A Visit to Kyoto, the Capital Capital (IJET-2000)

by Ann Macfarlane

President, American Translators Association


In planning for attending the IJET-2000 conference last May, I decided that I would work up my conversational Japanese. Like most translators and interpreters, I dislike being in a country where I can't exercise at least minimal politeness. And it's handy to be able to attach meanings to some of the street names and notices that one encounters. Fortunately Japanese can be written in Latin letters (known as romaji). Though one will have more difficulty with certain elements of pronunciation, for a Westerner pressed for time romaji seems a reasonable way to begin.

I quickly discovered, however, that Latin letters were not going to get me as far as I would have liked. While “To-kyo” means “Eastern Capital,” the city of “Kyo-to,” which appears in romaji to be made of the same two elements in different order, does not in fact mean “capital eastern,” but rather “capital capital.” The element “to” is written with a different Chinese character in each case, to indicate a different meaning, and hapless foreigners are just going to have to lump it.

Well, we knew about the kanji, the Chinese characters, didn't we? And we knew that the Japanese writing system, which includes four different ways of writing words down, is a challenge even to the Japanese, who start it early. My conclusion, after a short visit and a highly stimulating conference, is that Japanese/English translators are even more distinctive, quirky and diverse than their colleagues working in European languages—who, as any member of the ATA knows, rate high on the “quirky” scale as it is. You don't succeed at learning this complex writing system without a good perseverance quotient and some pretty deep inner resources. The benefit, for someone whose exposure to non-European languages has been pleasant but limited is the chance to meet a community of accomplished and fascinating individuals.

The International Japanese-English Translation Conferences are organized in even-numbered years in Japan, by the Japanese Association of Translators, and in odd-numbered years in an English-speaking country, by local Japanese/English translators living in that country. This was the eleventh, and I had agreed to attend at the request of colleagues in our Japanese Language Division. The JLD, like JAT, was founded in 1985. It is one of the most productive and well-organized Divisions of the ATA, and we felt that colleagues working in Japan might like to learn more about what the JLD offers. Izumi Suzuki, Assistant Administrator of the JLD, was presenting at the conference. She and I took along 200 copies of the JLD Times and the new Introduction to the Professions of Translation and Interpretation, a splendid guide for newcomers (376 pages long, oriented towards those working in Japanese and English).

The JAT differs from the ATA in that membership is limited to individuals. The organization now has well over 350 members, over 40% of whom are located outside Japan. JAT has achieved extraordinary efficiency by conducting most of its business electronically. After some e-mail exchanges with Mayumi Nishioka, the energetic conference organizer, I was delighted to be asked to speak at the Opening Ceremony, and also to participate in a panel on “Translation Markets around the World.”

I started off by mentioning the conclusion of Allied Business Intelligence that “the language translation market, encompassing human translation, machine translation and software and website localization, is expected to rise from nearly $13 billion in 2000 to almost $22.7 billion by year-end 2005. Driven by such factors as consolidation and increasing Internet penetration, this industry is experiencing tremendous growth.” We have certainly seen such growth in the U.S., though the effect on individuals has been patchy, and this is the case in the Asian markets also.

Heather Glass from Australia described how the Asian economic crisis has adversely impacted English-to-Japanese work, moving much of it back to Japan. She commented that there has been a shakeout among agencies in Perth and Melbourne, and that many conferences have been cancelled because delegates were, in the end, unable to find the financing to attend. Her informal researches have led her to conclude that there is very little business arising from the prospect of the Sydney Olympics. Finally, Australians are facing the imposition of a Goods and Services Tax this summer, which will certainly affect billing, and possibly revenues.

Edward Lipsett is based in Kyushu, the southern-most island of Japan. In preliminary exchanges he had the following comments: (1) more of our customers are using the Internet, which is good (communications) and bad (they think everyone on the Internet is a pro), (2) there are more and more competitors outside our immediate region, thanks to the Internet, both good and bad, (3) the big boys in the business are stressing localization, Web pages, and 63 languages at once, but in Fukuoka the only key factors are (in descending order of importance) price, delivery, price, established relationship with client, price, and last, quality.

Norma St. Clair in the U.K. is very active in the Institute for Translation and Interpretation's Japan network. J-net has about 70 members and provides a good locus for communication. Her impression was that Japanese is doing rather better than some of the other languages in the U.K., and that recently there has been a surge in interpreting.

Koji Inokuchi gave the following comments on the market in Tokyo: translators are estimated to have an average income of 5 million yen (about $48,000) while the average “salaryman” has an income of 7 million yen (about $67,000.) The economic depression has meant fewer corporate activities requiring translation, and more clients are attempting to work directly with translators to lower costs, thereby putting pressure on translation companies. Overall, prices paid are going down while the pool of aspiring translators grows. More young people have English abilities, have lived overseas, and would like to translate; more older people are retiring early and seek secondary income from translation. The Internet is also changing contact patterns.

