January 6, 2015

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.

Japanese Dictionary

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.

4 thoughts on “January 6, 2015

  1. Meher, you really inspire me with your deeds and thoughts. You have me thinking of meaningful objects I might gift as well. Gifting seems like at least a partial product of Japanese culture’s influence on you. I had a young Japanese friend who gave me a simple gift after a visit that was so lovely and it impressed me a lit.

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  2. Wow, becoming fluent after only living in Japan for a few years is pretty awesome. I’ve been studying about 15 years plus or minus, but never lived there so my conversation skills are still quite weak. Fortunately by doing alot of reading I’ve been able to become semi-fluent in reading, though my pace is quite slow.

    How long did it take you to translate that book? I’ve considered trying translation at some point (though I should at least wait until I’m a bit more fluent), though it seems like it would take forever to translate a normal length book.

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    1. Hello, Locksleyu. Thank you for your comment. I had studied the language for four years at university before going to Japan. It probably took me a year and a half of working everyday in Japanese to become fluent. I think for most people it is hard to become fluent without living in a language. It took three months to translate the book, and a couple more weeks for the back matter like the bibliography, and the captions. It’s intense work but very satisfying. If you have lots of practice reading, you shouldn’t find it too hard.

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      1. Thanks for the response. Interesting to hear people’s success stories about how they became in fluent in Japanese (whether they have lived there or not) because there are so many people who have studied years are are not fluent.

        For example one of my friends lived in Japan for a year but (I feel) my conversation skills were much better than his. I practice with my wife daily and he didn’t speak Japanese that much when he was there, from what I gather.

        The reason I feel translating would take so long is that I am very picky about getting the ‘perfect’ translation, or at least one that sounds natural in English with very close meaning to the original Japanese text. And flipping the words around in my head to figure out the best translation takes me quite a bit of time (it can take over a minute just for a few sentences).

        I guess that, like reading, the more you do it for a given author and context the faster you get at it, so maybe after a few pages I would have a much faster speed.

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