Lost in Translation: Lessons from a Japanese Business Letter

by Ben Mirin, CIR

If I had to summarize one of the letters I recently translated from Japanese to English, it would boil down to this: Thanks, but no thanks.

Nearly every week at my job I am handed one kind of official document or another, with an original copy in Japanese and my coworker’s increasingly excellent attempts at a first translation.  With each letter my job becomes easier, not simply because I have more experience with Japanese, but, perhaps more noticeably, because my coworker’s written English is improving dramatically with each passing day.

Most of these documents have a direct connection to my work.  I know the addressee and the signatory, and have been briefed on the topic of their exchange.  Every now and then, though, a letter ends up on my desk for which I have no context at all.

My first translation job dealt with just such a letter.

The note informed its recipient, a foreign resident of Hakodate, that after careful consideration she did not qualify for a position as an English teacher in a local community program.  In my eyes, everything about the letter seemed fine until it elaborated that her spouse was vastly more qualified for the job.

Apparently, from the start of the practice classes–in which the applicant was essentially ‘interviewed’–her husband was present.  Far more confident in his command of English, he ended up leading the conversations and answering students’ questions single-handedly.  With a couple exceptions, our prospective teacher remained silent the entire time.

Why this gentleman took control of his wife’s interview is a question I cannot answer, but he was understandably popular with the students in these practice classes.

“They liked him a lot,” the letter explained, and “could see that you [the applicant] were very nice and sincere, but they were concerned that you could not speak about topics that interested them, such as travel, news and politics. Many students would join the class if you and your husband would teach together, but we know this would be impossible.”

Following all this was a suggestion that the applicant teach cooking classes instead.

I’m familiar with the concept of a denial letter; I’ve received several of them.  What I couldn’t understand was why this one was cluttered with so many extraneous details that, from my perspective, seemed only to add insult to injury.

Then I reached the conclusion of the letter: “I am very sorry because we had already asked you to teach for us.”

This explained everything.  The writer was attempting to save face.  As it turns out, her applicant had attracted the English program’s attention because of a misleading recommendation.  Ultimately, both parties had sought each other out with unrealistic expectations of what the other could offer.

With this history in line, I no longer felt like just an emissary for bad news.  Through my translation, I was to be a peacekeeper, charged with relieving this letter’s author of a burden she did not deserve while successfully consoling its abashed reader-to-be.

After 3 hours I had it: the best solution I could offer in writing to resolve this dilemma.  I actually thought it was quite good, but since that day I have continually faced a quandary of my own.  When translating official communications between Concord and Nanae, it’s difficult not to toe the line that separates my role as a translator from that of an editor.  Far be it from me to put words in the mouth of another town official, but when I’m working between cultures as different as these I sometimes don’t have a choice.

Producing English translations of Japanese letters is a cultural balancing act. They often deal with their core subjects (in this case, the applicant’s rejection) indirectly. This approach can be incredibly frustrating for a reader who is unfamiliar with Japanese business etiquette, but after 2 months of living in Hokkaido I’m starting to appreciate it for its tact and delicacy.

Whether in conversation or in writing, I expect it will always be difficult to find English equivalents for many of the Japanese phrases and mannerisms I encounter during my tenure as Nanae’s CIR. Still, as I become more acquainted with Japan, its language, and its working environment, I believe my translations will exhibit more sensitive interpretation and, with any luck, a better balance between American and Japanese sensibilities.♦

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