Monthly Archives: January 2016

Thoughts on working part time for a month as a Japanese to English translator at

Lately I’ve been writing a few articles about my experiences working as a freelance translator for (here, here, and here). As it has been about a month now since I have started doing translations there, I thought I would write some more about what I’ve learned so far. Keep in mind I’m doing this part-time as part of a pretty busy schedule, as someone with no experience in translation. My personal goal for this first month was to do at least one job a day, and for the most part I’ve succeeded in that, although some days I may do a few or none at all.

Closest thing to living in Japan

One of the central points of this blog, and a major part of my life for many years, has been to become as fluent as Japanese in possible without actually living there. Working for Gengo I’ve completed or reviewed jobs in many categories, everything from business emails to website translations to personal communications. Although I intellectual understood the time zone difference between where I am and Japan, I am learning at a more deep level when Japanese people are generally busy, not just in terms of time zone but also regarding weekends and holidays.

A personal goal of mine was to use Japanese in a work environment, and working at Gengo is one way to achieve without actually moving to Japan. Gengo jobs involve not only a strong comprehension of the source texts, but also a good understanding of the notes optionally provided by the customer. In some cases there may be a need to talk to the customer, and it’s best to use Japanese for that (though I’ve seen a few people use English). Here, both sides of the conversation really *matter* since you are trying your best to please the customer, and in the worst case failing to do so could result in rejection of your job where you receive nothing. This sort of environment is really helping me polish up my Japanese skills in many ways.

Strictly speaking, getting a job in a Japanese company which has offices in your home country and speaking Japanese every day in the workplace would be a more effective way to get the “living in Japan” experience, but the feasibility of that highly depends on where you live, how far you are willing to commute, and what your existing experience is.

Japanese as a tool, not a form of entertainment

With a few exceptions, up until now my usage of Japanese was for entertainment purposes:for example when watching a TV show or reading a novel in Japanese. But to continue from my previous point, using Japanese in a work environment means that you have less choice over what type of content you have to understand, and more pressure to perform on many levels.

I feel this experience is gradually changing part of my mind to start feeling “just get this done” instead of “let’s relax and enjoy this”. In one sense it means a little less “fun” since things are more serious. But on the other hand, I feel that truly become fluent in a foreign language requires this sort of pressure and state of mind.

I’m not saying this type of experience will magically make anyone fluent overnight, but the more you do this the greater effect it will have.

A good sample of Japanese

I remember in college when I took a “survey” class where I learned about many areas of engineering, with the idea of using that information to help decide my career path. In my case, I had mostly already decided I wanted to go with software development, but it was still a very educational experience. I feel that working at Gengo is a little similar, since you get to sample so many domains where Japanese is used.

I’ve heard that making a (good) living as a translator requires a specialization, and getting to peruse and work on various types of texts is helping me learn more about what I am good at translating, what I could become good at, and what I enjoy.

Unpredictable workload

Midway through January I thought I was getting a good feel for when the most jobs came in, but the in the last week or two I’ve seen some really unpredictable behavior in terms of the frequency and types of jobs. The good part about this is when there isn’t any good jobs available, I can work on something else like novel reading or translation practice. But I tend to have an all-or-nothing attitude about things, so it can be frustrating when I’m really in the mood to do some translation jobs but none are available.

The right way to work under pressure

Tight timelines are one of the things at Gengo which caught me off guard, but in just a few weeks I’ve learned to manage my time much better. This is not just in terms of raw letter count (letter count rather than word count is used when translating from Japanese), but it also takes into account the difficulty of the material and my familiarity with it. I’ve literally spent over 30 minutes on a few line translation just struggling to get sufficient background knowledge for an area I hadn’t touched much before, but for an area where I have much experience (like software development) I’ve knocked out over a page pretty quickly.

I like to think about time management as being similar to speed chess where each player has only 5 minutes for a full game. If the time runs out on their side, they loose. One strategy is to try and go as fast as possible and try to win on time, but unless your opponent is significantly below your skill level you’ll just end up loosing the old fashioned way by being check-mated.

So what to do?

For Gengo translation jobs, for the most part I put focus on taking my time and making the best translation within the allotted time, as opposed to just rushing to get it finished quickly. If a word or phrase is especially difficult, I’ll just do a rough translation and just come back to that on my second pass through. Even after my translation is mostly complete and ready to submit, if there is still significant time remaining I may do a little more research to see if there is a better phrase I could have used, or if I can find some related background material online to round out my understanding of the original passage.

I feel that like with translation, as well as speed chess, if you train yourself to do good work without excessively rushing, eventually you’ll be able to put out good work faster in faster naturally. But if you focus on time from the beginning, you’ll just be putting out mediocre work faster and faster.

The power within and testing your limits

On a few occasions I took on a job which I thought I might not be able to finish given the complexity of the text and the time limit. But I discovered that once I get “in the mode” I am able to accelerate my productivity to a level I hadn’t thought was possible.

Rather than being just translation-specific, I feel that this phenomenon is seen in many other areas where sometimes it is hard to accurate judge one’s own abilities. For example, I noticed the same thing happen regarding my Japanese conversation, whereby I can communicate things which I thought were beyond my ability.

