An Interview with Durf
I have interacted with @Durf for a while now on Twitter, but I hardly know him. I knew he was some kind of non-Newbie translator, but I had no idea he was this epic. Seriously. @Durf has mad Japanese skillz that I hope rub off on me someday. Check out what @Durf has to share with us below.
Harvey: So, care tell us a little bit about yourself? We’ve got your Twitter
Bio on hand. “Translator/editor working for @japanecho in Tokyo. I like skiing,
beer, and my wonderful daughter.” Anything to add to that? Could you also tell us about your initial interest in Japanese and Japan? Big question to open up with, but hey, I don’t know you. Spill the beans!
Durf: I’m an American citizen who grew up mostly in Oregon until 1985, when my family moved to Tokyo. The parents got jobs at the American School in Japan, which is where my siblings and I all ended up graduating from high school.
I was the one member of my family who wasn’t excited about the idea of moving to Japan. My parents knew it would be a great experience for us all, my sister had been here on an exchange trip and liked the idea of coming back for more, and my brother was young and wild and ready for adventure wherever it could be found. I was turning 15 that year and had finished my first year of high school; leaving my friends and school behind wasn’t my idea of fun. So of course, 25 years later I am the one who’s still here; the rest of my family is living in various parts of the Bay Area now. That’s the way things tend to end up, I suppose.
This means it’s hard to answer questions on “what sparked my initial interest in Japanese,” since my initial aim was to stay far away from it. I had been studying French and was good in general at learning foreign languages, and taking Japanese at ASIJ was a natural thing to do, so that’s when I first got classroom exposure to the tongue. I found the JFL, or Japanese as a foreign language, course at ASIJ easy enough that I ended up skipping years, taking JFL 1, 3, and 5 in my three years at the school.
Early on I made some good friends who had been here forever—Japanese classmates and blond-haired Americans who had been born here and gone through Japanese elementary schools and the like. These were some great guides to have outside the classroom. It’s hard to say whether I did more learning in school or while exploring west Tokyo on bicycles and drinking in Kichijoji (shh! don’t tell my folks) and doing all those other extracurricular activities. I think a good mix of both classroom and “real world” experience is one key to learning this language successfully, really.
After graduation I went to the University of California at Berkeley, where I ended up majoring in Japanese. I had the good fortune to study with professors like Van Gessel, who has translated Endō Shūsaku’s books, and Joshua Mostow, who writes really interesting stuff about classical and medieval poetry. And again, I managed to supplement this classroom learning with experiences outside the classroom. My parents worked at ASIJ up through 1993, so I managed to spend most of my summer and winter breaks “back home” in Tokyo. I also spent a year and a half working at a shoe store near Union Square in San Francisco. This was owned by a Japanese brother and sister and catered to the JTB tours crowd, so I was pressed to pick up some polite Japanese to deal with customers there and got to speak more casually every day with my coworkers. I also got to buy Timberland boots at wholesale prices. Very win-win.
I should note that it was during this job that my Japanese communication skills really blossomed. When I studied French I became able to hold a conversation on pretty much any topic in under two years, but getting to this stage in Japanese took me closer to six. When it came out, it all came out at once. It was like I’d been building up the tools in my linguistic chest for all that time and the pressure of using the language in a business setting finally let me open up that tool chest and put them all to work. All of a sudden I could say everything I wanted to—or at least talk my way around a problem if I didn’t have all the words to describe it—without piecing it together in English in my mind first. I don’t expect it works this way for everyone but in my case it was like a dam finally breaking; a very liberating feeling.
In 1992–93 I applied for a CIR position through the JET Program and got rejected when I fell afoul of some rules that said you couldn’t have spent more than X amount of time in Japan over the previous decade. Thanks to a connection via one of those blond-haired kids from ASIJ, I managed to land a very similar job in Nasu, Tochigi Prefecture, where the town government wanted to privately hire an ALT who could also do some translation. I stayed there for three years, working in schools (mainly junior high, but some trips to elementary schools as well) and doing a day each week of research or translation in the town hall or the library next door. I also got to go skiing with the kids and the town employees and help coach basketball and volleyball teams. I managed to pick up a bit of a farmer accent while I lived there. I think I’ve lost most of it by now but an echo of it comes back when I’ve been drinking, apparently.
