I didn't know it at the time, they were more interested in whether I came to the office on time every day and worked hard than whether I was actually good at the task they assigned me. Since putting my head down and working hard without stopping has never been a problem for me when I'm motivated, and since the horrifying thought of losing my Real Job and going back to teaching English was very motivating, I kept plugging away at the translation. My dedication to my work seemed to make a favorable impression.

The first actual feedback I got about the translation came when Soga, who was interested in the CCOF standards for livestock, asked to see it. It had been sitting in a file cabinet for months after I'd finished it. I gave it to him and told him honestly that I didn't feel that the quality of the translation was very high. Since that kind of self-deprecation is good manners in Japan, he just nodded and said don't worry about it, not realizing that I'd really meant what I said -- I really did think it was pretty bad. The next day, though, I got a memo from him saying that he wanted to look at the English original. He was out when I went to deliver it to him, so I just left it on his desk.

The next time I ran into him, he smiled at me and said in his typical frank manner, "You know, that translation you gave me wasn't very good at all. It seemed like you just looked up a lot of words in the dictionary and used them without understanding them, and you chose the wrong words a lot of the time too. Sometimes I had to compare it with the English to understand what you were trying to say."

Well, duh. I wasn't surprised by his comment; that was exactly how I had done a lot of the translation. I was kind of impressed by his perceptiveness. My answer was just as frank. "I know. Generally, you can expect a high-quality translation only into a person's native language, not out of it. I did my best, but it didn't really make sense for me to have been assigned that job in the first place." Soga looked at me searchingly for a moment and then nodded. He seemed to get my point.

Coming next time: "That's why I get the big money."

More "Let's Ecology!" posts are here. "Let's Ecology!" is the story of my stint with a Japanese environmental group (or sort of an environmental group -- it's "complicated"). Look for new posts every Monday. The names have been changed to protect me from lawsuits. Everything else really happened.

No comments:

Post a Comment

What do you think?