Fortunately, in the worst case if you can’t finish a job on time the job will be reassigned to another translator after the time runs out. It would be better, however, if you can determine this at an early stage and just cancel the job so another person can pick it up sooner. Either way, doing this once in awhile is permitted, as long as you don’t do it too frequently. Gengo is a good place to test your limits regarding translation because there is no major penalty for occasionally “failing” (although once I did see a customer specifically request anyone *but* a certain translator). However, if you move onto to other freelance translation opportunities and do not make the deadline, there is a good chance you won’t get any more work from that customer again. Even worse, if rumor gets out that you can’t finish your deadlines, you may have trouble getting jobs from other customers.

Room to grow

One of the satisfying things about is all the opportunities that are available as you progress. You start as a entry-level (“standard level”) translator and get a decidedly “entry-level” rate, but you can take their “pro level” (or “business level” as it is also called) test and have opportunities for more jobs and higher pay. You can even take it one step further and become a reviewer for even more jobs.

The above information I knew soon after joining, but recently I discovered if the customer likes your work, they can choose you as a “preferred translator” that gives you priority access to their jobs in certain circumstances. I’ve only had this happen to me once so far and I’ve gotten any extra jobs as a result yet, but it has potential plus the nice pat on the back that you’ve made the customer happy.

In the email I received from Gengo about being chosen as a certain customer’s preferred translator, there was also a note that said those who consistently do good work can be selected for special projects, so I’m hoping to eventually get to that point.

Research, research, and then research some more

Before I started working at Gengo I read an article that said “don’t become a translator unless you really like research”. While that sort of made sense to me at the time, through the process of completing translation jobs I really have experienced that firsthand.

Usually when reading a novel for pleasure there are some unfamiliar words I come across, but 99% of the time those can be resolved via a simple google search. On the other hand, some of the content I’ve seen on Gengo has phrases I’ve never heard and searching them reveals no or very few results. In these cases it’s best to ask the customer, though there is no guarantee they will respond immediately and you have to consider what you’ll do if they don’t. If you’ve already accepted the job you can either submit your best guess (if you have a certain level of confidence), decline the job so something else can work on it, or try asking Gengo support to extend the deadline. I can also see myself eventually developing a network of contacts where I can ping someone quickly via email or chat to verify something language-related.

The importance of context

Context is what helps all of us learn new words and expressions, whether we are dealing with our native language or a foreign one we are studying. But one of the biggest challenges regarding Gengo jobs is that sometimes the context is very unclear. The customer may give a detailed description of the text’s background, a very short one, or nothing at all. Unfortunately, this makes it hard to learn new words quickly, but those that you can’t figure out immediately will stick around in your head and hopefully connect to a new experience at some point.

As with the previous point about research, if you need background information to do a proper translation the best thing is to try asking the customer.

Accepting jobs quickly, given proper understanding

After having a job I was considering accepting taken by another translator several times, I have been more vigilant about skimming the passage as fast as possible and accepting it as soon as I feel I have a good chance of completing the translation in the allotted time. My general strategy is that as long as I have a fairly good understanding of the source text, I’ll probably be able to figure out a reasonable way to translate it, given enough time. But if there are several portions whose meaning escapes me even after a re-read, then it is probably too risky to accept it and spend precious time just trying to understanding the meaning.

Dealing with mistakes

Mistakes or vagueness in the original text is one of the other things I wasn’t expecting. Again, context is king, and as I mentioned previously it’s best to ask the customer to clarify things.  If you know the domain very well you can just write the target text (English in my case) keeping in mind what the target text was *supposed* to say. But beware of the risks here, since if you guess wrong you could end up with an incorrect translation. However, there is also the chance to really please the customer when they realize you’ve corrected their mistake without having to go back and forth to confirm things.

It’s not about the money and the freelancer mindset

I mentioned this in some of my other articles, but I think it’s pretty clear to most people who are reading this that working as a freelance translator, especially if you have little to no industry experience, is by no means a quick path to big money. The pay you receive is better than nothing and does help to motivate, but overall I still like to not think about the monetary angle very much while I am a standard-level translator. Rather, I appreciate the opportunity to work as a paid translator and all of the experience it is helping me acquire, not just linguistically but also dealing with customers.

One’s mindset is important here since if you focus too much on money, you might just skip the many small jobs which only earn a dollar or so. I actually give those preference myself, not only because they allow me more freedom in a limited schedule, but because they allow a quick taste of something new. The customer also may like my work and add me to their preferred translator list, giving me more chances to work on bigger jobs. Also, if you look at Gengo from the point of view of one important source of income within a group of several freelance jobs, things make more sense.

The other reason I mention the pay again is because some stories of low wages nearly turned me away from sites like But I’m glad I decided to sign up as a translator in spite of that. The experience so far has been well worth it.

From here

Due to some of the factors I mentioned above plus my personal situation, I am not planning going “full steam” on Gengo for the time being, meaning I will still be keeping freelance translation to a small, but important segment of my daily life. But I’m very eager to see where this will take me, whether I end up moving to pro-level some day or if I can leverage the experience gained from Gengo to open new opportunities.

