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Thursday, 21 June 2012

Observations on Japan 2012

Kintaikyo Bridge, Iwakuni
I recently visited Japan for a month with my wife and 3 year old son, the longest period I've spent there since living in Kobe between 1991 and 1998.
This extended stay has allowed me to better gather my thoughts and reflect on what I think has, and hasn't, changed here over the years.
These are my observations, in no particular order.

  • There seems to be a tangible sense of recession in Japan now. I'm wondering whether this just a deepening of the economic problems that Japan has been suffering from for years, or are people consciously spending less after the shock of last year's earthquake and tsunami?
  • The food there is still outstanding. I think there are very few places where you can eat so well for so little money. We had one average meal in the month we were there, and that wasn't at a restaurant.
  • We encountered rainy season for the last few days of our trip. My least favourite time of year there, but the intensity of the rain is awesome in a way. None of the half-hearted drizzle that we British love moaning about.
  • Trains run late quite regularly now. This is a result of the Amagasaki train crash a few years, where more than 100 people died after a young driver, apparently desperate to avoid angering his bosses by running late, went round a bend much too fast and sent his commuter train into a block of flats.
  • The previous comment does not apply to the Shinkansen (bullet trains), which are still astonishingly punctual while getting ever faster and slicker. The new Sakura Shinkansen is the best train I have ever been lucky enough to travel on. They even have Shinkansen with a kids' play area on board.
  • Tokyo is still too big. Miles too big.
  • Every other car on the road there seems to be a Toyota Prius. Great in terms of emissions, but is there any lithium left in the earth's crust?
  • Festivals are still a great way to witness Japanese community spirit at work.
  • Japan is still a smoker's paradise. Cigarettes are very cheap and smoke-free restaurants and bars are practically non-existent.
  • No matter where you are or what the view a rotenburo (outdoor hot spring bath) is the single best way to relax.
  • I may cop some flak for this, but Japan is ruder than it used to be. All trains now have priority seats for the disabled, elderly, expecting mothers and parents carrying small children (i.e. us). Not one person under the age of about 45 stood up and offered their priority seat to Nik or me when we were carrying Tom. There are also women-only coaches on many trains. These are also ignored.
  • Having said that, it's still a good country for random acts of kindness from complete strangers. At a temple we visited, my son was given a large ice cream and a portion of fish food to feed to the local koi carp, all because an elderly couple liked his t-shirt.
  • Japanese urinals are perfect for anyone more than about 50cm tall. Tom managed to perfect the art of weeing standing up over the month.
  • All UK railway workers should be forced to spend a day working with the delightful Miss Ishino at Aioi station to see how customer service should really be done. We're already missing her.
  • Japan has embraced non-alcoholic beer in a big way in the past couple of years. Some of it, such as Kirin's "Free" isn't too bad. Others, however, are truly terrible. A prime culprit is a "brew" called Barreal, which manages to pull off the remarkable trick of tasting less interesting than tap water.
  • Cars with dodgy English names are still in vogue. Nissan Cedric anyone?
  • How is it that 100 yen (about 80p) shops in Japan are Aladdin's caves packed full of useful and desirable objects, whereas shops like Poundland are a symbol of all that's cheap and tawdry in modern Britain?
  • Free wi-fi in shops, bars, restaurants etc? Forget it. Ridiculously hard to find, even in big cities.
  • It would appear that Japanese people between the ages of 16 and 80 are banned from using buses.
  • If our (pretty basic) rented flat in semi-rural Japan can provide unlimited fibre-optic broadband that gives me an upload speed of 30 meg (for only £12 per month), why does my Talktalk fibre-optic broadband at home give me an upload speed of about 1.6 meg? Pathetic.
  • The standard of driving there is as bad as ever. I've never understood this, as Japan is a highly conformist society in so many ways. So many people ignore red lights, drive while texting, ignore pedestrian crossing and we even saw one guy driving with no seat belt with a toddler on his knee. An ex-girlfriend once assured me that this was all because "the Japanese are very busy", which is clearly complete nonsense. Any ideas?
  • Mount Fuji as you speed by on a Shinkansen. A view that everyone should experience at least once.
  • Japan is a wonderful country if you're a 3 year old boy with blond hair. We've long since lost count of how many times Tom was called kawaii (cute), and by people from every walk of life there.
  • I already can't wait for our next trip.

The finest way to travel

Location: Aioi City, Hyogo Prefecture

Friday, 21 October 2011

The Accidental Linguist?

