Literally Lost in Translation

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By: leelefever on May 15, 2006 - 3:54pm

Sachi had a very well-traveled instructor in grad school that told her that he feels confident in getting around in any country in the world- except Japan.  I agree.  If not for Sachi, I would be completely confused for most of our time here.  There is simply no English spoken or written in a number of places we go. Looking around, you find nothing but signs written in kanji or kana - the Japanese alphabet of symbols- other than on Starbucks and Mister Donut signs. 

I feel so illiterate when looking at a menu.  I know nothing- not one word, number or letter.  I just have to depend on Sachi to do her best to read and talk to the server about what they have.  I just look around at plates, point and make little utterances like “hai”, which means “yes”.

Our situation here differs from what we’ve experienced so far in the trip.  Except for Thailand, every country we’ve visited is a Commonwealth country- a former English colony.  The colonial roots make the passage of English speakers in these countries a smooth one, with decades of practice in communicating in English. And Thailand, though never colonized, has long been a destination of Europeans.

Japan, quite proudly, does not have a colonial past.  In fact, some would say that the history of Japan is more marked by isolation than anything else.  Though you see Japanese tourists all over the world, the vast majority of the population does not travel outside of Japan.  However, they do travel inside the country in great numbers.  My bet is that 95% of the tourists we’ve encountered in Japan have been Japanese.  It’s really no wonder that English speakers find Japan to be a hard nut to crack.

For now, I just smile and say my konnichi wa’s and onegaishimasu’s and look to Sachi when they come back to me with a litany of words that seem completely incomprehensible.  I know that when the sentence ends in “desuka”, it is a question and I am supposed to answer. Usually though, I have to look back at them and Sachi blankly, sending the not-too-secret message to Sachi that I’m helpless.  Thankfully, she can usually get us (me) through with flying colors and I can answer with something like "America" or "hai". Good and gracious translator, that Sachi.