As I ramp up my translation skills, I’m also hoping to gradually take on larger jobs. The larger the job, the better chance I’ll be keeping myself busy translating rather than waiting until another job comes in. Also, a job of length, say, five hours will allow for more interruptions compared to a shorter one that is only an hour or two, where running to the bathroom could even have an impact on my final delivery.

Anime Film Review: The Wind Rises (風立ちぬ) [Miyazaki’s final film]

My family and I are big fans of Studio Ghibli films and have seen a good portion of them (roughly half of their 20 films). A few classics like Totoro and Spirited Away we’ve seen several times.

For some time I was eager to see their 2013 animated film “The Wind Rises” (風立ちぬ), but wasn’t willing to put out ~$40 to buy the Blu-ray on Amazon, especially for the first viewing. So when we came across it at Target for half the price, we couldn’t help but pick it up.

I began watching this movie without much information about the story, which is usually the way to get the best dramatic experience. I did know that it was Director Hayao Miyazaki’s last film as director before he retired later that year. So you could say I had fairly high expectations, given my status as a Ghibli and Miyazaki fan.

Here is an excerpt of the film’s description on Wikipedia (links removed, see original here for them):

The Wind Rises is a fictionalized biopic of Jiro Horikoshi (1903–1982), designer of the Mitsubishi A5M fighter aircraft and its successor, the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, used by the Empire of Japan during World War II. The film is adapted from Miyazaki’s w of the same name, which was in turn loosely based on the 1937 short story The Wind Has Risen by Tatsuo Hori.

I’m not going to give much more information on the story for those who want to watch it from an clean slate. My purpose of this post is mainly to rely my impressions of this movie, which unfortunately were pretty negative.

First, as you can see from above excerpt, this film is loosely based on real characters and real events. For me that is a big wet towel in the face since I tend to enjoy fiction much more. For a Miyazaki film, my expectation in this area was even higher hence my great disappointment. I will say there was some fantasy-like elements, in the vein of “Whispers of the Heart”, but they were not sufficient. “From Up on Poppy Hill” is another movie which doesn’t have many fantasy elements, and I didn’t like that one much either. While I greatly enjoyed the film “The Grave of the Fireflies”, I wasn’t expecting another anime movie with a wartime setting.

Second, the story was a major letdown. While I think the real life events and characters would probably be fun to read about in the original short story, I felt that trying to squeeze in everything into a two-hour film just didn’t do the story justice. Also, the way the main character was portrayed really made me dislike him, especially regarding some key events in the end of the film. One can make the argument that the way he acted was realistic for a Japanese person in that era (nearly 80 years ago), but the end result was just not emotionally satisfying. I would have preferred they went more for the documentary angle to tell things how they were, or make the main character more likable. I realize this explanation is a bit vague, but if you watch the movie you’ll understand. (According to this page about Jiro Horikoshi, the character this story was loosely based on, “the details [in this movie] of his personal life are completely fictitious”)

The best part about this movie was by far the visuals. They don’t come close to Anime films which heavily use CG to good effect to create a visual work of beauty (like “5 Centimeters per second”), but rather have has a subtle elegance and grace, in the traditional style of other Ghibli films. A few of the scenes clearly used CG, but because they stood in contrast to the hand-drawn stuff I almost wish they would stop using CG completely. By this I don’t literally mean “stop using computers”, because I am fine using them as part of the production process. Rather, I mean drawing geometry which is rendered by an 3D algorithm on a computer instead of having a human imagine and draw it by hand. The paper airplane (shown on the cover) is one example which I am divided on. They generally did a good job but a few frames felt awkward to me.

The music didn’t stand out very much, though there was a few portions which were well done.

The Japanese voice acting was high quality, inline with other Ghibli movies. I didn’t watch the English dub, but there are a few famous actors involved including Joseph Gordon-Levitt,  Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, and Martin Short.

The Japanese used in this movie is a level more difficult than most other Ghibli movies I’ve seen. There are several factors contributing to this, including the fact it was set nearly 80 years ago and because there is a pretty heavy amount of technical talk about airplane design. One part that  I remember near the beginning of the movie is when a young girl says “何をなさってるのですか” (nani wo nasatteru no desu ka?) which is a way of saying “What are you doing” with polite, formal Japanese. I’ve never heard a child speak this way and doubt many modern children would use such a phrase, but I was told this is accurate given the era and the speaker’s social class.

Regarding this film’s title, at first I thought it was a bad English translation since ”立ちぬ” seemed like a negative form of the verb “立つ” (to stand). However, when I read the original work’s Wikipedia site (Japanese), I discovered this actually represents past tense, so the title literally means “風が立った” which makes “The wind rises” a reasonable translation. I’ve seen the original short story’s title translated as “The wind has risen”, which is closer literally. This phrase is actually translated from a portion of a line written by German author Ambroise Paul Toussaint Jules Valéry, which is referred to in the original story.

