Translator Profiles: Melinda Hull and Ichiro Takahashi

In 1993, Dan Kanagy conducted interviews of four JAT translators, Two of these interviews are reproduced here from the JAT Bulletin of that year.

Translator Profile: Melinda Hull

I'm interested in hearing about your background and how you came to live in Japan. I know Japanese wasn't the first language you studied.

No. I met a Japanese while studying Arabic at the American University in Cairo. We decided to get married, I came to Japan, the marriage didn't last, but I decided to stay on.

So you started with Arabic. How long did you study Arabic?

I went on scholarship to Alexandria, Egypt, for four or five months and then to Haifa, Israel, and studied Arabic in both places. And then after I graduated as an undergraduate and after I graduated from graduate school, I went on my own to the American University in Cairo, where I studied Arabic for another year.

How would you compare studying Arabic and studying Japanese? Would you say one is more difficult than the other?

Arabic is two to three times more difficult than Japanese. Easily. The grammar is a lot more difficult. When you're studying Arabic you're studying two different languages--the written language is not a spoken language. So you have to study the written language along with a spoken dialect. The two are different both in vocabulary and grammar.

So Japanese was a snap.

After Arabic, it seemed a lot easier.

Were you planning to be a translator when you came to Japan? How did you fall into this profession?

I wasn't particularly planning when I discussed the possibility of getting married, which my father said, go ahead and try. One of the things that stuck in my mind was that you're going to learn Japanese. I did some English teaching when I first got here, then did editing, then gradually was given some small things to translate in the office I was working in, and then worked my way up into doing bigger things.

Did you study Japanese formally at all?

Yes, I studied in a school in Iidabashi for a little less than a year, and then the rest I primarily did on my own.

So, as far as kanji goes, you are self-taught.

Well, basically, and when I say that people go, ah! But, to me, I have a lot of gaps that someone who was trained more formally wouldn't have, so it's still an on-going process. I still have a lot of kanji that I know passively by looking at, but exactly what the yomikata might be I still have to work on.

That's my problem too. What kinds of translations do you do? What sorts of fields do you translate in? Do you have a speciality?

My M.A. was in international politics and my B.A. in anthropology and linguistics, so I do some humanities-type translation, but, the market being what it is, I also do technical-related stuff--usually at the user manual level and not much beyond that.

In a fairly broad range of fields?

Mainly computer-related.

Do you ever do interpreting or just translation?

I have done very occasional interpreting.

Would you like to do more, or do you prefer translation?

Cautiously, I'd say I'd like to do more. I need a lot more work. It depends on the situation. If it's people I've worked with regularly and feel comfortable with, I don't mind interpreting. But if I'm brought into a situation cold, I don't feel comfortable with it.

Tell us about your work situation. Do you work 40 hours a week? Do you keep day hours?

I work in a 26- to 27-hour cycle. I like working through the night. But I realize that I have to be awake sometime between nine to five. Since I work at home, my schedule tends to revolve around the clock, which is one of the appeals of translation.

Meaning you can work according to your internal clock.

Yes, I don't think I'll be back to a nine-to-five job.

How many pages do you translate a day?

It depends on the type of material. With some things I can easily put in 20 pages a day, with other things I crawl at four to five pages a day. I do a small amount of medical translation. I work directly with the doctors, and I enjoy doing it. And each page is really crafted. There's a lot of discussion to make sure I've got the surgeon saying what he wants to say and said correctly. The rate of pay is higher, but I imagine if I calculated it the hourly rate is rather low. So it depends.

What kinds of reference materials do you use?

As far as just dictionaries go, I have lots of books, and I've found that whatever books I buy I end up using whether I've bought it for pleasure or for work.

What kind of hardware and software do you use?

I use a very old Toshiba 3100. It's just like me--it won't move in the morning when it's very cold. So recently, I've had to put it in front of the heater to warm it up. For software, I primarily use Wordstar and then convert into whatever format the client wants.

What approach do you take to translation? Are you generally literal or loose?

I probably tend to be in the middle. On most medical papers I work on, I totally rewrite and I really change the whole structure. But I'm working directly with the client in that case. Otherwise, as far as order, I pretty much stick with what's there. But I don't like to be tied down to exactly what the text says. If we don't say that in English, I'm not going to say it.

What do you like about translation and what do you hate about it?

I like the ability to set my own schedule. And I dislike the fact that I don't have a set schedule.

