My New Job as Translator

By Sarah Somerset

Tuesday, and I have to meet the Vice-Chancellor. In Japan you can never be formal enough. I try on ten formal outfits and can no longer fit into any of them. The best I can do is go for neutral colours and hope nobody will scrutinize me.

After a long day teaching, and perspiring in the oppressive humidity, I no longer feel fresh. Finally it gets to 4.15 and there is a knock at my office door. The Deputy Dean is there to escort me, chatty and reassuring. We descend the stairs to the entrance to the building, and meet the Dean, towering over us in his formal suit. Into the taxi we hop, and are taken to the inner sanctum where the Vice Chancellor is ensconced. The three of us make polite conversation in the waiting area, and are then ushered into the Vice Chancellor’s office. There he is, sitting at the end of the room, and I am urged to sit next to him on the plush sofa. He looks uncomfortable. Have I not bowed deeply enough, or have I bowed at the wrong angle? Did I not hold my bow for long enough?

“Don’t worry. She speaks Japanese,” my colleagues try and reassure him in Japanese.

The conversation progresses in Japanese. He still looks worried.

“We have brought Sarah here because she has agreed to translate university documents,” they explain.

“Can you translate scientific theses?” he asks.

“No, but I can translate signs and web pages,” I offer.

“You will be remunerated of course”, he promises.

“I don’t need money,” I reassure him.

“She doesn’t need money,” my colleagues echo.

The real reason I am offering this is I want to be spared being asked to chair a committee, so I reply, “I just want my skills to be used in the way that best match my abilities.”

Finally the tension drains from his face and we have a connection.

“What are your hobbies?” he asks kindly.

“I like reading, and writing creative non-fiction,” I tell him.

They have never heard of the latter, and I have to explain it.

He excuses himself to fetch the collection of books he is currently reading. He shows me his collection of English language books about how the Americans have succeeded in bringing innovation into universities and making them economically viable. Then he shows me a book about innovative cancer treatments. I realise I will be saving them having to outsource their translation, and this will help them when funding cuts have been so severe. We banter for another twenty minutes. Then my colleagues make their excuses, and we leave. We bow as we say goodbye, and then turn around to bow again in the direction of the Vice Chancellor just before we pass through the door. Have I bowed deeply enough, or at the right angle, I ask myself again. Did I hold my bow for long enough? We exit the inner sanctum, and hop into a taxi to go back to the campus.

A few days later, the document to be translated arrives in my inbox from the Vice-Chancellor. It is a request for crowdfunding by a nutritionist who needs funds for a trial to restore a sense of taste to patients undergoing chemotherapy. After many hard hours using an online dictionary, I have learnt the words for ‘taste receptors’, ‘killifish’ and ‘molecule’, which I am unlikely to use again. I have a sense of accomplishment but am so tired I cannot converse coherently or move my limbs without a struggle.

Suddenly I am feted. The Deputy Dean had become somewhat cool with me recently, but at the faculty meeting I find myself the subject of favourable comments. It leaves me feeling warm, happy, appreciated. Suddenly I find myself laughing loudly and chatting with the Dean and Deputy Dean in the corridor. It certainly can make you happy when you are in the in crowd. I am delirious. My head is full of killifish, taste receptors and molecules. Finally I make my excuses and bow to them. I don’t worry about how many degrees I have bowed, the direction of my bow, and whether I have held my bow long enough, but instead of saying “Goodbye” (shitsureishimasu), I make a slip and say “Goodnight” (oyasuminasai). I thought slips were only made in your first language. My fatigue has penetrated my second language, and I stagger down the hall, farewelling other colleagues as I leave, one of the first to go home even though it’s already 7 pm.