Overall, while I was disappointed at this movie on many levels, I can’t say it wasn’t worth watching and if you are a die-hard Ghibli or Miyazaki fan I think it’s still worth checking out. You might even like it better than I did (:




Translation contests (Japanese => English) for 2016

In addition to getting my feet wet with freelance translation via Gengo, I am also considering entering one or more translation contests in order to help gain experience, and (if things go well) win a prize or two.

I expected a quick google search to yield a bunch of contests, but I found that many of the contests that came up were from past years and weren’t likely to continue this year. So I decided to write up a list of contests which are available in 2016 and give a brief summary of each. The details I give for each contest may have changed between the time I wrote this and when you reading it, so make sure to verify on the respective site if you are interested. Also, if you know of any contests that I haven’t mentioned here, please let me know.

These contests are all specifically for translation from Japanese to English, except the last one which is from any source language. I focused mostly on Japanese so there are probably many other contests out there which apply to any source language.

(Note: While I researching these contests I came upon this great interview:


Kurodahan Press Translation Prize (

Type of entry: short story

Submission date: end of September each year

Number of winners: 1

Prizes: Winning translation is usually published in an anthology (restrictions apply), plus 30,000 Yen cash.

Annual JAT contest (

Type of entry: real-life text (examples of past texts are on the website)

Submission date: Oct 31 2016 (estimated)

Number of winners: 1st place, 2nd place, and finalists

Prizes: free JAT membership, feedback from the judges on your submission, free registration for IJET-27, etc. (estimated)

Notes: The 2016 contest has not been announced yet but I would guess it will be announced around the same time as last year, in September.

JLPP Translation Competition (

Type of entry: short story and essay (examples of past texts are on the website)

Submission date: July 1 – July 31 2016 (estimated)

Number of winners: 1st place, 2nd place, and finalists

Prizes: unknown (a previous year of this contest gave an “award certificate and an extra prize”)

Notes: The 2016 contest has not been announced yet but I would guess it happens around the same time as last year, in February.

Kyoko Selden Memorial Translation Prize Fund (

Type of entry: Seems pretty open-ended, but you must explain the “significance” of the text you choose. (maximum length 20,000 words)

Submission date: July 1, 2016

Number of winners: two

Prizes: $1500 (to one published translator and one unpublished translator), plus the winning entry is published online.

Note: Held in honor of Kyoko Selden, a prolific translator (among other things).

2016-2017 Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission Prize for the Translation of Japanese Literature (

Type of entry: book-length literary works (including poems, novels, manga, etc.)

Submission date: June 1, 2016

Number of winners: variable

Prizes: $6000 divided up between the winners

Note: Held by The Donald Keene Center of Japanese Culture at Columbia University.

Close Approximations international translation contest (

Type of entry: poetry (5-10 pages), fiction, or literary nonfiction (10-25 pages)

Submission date: Feb 1

Number of winners: six (two for each category)

Prizes: 1,000 USD (winner), 500 USD (runner-up). Each winner’s work will also be featured in the 2016 issue.

Notes: There are many rules for this contest, please check the above link. The source language can be any language.

Japanese expression of respect: “足を向けて寝られない” (“ashi wo mukete nerarenai”)

Japanese is filled with quirky expressions which are commonly used for something deeper than their literal meaning. In this post I’d like to talk about an expression which I recently heard spoken by a Japanese person that caught me off guard.

The expression is ”Xに足を向けて寝られない” which literally means “cannot sleep with feet/legs pointing towards X”, where “X” is a person.

I heard an older gentleman use this phrase with respect to a family member who had done many favors for him. When I asked him to explain he said that it meant he really respected this person.

Further researching this phrase online, I came across this post (in Japanese) where a girl’s boyfriend says this expression to her, apparently because of all the things she does for him. Assuming that this girl was a native Japanese person, we can infer that this expression isn’t used that commonly anymore since she had to make an internet post just to understand the meaning, though this is just a guess.

One of the answers to her post said “恩を感じないと使えません”. The key word here is 恩 (“on”) which means “favor”, “obligation”, or “moral indebtedness”. So translating the answer loosely results in “This phrase isn’t used unless you feel an obligation towards that person”.

If you want a simple explanation, just think of “Xに足を向けて寝られない” meaning “I am very indebted to X”.

When I first tried to imagine what “足を向けて寝る” means, I thought that it meant sleeping lying next to someone, but turning your feet towards them so your toes now point towards that person. However, I checked with another Japanese person who said the meaning is more like you are sleeping such that your legs are pointing in the direction of that person. Part of the confusion here is that the word “足” can mean “foot” or “leg” (see my article on this topic here).


Unofficial English translation of the first few pages of Hibana (火花) by Naoki Matayoshi (又吉 直樹)

In December of last year I had published a review on Naoki Matayoshi’s book “Hibana”, which has been very popular in Japan, winning several awards including the prestigious Akutagawa Prize.

As part of my training to get more into translation, I decided on translating the first few pages of this novel into English. The book does not have any concept of formal chapters, just sections which are divided without a name of number, so I just went until I got until a good stopping point.

For those fluent in Japanese or studying the language, you can see the an excerpt of the book here which includes everything I translated.