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Occasionally I find myself wondering how on earth I ended up being a professional translator. With a scientific educational background such as mine, a job involving languages would appear to be well down the list of likely careers.
I did manage to pass French, German and Latin at O-level (remember those?), but studied only sciences for A-levels and ended up with a degree in environmental chemistry (after a misguided attempt at geology) from University of Edinburgh.
I was all set to take up a job with British Nuclear Fuels following graduation, but an advert in the Guardian for something called the JET Programme (teaching English in Japan) caught my eye during my final year, and I applied. I was rather surprised to be granted an interview and trudged along on a pouring wet day to the Japanese Consulate in Edinburgh, wondering why they might be interested in someone like me. To be honest, I still don't know the answer to that, but I have to assume that I did OK in the interview and showed enough enthusiasm to convince them that I would be an asset to the Japanese education system.

Looking back, there was a seminal moment in my life when I realised that languages, or at least one of them, were back on the agenda. It occurred on my first night in Tokyo, when a few of us dazed, jet-lagged and goggle-eyed adventurers headed out from our hotel in search of dinner in the sweltering heat of a July evening.
We chanced upon an inexpensive restaurant serving typical Japanese fare such as stuff with noodles in soup, stuff on rice and (mostly) stuff that I didn't recognise at all. This was one of those uniquely Japanese restaurants where all the available dishes are shown in the form of plastic models in a display cabinet outside the door and, once you've decided what to order, you press the corresponding button on a ticket vending machine and hand it to the chef. At this point, you need to bear in mind that I could read no Japanese whatsoever, and it was with some surprise that a steaming bowl of beef and onions on rice appeared in front of me, just as I was hoping. It cost about £2 and it was absolutely delicious. It was slightly on the salty side, however, so I ventured back outside, stared hard at the characters "生ビール" under a plastic model of a large glass of beer for a few seconds, put my coins in the machine and handed my ticket to the chef as before. The fact that he disappeared back into the kitchen rather than pouring a beer from the tap right next to him immediately set alarm bells ringing in my head and sure enough, another plate of beef and onions was promptly placed in front of me by the chef. I'm not sure which of us looked more puzzled. This was the seminal moment I referred to earlier. It was either learn Japanese or die of thirst – summer weather in Japan makes you very thirsty.
It may seem strange to some people that such a trivial occurrence could end up being so pivotal in a person's life and career, but I remember that evening as if it were yesterday and I still allow myself a wry smile every time I eat that particular dish, which is still one of my favourites.

The Japanese transport system also played its part in my headlong rush to start grappling with an alien tongue. I was fortunate enough to be allocated a school in the lovely city of Kobe, where the local Board of Education provided me with a flat in a pleasant suburb called 鈴蘭台. Now, those 3 characters are scary enough when you're just starting to learn the language, but my suburb in question had 4 railway stations, namely 鈴蘭台, 鈴蘭台西口, 西鈴蘭台 and 北鈴蘭台 (I have omitted the English versions of these names to give you an idea of how hard it is to decipher Japanese characters and provide a more immersive blog experience). The station where I needed to alight in order not to have a long walk home was 鈴蘭台西口, but the railway line in question branched just before my station, and I think that during my first month or so, there must have been 8-10 occasions where I stood cursing on a train which (quite correctly) insisted on going up the "wrong" branch. So, in addition to not dying of thirst, not going home to the wrong town was also a very pressing reason for learning what appeared at the time to be an utterly undecipherable script.

This all occurred a "mere" 20 years ago, but take a minute to think what we have now that we didn't then. There was no internet, no satellite navigation, almost no mobile phones, let alone smart phones, and computers were not only extremely rare outside of offices, but also primitive beyond belief, even in hi-tech Japan.
More relevantly, the English education system in Japan meant that very few Japanese people (including some of those employed as English teachers) spoke anything resembling passable English. Destination boards on trains, buses and trams were in Japanese only, electronic dictionaries and phrase books didn't exist, and international phone calls were prohibitively expensive - my main means of contact with my family back home was aerogrammes.
All of these factors combined to make learning Japanese an essential activity for me - it just made life easier, whether it was getting the train to Osaka without hours of detours, ordering an interesting looking dish from a restaurant, meeting the opposite sex, understanding what was being chanted by 50,000 people at a Hanshin Tigers baseball game or explaining to a policeman why my moped was upside down in a paddy field (actually, that last one is a situation where it is far better to feign linguistic ignorance).
I suppose what I'm trying to say is that if I were 20 years younger and heading to Japan for the first time in 2011, would I have the same impetus to learn the language? Almost all trains and buses now have bilingual destination boards, even lines in isolated rural regions. I could hold my iPhone up to a Japanese menu and see instant English translations of all the dishes, the Japanese as a nation speak better English than they did 20 years ago, especially younger people, and modern mopeds handle much better. Understanding Hanshin Tigers fans would still be a tricky one though.
All in all, I suppose I should be grateful that my time in Japan was during an era when I was almost forced to learn the language - had this not been the case, it's doubtful whether I would have had this interesting and rewarding career as a translator.