What advice would you give to people starting out in the profession?

The thing about translation is that you really have to immerse yourself in language. What I like about being a translator and living in Japan, the country where the language I work in is spoken, is that whatever I learn no matter where I am--no matter how silly or obscure it is--with in a week or two it always turns up in something that I'm doing. I like that positive feedback, the sense that you're dealing with a world view held by a particular group of people. I guess that's why I tend not to specialize since my interests run in various directions and I like my translations to do so as well.

That almost sounds like a recommendation of the profession if you have a generalist interest in Japanese culture.

My frustration is with being too general at this point, but I don't know as if I particularly want to specialize as a translator. I want to specialize, but in an area outside of translation.

Do you think you'll still be translating ten years in the future?

If I am, I hope part time. I definitely want to be translating, but I want to be doing it part time, possibly working in Japanese and another language.

Would that be Arabic?

No. Emphatically no. There are too many good Arab speakers of English. I'll probably go into a European language.

What do you like most about the Japanese language?

Mikuni Rentaro speaks it.

Translator Profile: Ichiro Takahashi

I don't know if you are our oldest JAT member, but you are certainly one of the older ones. I believe you have also been a member of JAT from its founding. Why don't you start by telling us some of your background? You have a Japanese name but you speak English as well as anyone born in an English-speaking country. How did that come about?

I was born in Tokyo 77 years ago. And at the age of four, I went with my mother and sister to Honolulu to live there with my father, who had gone there earlier to practice medicine. At the age of five I entered kindergarten. After I finished my sixth grade in elementary school, my family moved to England.

If I may interrupt, what led your father to move to Honolulu in the first place?

Well, my father graduated from the Imperial University. He came from a very poor family. His brother-in-law was rather rich and paid for his expenses during college and medical school. So he had to repay the money his brother-in-law had paid out. He didn't like the general atmosphere in Japan at that time. He wanted to get out and have some adventures, so he went to China, and we moved there with him. But there was an uprising against foreigners there, so we had to evacuate. Then my father studied Spanish, and he went to South America. He traveled in many countries and finally settled in Mexico. But there was a revolution, and he had to escape. On his way back to Japan, he passed through Hawaii. He liked the place and took his medical examination there. He passed, so called my mother and sister and myself to come live with him.

The reason we moved to England was that my father wanted to do more than just surgery and general practice. He was interested in what they call radiology--the treatment of diseases with radioactive materials. To obtain a license, he spent three months at Cavendish Laboratories at Cambridge University. He then undertook research at the Middlesex Hospital in London for about two and a half years. During this time I went to British schools. When my father finished the first stage of his research, we came back to Honolulu where I finished my senior high school. I then went to the mainland and got my engineering degree in aeronautics at New York University. Following that, I took a one-year vacation in Hawaii learning Japanese.

So my next question shouldn't be how you learned English but how you learned Japanese like anyone else growing up in an English-speaking country.

For about one year I had a tutor, who was a principal of a Japanese school. He tutored me for two hours at a stretch about twice a week. And then every week I went to two Japanese theaters, each of which showed a samurai movie and also a gendai-eiga. So I took in four movies every week to learn the language.

During this time I imagine you also had to work on kanji. Is that something you also studied with your tutor? Was there any particular method you used?

My first approach was with elementary school readers, which is a very slow method. I had a good kanji dictionary written by an Englishman. I soon realized that the most rapid way of learning kanji was to learn the radicals used to assemble kanji. So I studied that. But I really didn't know very much Japanese when I came back to Japan in 1941, six months before Pearl Harbor.

Did you come back with your family or by yourself?

I came back by myself. The reason was that, at that time in the United States, there was quite an anti-Japanese feeling because of the Manchurian Incident and Japan's invasion of China. So I was unable to get a job in the United States. Even in my college days, when my classmates took trips to various aircraft factories, I could not accompany them because I was a Japanese citizen. And the reason I remained a Japanese citizen was I was unable to get U.S. citizenship at that time, nor could my father or my family, except for family members born on U.S. soil. This was the result of the so-called Oriental Exclusion Act enacted in 1924. So although our family had permanent resident status, we could not become U.S. citizens.

So, if it wasn't for historical circumstance, you might have continued to live in the United States if it was possible to find work at that time.


So, in 1941 you returned to Japan, just in time for the start of World War II. What happened then?

Immediately, almost, I had an introduction to the Aeronautical Research Institute, which was a part of the Imperial Tokyo University at that time. I became an associate member and worked in the airframe section. One year after that, I was conscripted into the former Jap Army. The professors at my research institute tried to get me exempted from conscription but they were not successful. There was a very strict rule that anyone conscripted must serve his time--there was no conscientious objection allowed. So I went into the army, but somehow the army recognized that I had some knowledge of aeronautics, so they put me in the Army Air Corps. I was assigned to a unit in Yao Air Base south of Osaka, and that was where I stayed until the end of the war.

I serviced airplanes for about one year, and then one day an officer from divisional headquarters came to see my commanding officer. And they came together and said, "Can you translate this?" And they showed me a manual for the Browning automatic rifle, the "BAR." I looked at it and said, "I think I can translate this." So they said I was exempt from all enlisted men's duties to work on this translation. With my concise dictionary and my kanji dictionary, I somehow translated it. And then about two weeks later, I was promoted in rank.

The divisional commander had a bright idea--he was going to form an intelligence section of his own. And I was to be the center of the section. What we did was listen to the Morse code messages of the allied forces in the South Pacific. They were advancing toward Japan at that time. And some of the messages were voice radio. Whatever we heard, we took down, made a summary, and translated it into Japanese.

One thing I'm wondering is, on your return to Japan or during your time with the Army Air Corps, if you were treated differently or faced any prejudice for the time you spent abroad or for your ability to speak English.

If I would have admitted I knew English, it would have been very hard for me among the privates. Some would try to get me into trouble by bringing some English newspaper and saying, "Read this." "I don't understand," was the correct answer. But otherwise they treated me very well.

So you spent the war period at a intelligence unit at Yao Air Base.

Yes. Then the war ended, we were demobilized, and I came back to Tokyo. I still had my job at the research institute, where I thought I would resume my work. But for five years after the end of the war, General MacArthur's orders were that Japan shouldn't undertake research in aeronautics. Everything related to aeronautics was destroyed. So I took up research at the institute on the nature and use of wood and wood products. And then I was also called upon to do lots of translations, that is, reports made by the institute to be submitted to General Headquarters of the Allied Forces.

So in this case, you were translating Japanese to English.

Yes, there was much translation, too, because the facilities of the research institute were designated as reparations material, and they had to be kept in good order. They were originally scheduled to be shipped to the Philippines and other countries as war reparations. But that was canceled because we petitioned General Headquarters that these materials could be much better used in Japan for Japan's economic recovery. Then one day I got a call from Dr. Nambara, chancellor of the University of Tokyo. I went into his office, and he said, "I want you to translate this." And he showed me a petition drafted by an educational board. You see, Gen. MacArthur's GHQ established educational boards in each area, which were to give advice to Mombusho schools. But there were some complaints this particular educational board wished to make to General Headquarters and I was to translate this petition. I said, "I shall accept the task, but I have one question, sir. This university has many, many professors and associate professors who are well versed in English. Why can't these people do this kind of translation?" And the chancellor said, "I want this to be translated into living English."

So that was an instance when the years you spent abroad in your childhood worked to your advantage.

I was quite busy in those days. I worked at the research institute and I also worked part time at a manufacturing company to contribute to Japan's economic recovery. And in the evenings I taught at what they called the American Japanese Conversation Institute, which title is no longer used. Now it is called Nichibei Kaiwa Gakuin and is a part of the International Education Center in Yotsuya. My main job at the manufacturing company was engineering. I helped that company make a great contribution to the U.N. war effort in the Korean War. But that's another fascinating story.

It sounds to me that during your active career, translation was never full-time work but something you did on the side.

Yes, it was secondary, but I had to do some translations because we had contracts with the U.S. Army, and we had to report on our work progress. Also in securing bids, we had to submit cost analyses in English for approval. We got this big contract to rebuild trailers, semitrailers, amphibian trucks, etc., existing in Japan after World War II when the Korean War started. The U.N. forces could not transport these items from mainland U.S.A. in time to stem the sudden attack by North Korea.

More recently you've specialized as a patent translator. How did you make this transition? How did you become an expert in this area?

In between I had many jobs, sometimes I had simultaneously two jobs. One job was with the United States Consultants Inc., which still exists in Tokyo. I was assigned to inspect export products. As you know, in those days, "made in Japan" meant very poor quality. But some companies were trying to make good products. Buyers from abroad wanted to be sure that the quality would be to their satisfaction. So they would request U.S. Consultants to carry out full inspection as a third party. So we did that. We inspected all kinds of materials and we had to report in English. After three years of that work, I had an offer to work for an American architecture and engineering firm, Thomas Bourne and Associates. After that, I joined another American firm as a procurement executive. We were doing work in Okinawa at the bases there. After about one year, I was released, and I started looking around. A friend of mine introduced me to Kyowa Patent Office. First I did interpretation for them because a very valuable client from General Electric came to Japan, and I served as an interpreter between the executive and our firm. After that experience, I was asked to join Kyowa.

So, at that point you really didn't have any background or knowledge of patents.

No, except that I had read specifications of one or two patents. But I studied very hard. Also, immediately, I was asked to do translations. I believe this was true of all firms like ours at that time in Japan--applications to the U.S. Patent Office and also the British Patent Office were being rejected because of the poor English. They could not understand the English. So I stepped into this at the right time. There are many textbooks on writing good specifications, and I secured as many books as I could. Also, I wrote to our associates in the United States, asking them for reference books. At that time I was working on a commission basis. I had a basic pay and in addition I was paid by the word for translations. The work was very heavy. I worked from nine to five at the office, and then I had to take work home. I rarely got to bed before eleven. Sometimes I worked until one or two in the morning. With urgent work, with the deadline the next day, I would work until four or five in the morning until I reached a point where I was sure I could finish up in about two hours more. Even on company trips, after we would reach the destination, some onsen, the others would be taking a bath, or having massages, or taking a stroll through the town, and I would be translating until supper and sometimes afterwards. This was because of deadlines, which we called priority dates. If a Japanese applies for a patent for an invention today, he has one year in which to apply to any industrial country and still have today's date recognized as the application date. And that is good for all countries who are members of the Paris Convention. Many of the inventors or the assignees of patent rights wait until the last month before applying abroad because, in the intervening time, the original patent might become outdated or they might feel that it wasn't feasible industrially. So they would abandon it. If they see it is promising, then they apply abroad. So we had to rush, which is still true today. Fortunately, I no longer do much translating myself except for very difficult translations where there is much theory and lots of equations. What I mostly do now is to rewrite or check the English of our non-native, outside translators.

What advice would you give to anyone wanting to get in the translation industry in general and into patent translation in particular.

I would advise that person to somehow get an introduction. Introductions are very important in Japan. If not, try to sell himself or herself into an intermediate or large patent office. And, perhaps, at first, as I did, work part time to establish himself. And, thereby, this person would have a secure base. He could continue that part-time work and also have an agreement that he could do outside work as well. And after the firm recognizes the person's ability, they might request that they become full time.

How about learning about patent terminology or specification writing? I guess you had your own method of studying textbooks and so forth. Is that the approach you would recommend?

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office issues what they call "Rules of Practice." Those publications should be read in one's spare time. And, also, there are many books written on the subject. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office also puts out a manual called Manual of Patent Examination Procedures, which we call MPEP. Another indispensable effort is to read patent specifications which are published by the U.S. Patent office. Copies can be obtained, if you know the titles, from the Japanese Patent Office. Read and study hundreds of these.

How is the recession effecting the translation of patents?

There's a very slight recession. When the manufacturing industry experiences a recession, it goes easy on research and development. So, if there's less of that, there will be a decrease in patent applications. However, some firms wish to maintain the momentum of their research of what they consider their important inventions. They don't want any Japanese or foreign competitors to file equivalent patents. They want to get there first. So they might expand their budget to file patent applications in the main industrial countries.

Would you say that patent-related translations are a growth field? How has the market changed over the last ten years?

Growth is rather steady now. But I think it should be growing at a greater rate because many of the applications translated into English which go out to the United States and also to Europe are, on the average, rather poor. I should mention that most applications from Japan to Europe are written in English, and they are translated by our associates there. Even so, translations have improved very much in the last twenty years or so. But I have seen some very poor English in specifications which were allowed by the United States to become patents.

Is machine translation a method used in the translation of patent specifications? Do you think it will be in the future?

I haven't seen the most recent machine translation products, so I can't say. But from what I hear, it would be rather difficult, I think. Perhaps some day, perhaps in ten years, it may be feasible. Technology is becoming very complicated. So, the task of trying to do this kind of work by machine will become that much more difficult because of the increase in the level of the technology. Translation machine technology will have to keep up with this.