Just to be clear this is a completely unofficial fan translation, and when/if the official English version comes out I highly recommend buying it. If you want to get the full Japanese version now you can get it here on Amazon Japan.

This was a very difficult translation project, not only because the source material is so advanced, but because fully understanding this story requires some knowledge of the Japanese comedic style “Manzai“. In particular, the first few pages are in a very strong “literature”-type style, which means there are words and expressions you don’t normally see. I’ve even read some people commenting on how the style of the first paragraph is very unique, even to the point where it uses grammar that is borderline unusual. I don’t hold this against the author at all, since this sort of style is what helped him become such a success. The only minor complaint I have is that this heavy literature style doesn’t really continue that much throughout the book, which reminds me somewhat of one of my favorite novels, Dhalgren.

Even though the translation and editing of this took me quite some time, I think that the more I translate the easier and faster it would get. So if you are interested in seeing more of this translated, please show your interest by liking this post.

Since this novel is so great I really hope eventually they publish an official translation. But that may be years away, assuming that someone decides the novel will sell well in English-speaking countries.

Anyway, I’ll stop talking now and let you read it. Enjoy!

(Warning: this portion contains sections which are not appropriate for children, including cursing and violence)


=== Unofficial translation of “Hibana” by Naoki Matayosh ===

Shrill flutes rang out above the rhythm of Earth-shaking Taiko drums. Summer kimono-clad couples and families bustled along Atami bay, straw sandals trampling the grass, while the last vestiges of intense daylight melted away in the night air. In a small space near the road was a makeshift stage made from yellow beer cases turned upside down, upon which laid several layers of plywood. We  performed our comedy routine there, facing the people who passed us by on their way to the fireworks.

The stage’s center microphone wasn’t designed for this type of performance and didn’t pick up sound well from the sides, so my partner Yamashita and I brought our faces up close on either side of it as if we were about to stuff the mic into our mouths, spit flying each time we spoke. Meanwhile, our all-important audience simply flowed by the stage without stopping to listen to our performance. It was all too clear that the myriad smiles in the crowd were not directed at us. The festival’s music was unreasonably loud, such that a one-meter radius around us was the only place our voices could be properly heard. If we didn’t say something funny at least once every three seconds, we became just two guys having a random conversation. However, forcing out a joke every three seconds carries with it a high risk of having the opposite effect–being seen as hopelessly boring–so instead of attempting a futile fight we elected to let our allotted time pass by with expressions that made no attempt to hide our disappointment.

Since things didn’t turn out too well that day, I don’t remember exactly all the material we ended up using. But I do remember my partner asking me, “What could your pet parakeet say that would really piss you off?”, to which I replied, “You need to put some money into your pension! It’s all about accumulation!”. I continued with a few more: “You still haven’t taken advantage of all the wasted space in your home!”, “I have something very special to talk to you about”, “You’ve been avoiding eye contact with me. Is that because you’re thinking of eating me for dinner?”, and “Don’t you feel like an idiot?”, all phrases which a parakeet would never actually say. My partner responded to these by either simply nodding or expressing his opinion on the matter, but for some reason “Don’t you feel like an idiot?” seemed to resonate with him, and he broke out into laughter. I’m pretty sure that the people who were passing by at that time could only hear his laughter, or would have except for the fact that he was mostly chuckling to himself quietly. So we must have looked like two guys just standing there. My partner’s laugh was the only redeeming thing that day. Without a doubt, if you return home after a long day’s work and your parakeet says to you “Don’t you feel like an idiot?”, you may very well have the urge to light his wings on fire. But no, I’d feel bad for a bird who had his wings burned off. Scorching your own arm with a lighter might be a better way to freak out the fire-fearing bird. But from the bird’s point of view, watching you burn your arm might be nothing more than a dazzling sight to stare at dumbly. As I ran these thoughts through my mind I laughed a little to myself, but the crowd had a surprising disinterest in our jokes. On occasion there were a few who expressed something you could call “interest”, but they were all of the terribly unpleasant sort that gave us the finger while bearing expressions of scorn. Overtaken by feelings of isolation in the midst of the large crowd, I started thinking about how I’d probably break out into tears if my pet bird told me now, “Don’t you feel like an idiot?”, when an explosion rang out from the sea behind us and reverberated through the mountains.

The faces of those in the field gazing up into the night sky flashed a variety of colors: red, blue, and green, so when the second explosion happened we couldn’t help but look behind us, curious about the light sources that illuminated the crowd so beautifully. We nearly missed seeing a firework blossom to fill the sky, colors too vivid to be real, myriad remnants sparkling as they slowly faded to nothing. Without waiting for the cheering that broke out in the audience to end, a firework resembling a massive willow tree appeared in the sky, dangling its glowing branches in the darkness, while thousands of tiny fireworks spiralled around feverishly, lighting up the night as they fell towards the sea, the audience’s roar renewing its vigor. The geography of Atami is such that the sea is surrounded by mountains, and there is a certain closeness to nature. Of all the things produced here by humankind, these fireworks possessed an unsurpassed beauty and scale. A doubt crossed my mind: why were we invited to a place like this which already had everything it needed? The sound of the explosions echoing off the mountains drowned out my voice, making me feel small and insignificant, but the only thing that kept me from being driven to total desperation was an overwhelming respect for the fireworks and nature around me–a feeling surely shared by many people that day.

