JOK Notebook

Light as a Sword

I recently mentioned that a Japanese man had supplied me with chicken-related information. He has since sent me a two-page essay that he wrote in Japanese and self-published for fun. In a moment, I'll share part of the essay with you, particularly the segment that changed me for the rest of the day. But first some background.

The man who fed me the chicken nuggets (so to speak) is Ryoichi Chida. Though he has a full-time job in Tokyo and a four-hour round-trip commute (!), he somehow finds time to do interpreting and translating on the side. He even advises a professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology on English-related matters.

I felt eager to read Ryoichi-san's essay. It was about "simultaneous interpretation" (同時通訳, どうじつうやく), and I knew so little about the topic that I hadn't even heard of that English term. Plus, I needed some way of preparing for my Skype chat with my language partner, Kensuke-san, and the essay provided a perfect immersion activity.

When I plunged in, I was astounded to see how much I understood, thanks to Ryoichi-san's clear writing. The initial text told the amazing story of the late Sen Nishiyama, a Japanese-American who moved to Japan with only archaic conversational Japanese. Once in Japan, he became a fluent speaker and eventually pioneered the field of simultaneous interpretation.

After that came a funny, true story that Nishiyama told Ryoichi-san. Actually, Nishiyama heard it from an American named Smith, who also rose to unbelievable heights with simultaneous interpretation. Though I rarely get Japanese jokes, this time I understood the story and laughed.

The text described Smith's profound commitment to translation. And something about his energy and wholeheartedness filled me with energy and confidence, making me blaze on past my usual inhibitions.

When I finished the essay, I wrote Ryoichi-san an effusive letter in Japanese. His English is so good that I almost have no right to address him in error-ridden Japanese, but I simply didn't think of that. Thanks to the essay, I trusted in something deeper in myself.

The Skype session began with Kensuke-san (who is an interpreter, as it happens!), and I read him the whole essay, often without a list of vocabulary and yomi at my side, though I definitely could have benefited from them. Why did I make things harder for myself? I can't explain, but it was all in the spirit of the essay.

I hope the excerpt below has a beneficial effect on you, as well. I've supplied translations (which Ryoichi-san has checked) and vocabulary lists, but you may want to cover them up and see what you can do!


The Americans and French met at an international conference. For one week, from Monday through Saturday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., minus an hour for lunch, Smith alone was in charge of simultaneous interpretation for the conference.

間 (あいだ: between); 国際会議 (こくさいかいぎ: international conference); 開催 (かいさい: holding a meeting); 一週間 (いっしゅうかん: 1 week); 月曜日 (げつようび: Monday); 土曜日 (どようび: Saturday); 午前 (ごぜん: a.m.); 9時 (くじ: 9:00); 午後 (ごご: p.m.);5時 (ごじ: 5:00); 一時間 (いちじかん: 1 hour); 昼食時間 (ちゅうしょくじかん: lunchtime); 除く (のぞく: to exclude, except); -氏* (-し: suffix for family name); 一人 (ひとり: alone); 同時通訳* (どうじつうやく: simultaneous interpretation); 担当 (たんとう: in charge)

As you know, someone doing simultaneous interpretation has to concentrate as hard as possible, and it's the kind of work that causes mental strain.

ご存知のように (ごぞんじのように: as you know); 同時通訳者 (どうじつうやくしゃ: simultaneous interpreter); 極度 (きょくど: maximum); 集中力 (しゅうちゅうりょく: ability to concentrate); 緊張 (きんちょう: mental strain); 強いる (しいる: to compel, coerce); 仕事 (しごと: work)

On the last day, Smith was quite tired.

最終日* (さいしゅうび: final day); 疲れる (つかれる: to be tired)

The speaker stood up and started making a statement in English.

立ち上がる (たちあがる: to stand up); 英語* (えいご: English); 発言* (はつげん: statement); 始める (はじめる: to start)

Smith automatically translated that statement into French.

自動的 (じどうてき: automatic); フランス語* (フランスご: French); 通訳* (つうやく: interpreting); 続ける (つづける: to continue)

A few minutes later, he suddenly noticed that the speaker on the French side was making his presentation in perfect English.

数分後 (すうふんご: a few minutes later); はっと (surprised); 気がつく (きがつく: to notice); -側* (-がわ: side); 完璧 (かんぺき: perfect)

Unaware of what he was doing, he turned to the American side and intently translated that English statement into French.

気づかず (気づかず: unaware); 参加者 (さんかしゃ: participant); 向ける (むける: to turn toward); 一心不乱 (いっしんふらん: intensely; intently; feverishly; wholeheartedly)

According to Smith, he was spaced out by the last day of the conference, and he may not have known what to translate. Anyway, he automatically translated whatever he heard into English or French, as needed.

曰く (いわく: according to); 会議 (かいぎ: conference); 頭 (あたま: head); ボーっとする (to be in a daze); 何 (なに: what); 分かる (わかる: to know); 聞こえる (きこえる: to be heard); 言葉 (ことば: words)

When Nishiyama-san heard this story (from Smith), he slapped his knee and said, "That's the highest level of simultaneous interpreting! It's proof that your English and French ability are equally high!"

西山* (にしやま: surname); 聞く (きく: to hear); 膝を打つ (ひざをうつ: to slap one's knee); 最高 (さいこう: highest); 能力* (のうりょく: ability); 高い (たかい: high); 同等 (どうとう: equal; same rank): 証拠 (しょうこ: evidence, proof); 言う (いう: to say)

『言語の種類を意識しなくても通訳できるレベル』、『言葉自体を意識しなくても通訳できるレベル』、 これが最上級の語学力、我々が最終的に目指す目標だと西山さんはおっしゃった。
"A level where you can translate without paying attention to the language itself, a level where you can translate without thinking about what words to use—this is the ultimate goal we should aim for if we're to bring our language ability to the highest level," Nishiyama-san said.

言語* (げんご: language); 種類 (しゅるい: variety); 意識* (いしき: consciousness); 自体 (じたい: itself); 最上級 (さいじょうきゅう: highest grade; superlative degree); 語学力 (ごがくりょく: language ability); 我々 (われわれ: we); 最終的 (さいしゅうてき: finally); 目指す (めざす: to aim for); 目標 (もくひょう: target); おっしゃる (to say (honorific))

Like Musashi’s sword, as depicted in Eiji Yoshikawa's famous novel Musashi Miyamoto, the body can move spontaneously and most effectively, doing what it needs to do.

有名 (ゆうめい: famous); 吉川英治 (よしかわ えいじ: name of a novelist, 1892–1962); 小説 (しょうせつ: novel); 宮本武蔵 (みやもとむさし: samurai, 1584–1645); 中 (なか: in); 描く (かく: to depict); 剣* (けん: sword); 自分 (じぶん: oneself); 身体 (からだ: body); 自然に (しぜんに: spontaneously); 最も (もっとも: most); 効果的に (こうかてきに: effectively); 動く (うごく: to move); なす (to do)

Here “sword” is a metaphor for “language.”

例え (たとえ: simile, metaphor)

To rephrase it, this means that it's essential to acquire a strong command of the language without getting caught up in how to use it.

言い換える (いいかえる: to rephrase); 使いこなす (つかいこなす: to acquire command of (a language), shown here in its potential form)

This must be the magic formula.

極意 (ごくい: main point)


The part about Musashi might have confused you as much as it did me, but here's what I've learned from Ryoichi-san and Kensuke-san. Musashi, a famous samurai, used his sword without knowing how he did it. He could fight in any situation—when he slept, when he ate, and so on.

When we use a foreign language, we should be so comfortable handling those words that they feel as light to handle as Musashi's sword. And though we ought to speak properly, we need to do so without noticing how we're achieving that. Ideally, we will understand the language without listening or reading too attentively.

This flies in the face of the way I operate! I feel that if I break sentences, words, and especially kanji down to their very atoms, then I'll truly have a grip on the material.

Do I need to reverse this in order to succeed?! How has my obsession with the roots of things affected my Japanese? Maybe it's like when you think too hard about walking up a flight of stairs. You only trip!

I'm intrigued by the idea of letting it all hang loose, but this concept seems to apply best to conversation. What could it really mean in terms of kanji?

I suppose there's a time and a place for everything. To choose just one example from Ryoichi-san's essay, if you spend all day staring at the leaf (葉) in 言葉 (word), you'll make very little progress with whatever you're trying to read! On the other hand, I would hate to have missed the following details:

• 曰く (いわく: (1) pretext; history; past; story; (2) according to ...; ... says): This 曰 is not the ultra-familiar 日! The fatter character is non-Joyo. I don't think I've ever seen it!

• 使いこなす (つかいこなす: to acquire command of (a language)): This is new to me, as well.

• 極意 (ごくい: main point): I hope to use this somewhere!

• 膝を打つ (ひざをうつ: to slap one's knee): This charms me to no end! I don't know why! Now, there's a lack of awareness I can definitely support!

What do you think? Do you do better with kanji when you think less or more?!

Here's something else to ponder: the meaning of 邦! I explore that in essay 1792 on 邦, which is now available:

Have a great weekend! And be sure to think just the right amount!


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