Attendees seemed quite interested in the figures from ATA's recent “Translation and Interpretation Services Survey.” I pointed out that both for full-time and part-time independent contractors, the gross income figures were close, whereas in some other language pairs there is a disparity in the directions. Full-time contractors working Japanese into English reported an average income in 1998 of $60,149, and English into Japanese reported $65,063. For part-timers the figures were $25,634 and $24,774 respectively.

Patents are one booming area in Japanese/English translation. I had been astonished to learn that six of the top ten companies winning U.S. patent approvals in 1999 were Japanese. In 1998 Japan filed 45,260 U.S. patent applications, twenty percent of the total. James Judge, in a later session giving “A Practitioner's Perspectives on Patent Translation,” estimated that there may be $40+ million worth of Japanese translation business per year in this field. (This estimate is based on Tokyo payment rates which, like Tokyo prices, are substantially higher than in the U.S.) It made sense that I was meeting so many individuals from firms specializing in patent translation—and I was doubly pleased to have copies of the JLD's previous publication with me, the fine Patent Translation Handbook. Gerry Gooding, one of our own patent gurus, had provided me with some insights into the business from the U.S. angle, which people were very glad to learn about.

At lunch with the Board of Directors, President Kathleen Taji offered Izumi and me a warm welcome. We had the chance to exchange views and insights on the challenges of running a professional association, best use of volunteers, and encouraging new leadership. In the afternoon I “sampled” the sessions, several of which will also be offered by ATA members at our Orlando conference (and which got very favorable reviews in Kyoto). Bruce Holcombe had subtitled his session on deposition interpreting “In the Pit with the Lions,” and one could see why. His tales of combat and challenge were matched, however, by his evident delight in the linguistic opportunities that this very specific form of interpreting provides. As he said, “How many interpreters or translators ever get the chance to defend why they made one semantic choice rather than another—and, I should add, get paid for that opportunity?”

Yuki Sayeg, a conference interpreter who teaches at the University of Queensland, had some practical points to offer in her session on “interpreting into your B language.” She mentioned that interpreters often prefer to work into their A language, because they will sound smoother and more polished. There is also a clear preference among native-Japanese speakers to listen to native-Japanese interpreters. It may in fact be better to interpret into one's B language, however, because one can be quite sure that one has understand the speaker fully. Her fundamental dictum was, “If you don't understand it, you can't communicate it.” Tony Atkinson, also from Perth, leavened solid tips on improving J-E medical translation with humor that made those points even more effective.

Long-time IJET goers had told me that the conferences managed to combine high professionalism with enjoyment of the lighter side, and the Kyoto conference certainly met that description. At the Friday pre-conference dinner, 40 of us crowded into a riverside tatami-mat room for extended snacks, sake and beer, a party that was so successful it got continued as the nijikai, the second party, late into the night. Saturday evening a comedy duo named “Black Cheese” put on forty-five minutes of very funny bilingual sketches, a performance that was fully appreciated by the bilingual audience. I particularly liked “Osaka ben,” which referred not to a yakuza (Japanese mafia) character, but to the Osaka dialect, which is described as rougher, livelier and funnier than either standard Japanese or other dialect versions in Japan. Having organized two ATA conferences and struggled with the question of what makes good entertainment, I thought that these organizers did particularly well. Shinji and Sue Nakano's baby Emily provided some light comic relief on her own account, delighting us all with her charm. (The Nakanos will be reporting on IJET in the JLD Times).

The literary side was also well-represented at this conference, with the keynote speech being given by Professor Takayoshi Ogawa, who translated Memoirs of a Geisha from English into Japanese. Juliet Winters Carpenter on Shitsurakuen, a steamy novel of adultery just out under the title A Lost Paradise, had much to say about relations with editors, questions of content for different audiences, and how one transmutes sex and violence from one culture to another in a convincing way.

I was sorry not to be able to attend sessions by ATA members Alan Gleason, Atsushi Tomii and Izumi, and sorry also that my forays into conversational Japanese hadn't advanced my knowledge enough to take in Minoru Moriguchi's presentation, which ended up with the question, “What on earth is understandability of Japanese?” The sessions and the networking opportunities together gave me the chance, though, to talk about the ATA to a number of translators and interpreters who had not known about our on-line Translation Services Directory, the JLD publications, how the Accreditation Program is run, or how rich our conference offerings are in this area. Even if I never do get to learn how to write “eastern capital” versus “capital capital,” my trip to Kyoto was fascinating, enlightening and an eye-opener. I certainly appreciated the welcome I received, and I hope that we will have more opportunities in future for collaboration and cooperation with JAT, and with individuals interested in the ATA's work.