There must have been something deeply significant about the fact I discovered my new mentor that night, the same night where I had realized how powerless I was against the force of things unimaginably great. It was as if he had waltzed into my house when I wasn’t home, sat down, and refused to move. And thus, I committed to learn exclusively from him.

In front of the crowd who was completely absorbed in the fireworks show, I had stopped caring and began doing a bit where I acted out as the parakeet screaming “You are the Parakeet!” to its owner, shortly after which our 15 minute time slot ended. We had sweat like crazy and didn’t have an ounce of satisfaction for it. According to the official schedule, we were supposed to finish our performance before the firework show began. An act by a senior club got a little out of control and went way over it’s ending time, hence this terrible tragedy. Nobody was willing to delay the fireworks due to a minor slippage, especially for us poor folks at the end of the entertainment program. Had our voices been loud enough to threaten everyone’s appreciation of the fireworks  things might have been different, but in reality we were pitifully short on decibels. Our voices only reached the ears of those who made an effort to listen.

When we left the stage, the inside of the yellowing, shabby tent labelled “Atami young men’s club”  had transformed into a drinking party for senior citizens. The last team of performers, who had been waiting in a corner, exited the tent sluggishly. As they passed us, one of them whispered “We will avenge you!” with a scowl. I didn’t immediately understand what this meant, but I couldn’t keep my eyes off the pair, especially the one that had spoken. Hiding among the crowd, I watched their entire comedy routine from start to finish without missing a moment, even when it meant getting in the way of others. The guy who had whispered to me was considerably taller than his partner, so he ended up in a posture where his back was bent as if he was a dog ready to snap at the microphone, all the while glaring angrily at those passing by. After a brief greeting identifying themselves as “The Fools”, he began screaming at the audience as if trying to a pick a fight. Most of his blabbering was incomprehensible to me, and making an accurate record it would be nearly impossible. But, thinking back, I do remember him spraying spit as he yelled in a feminine voice, “Darlings, yours truly has an incredible spiritual sense, you see, and I can tell if someone is headed to heaven or hell just from a glance at their face.” He pointed at those in the passing crowd one by one as he rattled off, “Hell, Hell, Hell, Hell, Hell, Hell, Hell, Hell, Hell, Hell, Hell… What the fuck! This crowd is full of sinners, will somebody help me!” He continually screamed out, “Hell, Hell, Hell, Hell, Hell,” as those who came to the stage to complain were handled by his partner, who responded to them with a face of a demon, yelling threats without giving anyone chance to speak. “Hey asshole, want to die? Come here!” As before, his partner continued his proclamations, “Hell, Hell, Hell, Hell, Hell, Hell,” until he suddenly froze, eyes fixed on a point in the crowd. Wondering what was going on, I looked towards where his finger pointed, where stood a young girl holding her mother’s hand. A pain momentarily flashed through my chest, and I prayed to whoever would listen that would listen that he would stay quiet. If this was what he had meant about avenging the injustice done to us, I wanted no part of it, but at last he grinned widely and kindly whispered, “Happy Hell,” adding as an afterthought, “Sorry, little girl”. Upon hearing those words I realized that this guy was the the real thing. In the end, his performance failed even more miserably that ours had, with the event organizer turning red-faced with anger. While his partner started down the organizer, flashing him menacing looks, the “Hell” guy stared at me with a childlike smile, so pure and defenseless that it was disturbing.

As I went into the far corner of the tent and began changing my clothes, he escaped the barrage of insults from the event organizer and walked up next to me, still smiling. “They paid me in cash, so you want to go drink somewhere?” he offered, face stiffening slightly as he spoke.

We walked in silence along a street lined with travellers inns as the fireworks illuminated us. He sported a Hawaiian style shirt with a Tiger printed on it and well-worn Levi’s 501 jeans. His slender figure was overpowered by a deep, penetrating gaze; this was not the type of person you wanted to make an enemy of.

We entered a pub whose sign had been battered by the elements and sat down on either side of an wobbly table in the corner. Many of the other customers were older tourists, exhausted from the fireworks and crowds. But not a single person here would soon forget the magnificent show that night. On the wall was a piece of colored paper signed by someone, but judging from its many years of discoloration from smoke and grease, I wouldn’t be surprised if that person was long dead.

“Get whatever you like.”

The moment I heard his kind voice, a sense of relief nearly brought me to tears. It was then that I realized that I truly had been afraid of this man.

“Sorry for not introducing myself earlier. I’m Tokunaga of the group ‘Sparks’,” I said, to which he replied, “I’m Kamiya of ‘The Fools’.”

Japanese “oyakoukou” 親孝行 – being dutiful towards one’s parents

The Japanese word 親孝行 (oyakoukou) doesn’t really have an exact parallel in English, though in a dictionary you’ll find something like “being dutiful towards one’s parents” which is a good attempt to translate it. One person’s definition of this is along the lines of “respecting your parents, valuing them highly, and doing things for them” (my rough translation). Examples of oyakoukou would include sending money to parent(s) who are in need or helping care for elderly or sick parents.

