As interpreters we carry dictionaries, stay up to date on current events, understand cultural nuances and know when to “go literal” versus simply staying true to the message. What else do we need to know? Here’s something that always trips me up: Slang.
Like all languages, Japanese is constantly evolving and changing. New words pop up. New phrases are used that didn’t exist two months prior. Next thing you know, the whole country is using words you aren’t familiar with and you feel out of touch. While not necessarily slang by our definition, one new way the Japanese language evolves is through abbreviations. Two words are shortened into one. The first one or two syllables of several words are blended into one and voila there’s a new word. This one won’t be in the dictionary, either. It’s new. It’s an abbreviation. If you don’t know it, you’re in trouble. Here are three such examples of words that tripped up an interpreter or two.
I’m interpreting for a women’s luncheon. The discussion involves music, art, fashion and current events. One Japanese woman of about my age says to an American woman sitting at her table,
I pause. What does she mean? I could interpret this as “Do you like mantra?” but what’s mantra? Do I say “mantras” instead of “mantra”? “Do you like mantra?” isn’t grammatically correct in English. What do I do with this? Is she referring to just one mantra? Does she mean “do you enjoy Buddhist mantras?” We were just talking about music.
Here’s another story. This one happened to someone who used to work for me. She told a client while chatting she was going to California for her next assignment. The Japanese man she was working with smiled and said,
She paused, too. Does he mean 手話 as in sign language? If so, that’s not grammatically correct. This makes no sense. That she’s to say yoroshiku to “shuwa” is confusing. You don’t say hello to sign language. You might say hello in sign language. What’s “shuwa”? Or, is “shuwa” a person? Saying yoroshiku to a person makes more sense. If so, whom? Are they Japanese? Is “shuwa” a Japanese name? She’s never heard of it. If not Japanese, how does she say “shuwa” in English? Schuwa? She decides to ask and wings it. She’s going with “shuwa” as a person. The Japanese man laughs and says, “shuwa” is short for Schwarzenegger. He meant Arnold Schwarzenegger. Evidently, they call him “shuwa” in Japan. She ends her call to me as she tells me the story saying, “who knew?!” You should have, my dear.
The last story also happened to a colleague. She’s accompanying American executives to a meeting with their Japanese counterparts. They’re in one of those tall buildings in Tokyo. The meeting is about to start and one of the executives asks her to get a tech person to help set up the “AV material.” She goes over to one of the Japanese managers and repeats the requests, careful to use “AV material” in her sentence as that’s what the American wants. She gets a blank stare.
He avoids her eyes and reluctantly asks, 「あのー、本当にAV資料お持ちなんでしょうか。」
She’s taken aback. Of course they have AV material! That’s what she just asked for. She says yes, they really do have AV material and could she please get some help so the executive can set things up. Then it dawns on her. Back pedal! Back pedal! Unsend! Delete! In Japanese, “AV” is short for “adult video” and not “audio visual.” Major faux pas! She should have known better. She turns beat red and apologizes saying she needs someone from tech support to set up the laptop. Ah. This, he understands. As he turns to get help, she decides to explain herself and cover for her employer, lest the Japanese think they were going to show a porn clip. She tells the Japanese what AV stands for in English and apologizes for her mistake. This story was told around the dinner table later that week after much alcohol was consumed and everyone, including the interpreter, had a good laugh over her major gaffe.
What’s the moral of the story? Where do I start? As interpreters we can’t possibly expected to know every abbreviation, every new “flavor-of-the-month” phrase or word. There’s simply too much to keep up with. It would behoove us, however, to stay as current as we can. I make a point of renting Japanese television shows on DVD and watching whatever I can in Japanese on my local cable network. I read Japanese news and blogs online as often as possible. It doesn’t compensate for actual time in Japan where I can hear the Japanese live, but I’ve found it to be the next best thing.
Amya Miller lives near Boston, Massachusetts and is the President and CEO of Lupine and Co., which offers Japanese interpretation, liaison services, business etiquette training, consultation on successful negotiation techniques and problem solving.
Amya also founded the Gaijin Group; a group for gaijins all over the world. She was born and raised in Japan and spent time in Tokyo and Hokkaido. She has worked as an Interpreter and behind-the-scenes liaison in Japan-US business for 20 years. You can reach Amya at email@example.com and find out more about at https://www.lupineandco.com/ and https://www.gaijingroup.com/.