The moped mentioned above - a Yamaha Jog "Stylish Sensation"

Jelly Days - Escapism for freelancers

Monday, 21 March 2011

As almost any freelance translator can tell you, working for yourself at home can be a lonely old business even if you have your family around you. I've been my own boss for more than 5 years and am fortunate enough to work in both a language combination and a field in which the demand/supply ratio is pretty healthy. What is rather less healthy, however, is the fact that (until recently) I would shut down my computer on a Friday evening, down a restorative whisky, and realise that I hadn't set foot outside the front door since Monday morning. Quite apart from this obviously resulting in a near total lack of exercise for most of the week, I figured it was similarly damaging to my mental well being. I decided to do something about the former problem by buying a Wii-Fit, which helped me lose over half a stone and get back to a (slightly flattering) "ideal" BMI figure. I also find Twitter quite effective at banishing the isolation blues (virtual company is better than no company at all), and I now follow, and am followed by, a veritable army of similar work-from-home types spread across all parts of the globe. Feel free to trawl through my inane ramblings at @mytrans.

Having said that, 140 character snippets are no real substitute for a good natter over a cup of coffee & a cake, and in my case, salvation appeared in the form of "Jelly Days", where anything up to a couple of dozen freelancers get together and spend the day working in each other’s company. This concept, like many others, originated in the USA, but is now spreading rapidly on this side of the Atlantic. I am now one of the regulars at the Coalport Jelly, held once a month in a beautifully restored Industrial Revolution era building in the Ironbridge Gorge World Heritage Site. The surroundings are stunning - there is a tangible sense of history all around you - and the 20 or so folk who come together every month work in fields as diverse as you could imagine. I'm the only translator (so far) at ours, but our numbers include a few IT consultants and web designers, business consultants, an events organiser, an alternative therapist, a healthcare specialist, a stained glass artist, a masque creator, a jewellery maker, an easy read information designer, a solicitor… I could go on. This naturally leads to a very rich and interesting mix of topics of conversation, and I have made some good friends since I started attending, friendships that have been further cemented in our now regular Friday night pub get-togethers.

Enterprise HQ (, our "Jelly" host facility provides a sumptuous working environment, free Wi-Fi, unlimited tea and coffee and a lavish "brown bag" lunch that is so substantial that I have yet to finish one. The cost for this luxury? £10 for the whole day. It is, quite simply, the best tenner I spend each month.
There is the question of how productive one can be when surrounded by the inevitable distraction of good company, and I would estimate that I generally translate 60-70% of my usual volume. This is a sacrifice I'm more than happy to make, as my Jelly days go a long way towards maintaining my sanity. So much so that I'm considering spreading my wings and making it a twice-monthly occurrence, especially as this would allow me more indulgence in my main hobby - a 1700cc Yamaha that roars into life with depressing infrequency. In fact, my home county of Shropshire is so well served with Jellies that I could attend more than once a week at venues all over the county if cabin fever ever really set in.

I know of one or two other translators who are already Jelly devotees, and if you feel that a change of scenery and a day of not talking shop is what you need, then have a look at to see where and when your nearest Jelly is held. If you happen to be in a Jelly-free zone, think about setting one up yourself. Have a look at the “Get In Touch” page for advice on how to do so. People will love you for it, and your social life can only improve. I had to miss this month's Coalport Jelly for work reasons, and I felt a genuine pang of sadness on the day, knowing that I couldn't be a part of things for once. It’s very much a part of my monthly routine now, and hope it will continue to be so for a long time to come.

The Iron Bridge - just along the road from Coalport

Too dependent on one client?

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

A few weeks ago was the ITI Japanese Network’s AGM, attended by 40 or so of my friends/colleagues/peers. We had a great day as ever, and during the evening’s shinnenkai (New Year Party), I was yakking to a highly respected and esteemed member of our group, who seemed genuinely surprised, even horrified, when I mentioned that around 50% of my income has come from a single client over the past 5 years. Are other translators similarly indebted to one company? Surely I can’t be the only translator in this position.
I generally translate between 50,000 and 70,000 words per month for the company in question, who are happy to pay me a more than acceptable rate, always pay on time (usually early), provide a great deal of feedback and generally make things as convenient as possible for me. In short, a near-perfect client. My point of view is that I would be crazy to do less work from such a client simply in order to make myself less dependent on one income source.
I am aware that if this particular source of work were to dry up at some point, I would suddenly find myself with a lot more free time, but I have an ever-growing list of potential clients that I could market myself to in such an eventuality, I do have to turn down work from other valued clients, who nearly always come back, and I can’t deny that the huge amount of work I have done for my No. 1 client has enabled me to significantly improve as a translator and increase in self-confidence.
Personally, I’m hoping for a number of reasons that the status quo continues for some time yet. If not, so be it. I hope I’d be able to cope with a period of readjustment. It could be an opportunity to reacquaint myself with past clients who’ve gone quiet, and I seem to receive a good number of enquiries from my listing in the ITI directory (a good reason to become an MITI folks).
Anyway, comments, thoughts and opinions welcome as always.