One thing I’ve hear parents say is a phrase like “早く孫の顔がみたい” (hayaku mago no kao ga mitai) which translates “I want to see my grandchild’s face soon”. This is a hint to their son or daughter to hurry up and get married, or if they are married to hurry up and have a child. I think just spending time with your parents, whether you have a child or not, can be considered another form of oyakoukou.

I’m fairly certain that the idea of respecting one’s parents and treating them properly is present more less in all cultures of the world, but I think the fact that there is a single word for it in Japanese tells something important about their culture. Technically speaking, English has the phrase “filial piety“, but I’ve seen this word used often with respect to Confucianism, and even if many people recognize this term it isn’t used much in common American speech. 親孝行, on the other hand, is a very common word.

親孝行 can be used as a noun, or also as a verb together with “する”. Here is an example sentence:

  • たまには里帰りをして親孝行したほうがいいですよ。
  • Once in a while you should to go see your parents and make them happy.

This example uses the word 里帰り (satogaeri), which means to go home to your parents. This is another word that doesn’t really exist in English as a single word.

Japanese vocabulary list: Words used in Twitter

Some tim ago I had suggested changing your Twitter settings to use Japanese language as one more way to immerse yourself in Japanese on a daily basis. This helps you learn to not only recognize these words, but do it very quickly and eventually reach close to native-level speed.

  • フォロー (foroo) – follow (can be used as a verb with ~suru)
  • 通知 (tsuuchi) – notification
  • ツイート (tsuiito) – Tweet
  • 検索 (kensaku) – search
  • ホーム (hoomu) – home
  • メッセージ (messeeji) – message
  • 更新 (koushin) – update
  • 変更 (henkou) – change (settings, etc.)
  • 返信 (henshin) – respond (to a tweet, etc.)
  • 翻訳 (hon’yaku) – translation
  • 表示 (hyouji) – display (usually as a verb with ~suru)
  • トレンド (torendo) – trends
  • つぶやく (tsubuyaku) – originally “to mutter, to murmur”, but used by Twitter community to refer to tweeing
  • 共有 (kyouyuu) – share (via message, etc.)
  • 埋め込む (umekomu) – embed (in a web site, etc.)
  • 報告 (houkoku) – report (something broken or inappropriate, etc.)
  • 概要 (gaiyou) – summary
  • いまどうしてる? (ima doushiteru?) – phrase to ask your current status (“What/how are you doing now?”)
  • 登録 (touroku) – register with site for the first time
  • 設定 (settei) – settings
  • 編集 (henshuu) – edit (profile, etc.)
  • 情報 (jouhou) – information
  • 歴史 (rekishi) – history
  • 言語 (gengo) – language

I’ve omitted a few loanwords like ヘルプ (help) which are pretty easy to decipher since they are so close to English (assuming you know Katakana). Twitter’s interface is pretty slim, so just knowing the above words you can probably get by doing basic stuff.

If you want to change your language to Japanese, go to Account->User Information and change language (言語設定) to Japanese (日本語).

You can follow me on Twitter here: a great place to browse and buy Japanese E-books

In a previous post I had briefly mentioned the site, but I wanted to talk in more detail about what this site has to offer. is a website which sells Japanese E-books (電子書籍, “denshi shoseki”) from a wide variety of genres, including magazines, manga, business books, and adult material.  While the layout of the site is a bit cluttered, its pretty easy to get used to if you know Japanese (I don’t think they have an English version of their site). Even if you are just learning the language, I think finding your way through the site to find a book you like is a good way to learn some new words in context.

Besides the pretty large selection (they boast almost a quarter million titles, exactly 231555 as of the time of this article’s writing), whats great about this site is that many (all?) of the works allow you to browse part of the book. In Japanese this is called “tachiyomi”, and you can do this from the site via the buttons ブラウザ立ち読み (browse from web browser) or アプリ立ち読み (browse from mobile app). If you want to browse a book from a mobile device, you need to install their mobile app. Doing this on iOS (iPhone/iPad) required me to change my store settings to the Japanese store. There are various sites online which give details on this but you can start here.

Besides iPhone/iPad, Boolive also supports Android devices as well as windows desktop. There doesn’t seem to be a Mac OS X client, but you can read via the web on Safari or some other browser. They also support an E-book reader called Lideo, but I think it is only available in Japan. Unfortunately there is no direct support for Kindle, though I think this is more due to restrictions created by Amazon than anything else. There may be a way to convert files for use on a Kindle but I haven’t figured out how.

Booklive also has short term sales where certain books will have their price reduced for 2 days. These are accessible via the “2-day” tab on the site. I’ve seen manga which are normally go for around 800 Yen drop to around 100 Yen.

For the few books whose prices I compared against Amazon Japan, they were about the same, although these were all non-sale items.

An avid reader since I was a boy, I still love the feel of physical, paper books, but with the many advantages of E-books it’s tempting to never buy a real book again.