In 1996 I got a job with Japan Echo Inc., a small publisher in Tokyo that’s my employer to this day. I can’t say this was ever a career goal of mine. The position is one that caught my eye when I read the Japan Times Monday classifieds one week, I applied, I interviewed, and here I still am. I also met my wife at the company, and in 2007 our daughter joined us. I think that covers everything in my Twitter bio!
Harvey: Wow, thanks for the detail! Anyway, so was translation always a career goal for you? What kind of translation work do you do?
Our company is best known for a magazine titled Japan Echo, which ran from 1974 to earlier this year and contained mostly translations of Japanese-language articles on politics, economy, society, culture, diplomacy, and on and on. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs bought up a considerable chunk of our print run and distributed the magazines to libraries, schools, and researchers around the world via its embassies and consulates. Most of the readership probably thought of us as a government outfit, but the truth is that we were always editorially independent and MOFA was simply our biggest institutional subscriber. (Unfortunately for us, this situation ended early in 2010 after the Democratic Party of Japan zapped the MOFA funds for purchasing our magazines in the jigyō shiwake process of slashing public spending. We just didn’t have a large enough subscriber base outside of MOFA to keep the publication going.)
As for the sort of work I do, while the magazine was being published I did translations of articles from Japanese journals like Bungei Shunjū, Chūō Kōron, and Voice to go into it. Over the years I’ve also done a lot of work for publications like The Japan Review of International Affairs and Japanese Book News. The publishers of these things are our clients, and we handle the translation, editing, and layout of their publications.
We work for a lot of private-sector clients as well, so I’ve done a fair amount of translation and editing for Nissan, Epson, Canon, Keidanren, the Toyota Foundation… The list is long and the work is varied, which is one thing that’s kept me happy in house for so long. I think most translators tend to cut loose and go freelance at some point, but I’m still soldiering on 14 years later.
On the public-sector side, we do work for MOFA, including content for the Foreign Ministry website and production of things like Trends in Japan and Kids Web Japan. We also translate speeches and press conferences for the Kantei, so a lot of the English content you at http://www.kantei.go.jp/foreign/index-e.html is done by us.
On the freelance side, I do a bit of work—nothing too ambitious, since I don’t have many hours in the day. The one time I took on a serious project was when I translated a biography of Noguchi Hideyo for Kodansha International. That was a steep challenge in terms of scheduling, but it’s nice to be able to look for my name on Amazon.com as a result. I’ve also been known to teach the odd class in J-E translation at a language school in Tokyo.
Harvey: Would you recommend translation as a career goal for people out there studying Japanese at the moment? What kind of people do you think are best suited for that kind of work? Any tips for those who are looking down that road?
Whether you recommend a career in translation depends on whether you think computers will one day take all this work away from humans, probably. As I’ve written before on my site, I think automated translation tools may end up taking care of a lot of our translation needs, but at the high end there will always be a need for talented human beings to get to the heart of a text and rephrase it in different languages.
To be a J-E translator means more than just reading Japanese words and writing the same meaning down in English. Words don’t just float out there in a vacuum; writing is about something, and if you’re going to be a good translator of that writing you need to understand that something well. For this reason the best translators aren’t necessarily former Japanese majors, like me: a former civil engineer may be the best choice for a text involving that field, and a former software designer may do the best job when it’s time to translate a user interface into another language. You’ve got to have three things to be good at this job: (1) an ability to read your source text, (2) an ability to write well in your target text, and (3) knowledge about whatever it is the text covers. A lot of learners of Japanese who think they might one day want to translate for a living have only (1) in mind, but (2) and (3) are easily the more important parts of this equation.
That said, you can’t do the job without (1) as well, so by all means keep at it! I just want people to know that being a fluent communicator in two languages doesn’t make you a qualified translator.
People who are best suited for this job are bookish types. If you love to learn new things, to read, to research, and to write, you’re on the right path. At the same time, you’ve got to have a realistic outlook. Not everyone gets to translate manga and literature; the market for industrial specifications and financial reports is far larger. I’ve written about stuff like this in the past as well.