An unusual view of the Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima

Freelance translator parents - lucky people

Monday, 6 December 2010

As some of you may know, we have a little boy, Tom, who will soon be 2 years old. Given that Nik, my wife, and I both work from home, I as a freelance Japanese-English translator and she as a celebration cake artist (, we've always been slightly concerned that Tom would grow up thinking that Mum just bakes cakes and Dad just plays on the computer all day. Today, however, was something of a watershed in my appreciation of how lucky we are.

Most of the time, Tom goes to nursery two mornings a week so that Nik can have some much-needed free time to bake and decorate her cakes. We've long needed to give the house a serious clean, though, as we're planning to put it on the market before the end of the year, so I took the day off and we booked Tom into nursery for the whole day (8.00am to 6.00pm).
Ordinarily, Tom plays on our bed for a good half hour in the morning before we get up, comes down to see me in my office mid-morning before Nik takes him out anywhere (which she does every single day), sometimes has lunch with me, comes down for another play in my office around 3.00 after his afternoon nap, at which point we share a rich tea biscuit, and then gives me a good 40-minute pummelling in the lounge after he's had his tea and I've finished work, and before he has his pre-bedtime bath. It's a routine I've grown extremely fond of, and one that I've come to take somewhat for granted.

Today, though, I only saw Tom for about 20 minutes this morning and then for about half an hour after he got back from nursery. That was it. No mid-morning looning around in my office and no afternoon tea and biscuits together, and I genuinely missed them. These activities have become vital for punctuating my working day. Then it occurred to me: that's all most working parents ever get to see of their toddlers, and in many cases not even that if, say, they have a long commute. This is one (more) reason I would find it incredibly hard to go back to being a company employee and have to "go to work". I don't think I could cope very well with losing this happy working environment I've grown to love. I also hope that Tom, as he continues to develop and become more aware of his surroundings, learns to appreciate how fortunate we are as a family. Any other freelancers out there with kids of a similar age? I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on this.

Tom and me

Am I too specialised?

Friday, 19 November 2010

So, my first work-free weekday in around 6 months, and thus a good time to reflect on where I’m at as a translator and consider what, if anything, I need to change with regard to the work I do.
Looking at the projects I’ve completed during this busy period, it could be argued that the translation work I do is too narrow in terms of scope - at least 95% of it is patent-related, mostly chemical. Until recently, I just took this as a indication that this field has a good deal more demand than supply, and I lapped up well-paid work from long-standing clients that I respect and appreciate.
However, I now find myself rather wishing for slightly more variety in my work. I have recently done a couple of jobs in the field of food science, which I enjoyed very much. It was quite tough work, as I don’t have a great deal of background in this area, but it got me thinking that the cause of my mild malaise could be my subconscious needing a fresh challenge.
With this in mind, I’m thinking of actively seeking work in new areas, primarily those in which I already have an interest and, therefore, a degree of knowledge. In my case, this would be motorcycles, photography and malt whisky, all of which have many ties to Japan. I have some ideas of where to hawk myself in these industries, but I know I’ll find it hard to turn down the regular stream of work from my existing clients. I’ve promised my wife that I won’t work evenings or weekends (not that I want to), as time spent with her and my soon-to-be 2 year old son is by far the most precious time I have.
I guess I’ll have to make some compromises work-wise, then, but how to judge it? I dare say others may have been in the same boat at some point. If so, I’d be glad to hear from you.

Kobe Port Tower

Translating with a toddler

Monday, 19 July 2010

Ways to tell a home-based freelance translator who has a toddler:
  • Your optical mouse doesn't work because there's a raisin jammed in the sensor.
  • There's an odd smell in your office that you can't quite identify.
  • You find 20 of your business cards in the linen basket.
  • Your left-hand typing is impaired by a huge toy woolly mammoth sitting on your desk.
  • You have more lullabies and nursery rhymes than "real" music on iTunes.
  • You find an iPhone screen full of settings that you didn't know existed.
  • Your expensive Sennheiser earphones are wet and slimy for some reason.
  • Your DAB radio is tuned to a station you've never heard of.
  • Your recently completed tax return is screwed up in the bin (actually, that might have been you).
  • You think you have a defective monitor, but it's actually splodge of pureed pear and broccoli.
  • You find the word "Jungleland" in the patent specification you translated the previous day.
  • You avoid proof-reading between 8.15 and 8.45am because of the apocalyptic screaming coming from 2 floors up.
  • You finish work at 5.00pm on the dot because the aroma of eggy bread from upstairs is driving you nuts.
  • Sand occasionally flies in through your office window during the summer.
  • The words you hear most often are "I said DON'T eat that".
  • There's compost on your office chair.

The toddler in question