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. Continue reading “Lost in Translation: Lessons from a Japanese Business Letter”