My number-one piece of advice for someone who wants perhaps to do J-E translation is to be in Japan. There’s nothing more important than this when it comes to mastering the language—or to meeting potential clients. If you’re over here, doing work of some kind (ideally, work that you enjoy), you’re already in the chute: you’re picking up linguistic knowledge you need to decipher a source text *and* you’re learning the field-specific background to a particular area of the economy.
Harvey: When you translate what tools do you use to help you get the job done?
A computer. Email. The World Wide Web. A fax machine and a telephone. A shelf full of paper dictionaries. Depending on the job there are plenty of software packages that are helpful, or even vital, but at its heart this job is one you can do with a pen and paper. In fact that was how I did quite a bit of that Noguchi book. I translated on the train, going to and from the office each day, longhand into a notebook. Then at home I would transcribe that into the word processor. It was an excellent way to get an extra editing stage in there; I made quite a few refinements when I brought the handwritten rough draft into data form.
There are fields where CAT, or computer-aided translation, tools like Trados or OmegaT can be a great help, so it doesn’t hurt to know about them. In the fields where I work they don’t come in particularly handy and I’ve never needed to use them. As far as software goes, I have an application called Logophile that lets me search my digital copies of Daijirin and Kōjien and Kenkyūsha’s J-E and E-J dictionaries all at once. Very handy, although you do need to obtain all the glossaries that go into it separately. But if you’re serious about this then you should be ready to spend money on serious dictionaries: Eijirō and Jim Breen’s databases just don’t cut it.
Beyond that, use what you like. Unless there’s a job that requires use of certain software (which often means Microsoft Office stuff, and sometimes the Windows flavor only), translation can generally be done on Mac, Windows, or Linux. A good keyboard and a good, large monitor (or several) will always be the most important parts of your computer, since they’re what your hands and eyes—the two parts of your body that let your brain actually interface with the machine—use.
Harvey: Do you have any particularly interesting translation related experiences stories you’d like to share with us? I hear you have worked on stuff with the big wigs of Japan’s political sphere?
I wouldn’t call most political speeches particularly interesting. In the past, though, our company has had the contract to accompany the prime minister overseas and do on-site translation of his press conferences, which is much more interesting as far as the work experience goes, even if the texts are similar to what always gets said. In 2004 I got to go to New York for the UN General Assembly (photos on flickr here) and Santiago, Chile, for the APEC summit (photos on flickr here). I blogged about that latter trip as well. Domestically, in 2000 and 2008 we handled the on-site translation of messages for the press information system at the G8 summits, so I also got to go to Nago, Okinawa, and Tōyako, Hokkaidō (photos of the 2008 job are here on flickr). The work itself is far from glamorous—you’re up at three in the morning, typing “bus for Chitose to cover Chinese premier arrival leaves at 07:30” or whatever into a terminal—but there’s some energy to be felt when you’re at a location like that with world leaders and the global press running around.
Oh, OK, one other “interesting job” story. I’ve done a few speeches for a Diet member: he calls me into his office, chats with me for about 30 minutes (in Japanese) on the topics he wants his speech to cover, and sends me back to my office to write them up in speech form. One day he called me up at work from the back of his limo. He sounded sort of tipsy; he may have been on his way to or from a fundraising party of some kind. He really wanted to figure out the meaning of the lyrics to Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer,” though. I spent close to 20 minutes on the phone with this guy, the lyrics up in a browser window, talking with him about what precisely is meant by “though my story’s seldom told”—the boxer’s story in particular? Stories that are like his? How much do “only workman’s wages” come to? It was quite surreal. When we were done I hung up and had no good answer for my coworkers who asked what the representative had wanted. And now that I think of it, I can’t really call it an “interesting job” story since we didn’t bill for it . . .
Harvey: “Thanks Durf that was awesome. I have learned a lot and I have a new respect for power translators! I hope our other readers found this as interesting as I did! See ya on Twitter!”
If you’re into interviews with other Japan-heads, you might also be interested in reading this interview with Michael from Gakuranman.com over on Nihongoup.com.
If anyone has any questions for @Durf grab him on Twitter, or leave a comment here!