Wisconsin Exchange Program Week—Part Three: Lost in Translating

Continued from here. See Part One here.

And now for a total clusterfuck

The whole week, I tagged along with the adults and translated for them. This translation included language—very simple Japanese sentences—and culture.

For example, at the first dinner, the Wisconsin teachers noted the slurping, and I had to explain that in Japan, it’s okay to slurp your noodles and soup. It means you’re enjoying it.

I think it went okay though. I pulled out some random facts, and sometimes when they asked me questions about certain things, I could tell them what it was. And if I couldn’t, I could always ask the JTE.

As for interpreting language, I had to translate some easy questions from Japanese to English. Kyoto-sensei was hosting the male teacher, and he was fascinated by his American guest. He asked questions constantly—and sometimes he asked the same question over and over again, like he thought he was going to get a different response, or maybe just to make sure. Luckily for me, they were pretty easy questions to translate—do you like this, is this delicious, can you eat natto, have you ever been here, have you ever seen this, etc.

I also didn’t feel a lot of pressure to be completely literal. They were easy questions, after all, in an informal setting. I only had to translate from Japanese to English, while the JTE translated the other way.

Sometime before the Wisconsinites arrived, I was eating lunch with the teachers. I listened to their conversation, and at one point, I reacted somehow. They were all surprised that I understood, and I think that’s when they realized I could listen to Japanese really well. I can’t speak it, but my listening skills are actually okay.

That proved to be pretty true throughout the week—I could understand most of what people were saying or asking (or at least get the gist enough to translate for someone else). I was actually feeling pretty proud of myself. Even if I can’t speak Japanese, at least my comprehension is good enough.

So when the JTE wasn’t sitting near us, or wasn’t around, I managed to interpret without her. It was pretty great.

All of this was good for my self-esteem about my ability to understand Japanese. Unfortunately, it also caused everyone to overestimate what I could understand.

A few weeks before, she visited Kim (the CIR) at City Hall to talk about interpretation. I thought Kim was going to interpret for us, but apparently the JTE changed her mind.

“I’ll do it,” she said, over and over again.

“Are you sure?” I asked. I knew she wasn’t confident about her own English abilities; after all, she took me out to dinner one night just to practice English for the Wisconsin teachers. Great strategy, but if she’s uncomfortable interpreting, then Kim should do it for her. After all, interpreting is part of Kim’s job. (Granted, it’s a part of Kim’s job that she doesn’t like, but… At least it’s in her job description.)

One thing I knew for sure: Interpreting is not part of my job. ALTs aren’t required to know any Japanese at all, and no where in my contract does it say that part of my job is interpreting.

Nonetheless, the night of the Farewell Party, my JTE walked up to me and said, “You will interpret.”

Ummmm no.

Earlier in the week, when we visited the mayor, she tried to make me interpret.

“So you will interpret for the mayor,” she said.

I was horrified. Interpret for the mayor? That sounded like a disaster in the making. The mayor here is a little strict—even Kim has trouble interpreting for him. Sometimes he won’t repeat things, or at least speak slowly, and he uses really difficult words.

“I can’t do that!” I said. “I don’t understand Japanese!”

“Well, it’s part of your job,” she said.

“Um, no, actually, it’s not,” I said, fuming. “ALTs aren’t required to know Japanese at all, and in my contract—”

“Yes, but you will interpret.”

“No, I won’t.”

And then I think she ignored me and walked away. She did end up interpreting that time—probably because she realized that this was the mayor, and I would not be able to translate anything he said. Which turned out to be true—I had no idea what he was saying.

I was very angry that she pushed interpreter duties on me when I wasn’t able to do it properly, it wasn’t part of my job, and she had talked to Kim earlier and decided not to have Kim interpret! If the JTE couldn’t do it, then she should have hired someone to do it!

She made me stand up front with her and translate the announcements, which was okay, because they were already translated on paper for me.

But then, the host students and their families stood up. One person from each host family (sometimes the host students, sometimes a parent) gave a short speech about their experience and their new friend.

When the first student finished her speech, my JTE handed me the microphone. I just looked at her blankly. I had only understood words in the speech. Words like “fun” and “like” and “happy.”

Me: “Uhhh…”

My JTE took the microphone from me and translated for that student, while I stood there feeling dumb. She interpreted for four students, but finally, for the last four, she handed me the microphone and wouldn’t take it back.