”テンション” (tenshon), a tricky Japanese loanword

About two years ago, I wrote a post on a few confusing loanwords in Japanese, and then around a year ago about how they are so common in the language.

I’ve heard many new loanwords since writing those articles, and have been able to guess their general meaning often just from knowing the corresponding English word. But once in a while one comes up that is particularly difficult to grasp because it’s meaning has evolved  from English. Today I’d like to focus on the loanword “テンション”  (“tenshon”), which is a good example of this.

“テンション”, as you might have guessed, originally comes from the English word “tension”. In fact, when I checked this word’s meaning in a Japanese/English dictionary it simply said it meant “tense” or “tension”.

However, I’d heard this word several times, either said in a movie or to me directly, and the meaning didn’t seem to fit with the English concept of being “tense”.

Rather than used by itself as a noun, テンション is typically used with “高い” (“takai”, high) or “低い” (“hikui”, low). Let’s look at an example:

  • 今日、テンションが高いんだけど、どうしたの? (Kyou, tenshon ga takai n da kedo, doushita no?)

Using the concept of “tense” with “high”, you might guess this means there is a “high tension” situation, which carries a negative connotation.

However, this phrase is actually used to describe a sense of excitement with a more positive nuance. Here is a translation in English:

  • You seem pretty excited today. Whats going on?

Similarly, “テンションが低い” would mean there is a lack of excitement, or could even be used to refer to depression.

If you check out a Japanese/Japanese dictionary for this word, you’ll actually get a much better set of definitions. In addition to “緊張” (something like a state of tension), you’ll see ”気分や気持ち”  which are words that roughly refer to “feelings”.

It took me a bit of thought before I was able to link “テンションが高い” with “excitement”, but after I made the connection I did a quick search and found someone who had a similar experience to me and came to a similar conclusion. Some of the English translations on that page are a bit awkward (who says “full of beans” anymore?), but overall it has a good explanation of this word, and for moderate to advanced learners can be a good way to practice your reading skills.

Unsurprisingly, the Japanese have found a way to fit even more English into this phrase with the variant “ハイテンション” (hai tenshon), which means pretty much the same thing as “テンションが高い”.


Researching terms during translation

As I gradually hone my translation skills through, I’m learning not just new words in Japanese, but more effective ways of researching word meanings and their proper translations in English.

When translating in an environment where conveying the meaning of the original text accurately is critical, there are often cases where only one word or phrase would be appropriate. The translator must not just understand the original word or phrase in it’s entirety, but also understand the context it is used in and the best word or phrase to translate it to. I feel this is especially important for translating business-related texts.

Let’s talk a specific example: the word 航空局 (koukuukyoku), which I recently came across. It didn’t show up in the dictionary I typically rely on (Dictionary Goo), and even if it did, dictionaries often contain aged expressions that are no longer in popular use.

Fortunately, I already knew that 航空 means ‘aviation’ (for example 航空券 = plane ticket) and had a general feeling that 局 meant something like an organization. The dictionary gives ‘bureau’ for that word, so now we have a first guess at a translation: “aviation bureau”.

A search for that word (in double quotes) with Google yields a bunch of pages, and the second hit actually discuses something called the “Japan Civil Aviation Bureau”. In that same sentence, the word 航空局 is even present., so now we have a potentially better translation. But, as you know sometimes Wikipedia isn’t correct, so let’s get a second opinion to validate this translation.

Searching for ”航空局” on Google gives this official looking site, which happens to have a link titled “航空局の役割”. (役割, yakuwari – role,part). Clicking on this link gives a good description of what the role of the 航空局 is, but doesn’t have any English on the same page. The website does have an English version (the button is on the top right of the page), but clicking on the link starts back at the main page, which is laid out differently then the Japanese homepage. If it had the same visual layout, it would have been easy to just match up the terms between Japanese and English.

A quick inspection of the English homepage shows the term “Civil Aviation Bureau”, but clicking on it brings to a page with significantly different content than the Japanese 航空局 page. However, looking at the two URLs, we can see that “/koku/” is in both (probably a shortening of “航空”, and this is further evidence that “航空局” is the “Civil Aviation Bureau”.

The only question remaining here is whether we use “Japan” at the beginning of the term or leave it out. While specifying “Japan” could be safer (since omitting that term could imply some other country’s bureau), if the person reading the translated English text was in Japan, or knew the text was from Japan, they might find it slightly unnatural. Ideally, if this is a paid job you should talk to the customer to verify things like this, but that doesn’t always work out because of deadlines and the fact the customer may not respond in time.

Assuming we can’t rely on the customer, I would probably go without using “Japan” in the term’s translation, since that part is probably obvious to the person reading this. Also, I trust the official website I mentioned more than Wikipedia.

If you still aren’t convinced, you could do more followup searches to further validate your translation. Ideally, if you know the name of the customer who posted the translation job, you can look on their website and see if they happen to have any similar texts translated in English. If you find a term which seems to be used to mean 航空局, then it’s probably best to use that in your translation as well, even if it conflicts with other sources.

The hardest part is being able to do all this quickly. After all, we’ve done all this work just for a single word (: