Almost 30 years ago, I began studying Japanese at Cambridge University. I chose the language because I loved languages and wanted a linguistic challenge. Its writing system, which is made up of two Japanese syllabic scripts, Roman letters and thousands of Chinese characters called kanji, makes it one of the hardest languages for Europeans to learn. I also expected that armed with a degree in Japanese, I would be able to find a high-paying job in the business world. After I graduated, I worked in Japan on a government program and spoke Japanese every day for two years. I didn’t notice the exact moment, but at some point I realized I had become fluent. After returning to the UK and dabbling in business news translation, I took a sharp turn into the world of Asian art (and kissed that high-paying business world job goodbye!). Surprisingly, although I have forgotten many of the thousands characters I learned, I still seem able to access a fair bit of my Japanese, especially if I am in Japan and/or drinking sake. I recently translated a book about a Japanese artist from Japanese to English – without the influence of sake, I should point out – so I know it’s still in there.
Today I gave away my large English-Japanese Dictionary to our local branch of the Los Angeles Public Library. I have kept this 10-lb tome on my shelf for years assuming I would consult it at some point. I never did because my translation work was always in the opposite direction, Japanese to English; my Japanese will never be good enough to translate professionally the other way. But that’s ok. I am so delighted with where my study of Japanese has led me: to an idyllic life in rural Japan, then the study of Japanese art history in London, and finally to Southern California to work as an Asian art curator. When I thumbed through my first Japanese dictionary, I could never have predicted the direction this language would take me. Perhaps in the Little Tokyo branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, which is where my donation may well end up, someone will look up a word in that dictionary and begin their adventure.