It was fucking awful. I stumbled through translating, while my JTE whispered in my goddamn ear when she could have translated perfectly well herself. When Naoto gave his speech, he was practically bawling, because he was so sad that his new friend was going to leave, and I couldn’t do anything but stand there like an idiot. He had written his speech on a piece of scrap paper, so I looked at it for clues. Luckily his writing isn’t horrendous, but I still didn’t understand everything. Hell, he whispered in my ear, too, so he could probably have translated better than me. XD Sighhhh

I was really angry and embarrassed. The students were crying and pouring their hearts out, and I wanted so badly to do a good job for them, to express their feelings so that their new friends would know what they were saying. But I couldn’t. I just didn’t have that skill. It sucked.

When that ordeal was finally over, I went back to my dinner table. I sat down next to Enoguchi, wanting to sink into the floor.

Enoguchi: “Good translating!”


DX I mean, I think the students understood each other anyway—there was no mistaking their tears. At least they understood the feeling. I just felt like… it’s a shame that I couldn’t express their feelings in words well.

It actually made me want to stop studying Japanese, just to spite my JTE. TAKE THAT. I DON’T KNOW JAPANESE. NOW YOU REALLY CAN’T FORCE ME TO DO ANYTHING.

But that’s stupid. I’ve had loads more positive experiences speaking Japanese to people at the pool, at a store… I even managed to have a phone conversation in Japanese last week, when my package arrived. I wasn’t home, so I had to call the driver and arrange a drop-off time. It went well, actually, and I was super proud of myself. So there’s no way I’m going to stop studying.

It was just a passing spiteful thought.

Farewell Ceremony—Friday, February 15th

For whatever reason, Japanese people really like “We Are the World.”

It is, in my opinion, the absolute worst song ever. I hate it. I hated it before I came to Japan, and I hate it even more now, because I have been forced to listen to it over one hundred times since arriving here (not an exaggeration). If I could, I would murder Michael Jackson all over again.

Uhh… Not that I murdered him the first time he died… (shifty eyes)

In the morning on Friday, we had a farewell assembly for the Wisconsin visitors. They all gave speeches, and then we all sang “We Are the World.”

And then everyone cried.

It was so sweet and sad.

At first, everyone just stood there and sang, but eventually people began to join hands, and some boys formed a circle with their arms over each others’ shoulders. Kyoto-sensei, who had a really great time with the male Wisconsin teacher, put an arm over his shoulders, too. One of the students on the student council was next to the woman Wisconsin teacher, who took the girl’s hand and said, “You should come to Wisconsin.” The girl burst into tears and hugged the woman for the remainder of the song.

I walked around taking pictures the whole time, being an outsider. Because that’s who I am in this country. XD

Finally, my JTE gave me the signal to lead the Wisconsinites out of the gym. We walked slowly around the students, who rushed around to hold hands with everyone. It was like the Wisconsinites were celebrities, and everyone just wanted to touch their hands. The girl who was crying on the female teacher almost didn’t want to let go. It was so sweet.

I led them out of the gym, out of the school, onto the bus, and out of my life forever.

Thank God. ;)

The students made some great friends, and I could tell they were all changed by the experience—at least the Wisconsin students were.

It’s an amazing program. I hope it continues in the years to come.

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12 Responses to Wisconsin Exchange Program Week—Part Three: Lost in Translating

  1. Pingback: Wisconsin Exchange Program Week—Part One | The Grand Adventure of El

  2. Pingback: Wisconsin Exchange Program Week—Part Two | The Grand Adventure of El

  3. Kim says:

    Technically translating and interpretation is part of your job. Yes I know it isn’t something in your contract, but it is one of those “assumed” things. Thats why I wrote about how they were definitely going to spring interpreting duties on you at the last minute for the Wiscon trip in that long manual that I wrote for you!!!! TO WARN YOU!!!!!! I WARNED YOU!!!!!YOU HAVE TO READ MY MANUALS!!!! WHY DOES NO ONE READ MY MANUALS!!!!!!!????

    But they should know your comfort level of Japanese by now and they should have known that it wasn’t something you were comfortable with. Most likely the JTEs were so nervous about interpreting that they figured they could push it off on you…. because thats what they did to me and all of the ALTs that came after me and it went ok-ish. I did an AWFUL job at it and to make it even WORSE there was some fancy pants author they invited for one of the workshops and after I interpreted he whispered to everyone REALLY LOUDLY, “Wow she totally missed the point.”

