Education Opinion

Lost in Translation

By Anthony J. Mullen — December 07, 2009 7 min read
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I am sitting in the back seat of a polished black sedan accompanied by four Japanese men wearing copycat dark suits, white shirts, and navy blue ties. The chauffeur is a rough looking man and he is wearing a pair of white gloves. I am heading to a meeting with the governor of Chiba Prefecture but feel as though I am the unwilling passenger in some Japanese gangster movie. The car’s trunk is large enough to accommodate my American body, and Tokyo Bay can be seen in the distance.

The man sitting in front of me is the governor’s secretary- the person responsible for my timely passage to Governor Matsuzawa’s office. He is a thin and pale man with a serious demeanor. He frequently snaps commands at the driver and then points to me.

The secretary turns around to face me. “I tell the driver that you must be at a meeting with the governor in 10 minutes. We cannot be late.”

Japanese civil servants are punctual and efficient workers, and they strive to please their superiors. The governor’s secretary is a very capable and loyal employee, and he is clearly frustrated with the congested traffic. The stress on the first vowel of every word makes the Japanese language sound abrupt and authoritative, and thus the secretary appears to be scolding the driver. The driver occasionally glances at me in the rearview mirror. He shows no emotion. My other driving companions stare blankly ahead, seemingly oblivious to the secretary’s aggravation. I learn quickly that an alpha male emerges whenever two or more Japanese men meet in formal situations, and the governor’s secretary assumed this role the moment we entered the car.

A half dozen people are waiting in front of the Chiba State Office Building. One takes my shoulder bag, another gives me a nametag, and a third directs me inside the building. As I enter the lobby more people are waiting and each bows politely. I return their bows, only to watch them bow again. I’m not sure if I am expected to bow again. The childhood game of “tag” enters my mind and I do not want to be “you’re it!” when the bowing ends. I enter an elevator and quickly bow to the crowd before the door closes.

A Japanese news crew is waiting outside the governor’s office and the governor’s secretary informs me that my meeting with the governor will be televised on the nightly news. “You can watch at 6 PM,” he tells me.

Before I meet with the governor certain protocols must be followed. I am first taken to a greeting room adjacent to the governor’s office and served hot green tea by two young female staff members. The ladies bow as they enter and exit the room. I bow as they leave. I sip the green tea and wait for my interpreter to arrive. I am surprised to discover that very few Japanese speak English. Japanese students are taught English throughout primary and secondary school but, similar to their American counterparts who are taught Spanish for many years, few Japanese students apply new language skills outside the classroom.

A neatly dressed and courteous interpreter enters the room and apologizes for being late. Her name is Ayame and she tells me that I may call her Ayame. I tell her that my name is Tony and she may call me Tony.

“I will be your interpreter and hope to do a good job,” she said.

I assured her that she would do an excellent job and extend my appreciation for her help. She appears nervous and I can’t say that I blame her. Interpreting for the governor of Chiba must be an intimidating request. The culture of the office is male dominated and she has not been served any tea. I pass her one of the full cups of hot tea ignored by my male associates. She smiles and the men look at me askew.

The governor’s secretary leaves for a moment and then returns. “The governor is ready to see you.”

I am expected to enter the governor’s officer first - a customary sign of respect for the “honored” guest. The governor has a warm smile and a firm hand shake. I am relieved that he did not bow. He is a handsome man who exhibits celebrity charm. I later learn that he lived in Maryland for a few years and worked in Washington, D.C.Three chairs have been arranged in front of the governor’s desk and another tray of hot green tea is placed on a small table. The media crew proceeds to the far end of the room as the governor, interpreter and I sit in our assigned chairs.

I hear only the garbled sounds of a foreign language as the governor speaks to me.

” Kon-nee-dess O-genki-watashi- desu wah-tah-she kee-dess- so jaba Chiba so -meek jaba-cho solo ... ah jaka kor-ee to haa-jee-the-eh shee-moss-oh (pause) jaka kor-ee-to ah beb-hoy doh-zo ray-gah-too eh go-men-mah-sen United States eh deh-wah arh-ree-gah-toh (pause) desu-she-dess men-nah say toy-reh-wah dess-kah Japan chee-wah-kon oh-no-wah hah-jee-desu gen-kee-kah (governor points to pictures on the wall) ah she-dess-kon Chiba O
doh-moh men-nah-sih.”

I glance at my interpreter.

“The governor says ‘Good morning and welcome.’”

What? All those words had to mean more than just good morning and welcome.

“Is that all he said?” I asked.

“Yes,” she answered proudly.

“Please let the governor know that I am much honored to be invited to visit Japan and to meet with him. I am eager to learn about the Japanese education system-particularly how special education students are taught and what dropout prevention strategies are applied. Please also let him know that I find Chiba to be a beautiful area of Japan. Please tell the governor that the only thing more beautiful than Chiba is the Japanese people.”

The interpreter faced the governor and spoke softly. " Kon-nee-chee-wah.”

The governor looked at me with a smile. “Kon-nee-chee-wah,” he replied.

“What did the governor say?”

“Hello,” the interpreter replied.

The three of us looked at each other; I assumed it was my turn to speak and decided to use a different strategy. If many words elicit a brief response, then maybe a few words would elicit a lengthy response.

I faced the governor and said, “Dropouts?”

My interpreter looked at me for clarification. I repeated my one word question and she translated.

The sound and cadence of certain foreign languages has a hypnotic effect on my brain, and I begin to feel comfortably sedated while listening to the governor’s response.

” Geb-kee-day kah-dee-oh oh-nah-mah- dess-key? Gen-full-kah... wah-tah-no Chiba eh...no-dess shee-no nah-mah jee-meh-the- Doh-zo hah-meh-jee en Japan mosh-the gen zo-zo gen-kee men-mee-sen hah-jay (pause) too-say-chee oh-hah-go zig-mah-chee deh-reh-wah oh-ha-yo go-moss hah-nah she-sen-men (governor waves his right index finger) no-gen-key-say Chiba-eh-Tokyo soo-mee-mah kee-dess zo-doh-mah-seen... tah-kah-oh hah-nah see-nay-yah wah-kah-rey ah-boo! Oh-yah en soo-mee-ha oh mosh jee-meh-teh en Chiba.”

Wow. That was an earful. The governor was very animated and talked about the growing problem of Japanese teenagers leaving school and doing nothing with their lives. In fact, this complaint will be repeated by education officials throughout my visit to Japan. The thought that Japanese students drop out of high school and spend their days playing video games or drawing anime cartoons surprised me. I brought with me a set of biased beliefs which included the conviction that all Japanese students graduate high school (with high grades) and go to college. My preconceived notions are largely the result of countless media articles touting the Japanese system of education.

I wonder what causative factors are contributing to the emerging problem of idle Japanese teenagers. The pressure to succeed, rigid classrooms, bullying, and a Western 1960s style of teenage rebellion are some of the reasons cited by Japanese education officials. The Japanese, it appears, are a people losing some of their cultural identity. A respected elderly education official lamented the erosion of the traditional Japanese nuclear family and the generation of “lost young people” left in its wake. Sound familiar?

Translation is a difficult task. Words do not always move parallel across a plane of mutual understanding or a linguist’s tongue. Some words will always be lost in translation. But today whatever words are lost in translation are quickly replaced with a sincere concern for a nation’s future. Japan still has one of the lowest dropout rates in the industrialized world, but I am told “the rate increases each year.”

And it is not difficult to translate the implications of these words.

The opinions expressed in Road Diaries: 2009 Teacher of the Year are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.