    Last minute terrible interpreting duties get easier with time, but thankfully you won’t have to do them again unless you stay for three years and by that time you will be more comfortable with things.
    Don’t worry.. everyone in the audience could surely see that the JTEs were being jerk faces….
    Also the Mayor is an asshole.. be glad you didn’t interpret for him :D

    • NO IT’S NOT. INTERPRETING IS NOT PART OF MY JOB. I am adamant about that. XD It should not be “assumed” either. What if I knew no Japanese at all? They’re lucky that I know any at all. I have a friend in Kyoto who came in knowing absolutely none.

      I did read your manual, I did! D: I read it thoroughly, over and over again, because I wanted to know everything. XD I guess I just didn’t think they’d push it on me, since my Japanese is such a low level and they knew I was uncomfortable with it. Also, I think the thing that pissed me off the most was the fact that they had talked to the CIR about interpreting, and they still chose to make me do it in the end.

      I actually do plan to stay for three years, but I think I’m going to demand that they get a real interpreter to do it. Because making the ALT do it is bull shit.

  4. Kim says:

    *ALTs that came before me

  5. Mari/万理 says:

    So uh… what on earth is the deal with all this “spring this shit at the last moment on your coworker” crap? O.o Is this a normal thing? I don’t think I’d be able to get away with that in my office here in the states. I get the feeling you’re pretty far down on their perceived pecking-order if they feel comfortable pulling that shit.

    I should ask my grandmother if this is normal. XD We had a really long conversation the other day where she told me about the way her family did things growing up, and about the way she thinks of things in general. I think Japan is fascinating, but I’m honestly glad I didn’t grow up there. I think my life here is much better than it would have been if I’d been a regular Japanese student.

    Also, if you hate the song “We Are the World”… you should listen to the Westboro Baptist version. It’s called “God Hates the World”, and it’s comedy gold.

    • Oh, the springing-stuff-on-you is just what they do to the ALTs. It’s really stupid, but it happens to every ALT everywhere. It’s normal for us.

      And I am low on the totem pole–I’m new, after all.

      Oh God… I try not to follow the WBC. I don’t want to waste my time paying attention to those people. XD

      • Mari/万理 says:

        New or not… |D Still! *I* don’t think I’ve ever pushed anything off on my greener coworkers worse than killdisking a block of computers.

        And there’s no way they could ever see this and argue about that, so everyone just has to take my word on it. :D *shifty eyes*

        I don’t follow them! *more shifty eyes* Just that one song because it is a thing of perfection and beauty.

  6. Kim says:

    Well you may be more comfortable doing interpreting by then!

    Yeah, while I love all of the teachers, they are on MANY occasions very selfish. I realize they have 1000x more work than the ALTs, but that is still no excuse to put their ALTs in horribly embarrassing situations because they can’t go to the trouble to ask the CIR for help. I can understand making you do on the spot interpretations for the lessons, but for the BANQUET?? What were they thinking? Even I had the teachers do the interpreting of English to Japanese (because while you can sorta make up Japanese to English, doing it the other way around is HARD!) Next time you should just set it up with the CIR yourself and tell the teachers at the last minute!

    I was really mad about the mayor interpretation too because they kept promising me a transcript before hand that I could translate and use as a script, but that DIDNT HAPPEN!!! Then the major was a big jerk and was like “WTF this isn’t a school from D.C.?? My entire speech was about cherry blossoms..” I should have interpreted that into English just to spite him…

    Did they have you interpret for the principal and let you make a script beforehand? Or did one of the JTEs do that part??

    That’s great that you are going to try to stay for three years (you’ll get a ton of pension money back :D ) The kids seem to really like you.. I know because they are all my FB friends now and have secretly perfect English that they only now show to me…

    Do you clean the classroom with the kids? What kids are doing it now?

    • Yeah, that’s what I’m hoping, haha! I’ll keep studying Japanese and see if I can get to that point, because that would actually be super awesome for me. If I’m still not comfortable though, I might take your advice and arrange for the CIR to do it anyway. They asked her to do it in the first place and then changed their minds… Ridiculous…

      Man, that’s bull shit. I can’t believe that. Yeah, people have told me that the mayor refuses to give a pre-written speech to the interpreter, like some sort of huge jerk.

      Actually, the principal wrote a speech in English for the first night. It was super sweet! I think he probably had some help translating it, but he gave it in English when they first arrived. After that, though, all of his speeches were in Japanese. He did write them down, and the JTE translated it and interpreted for him. So I didn’t have to do that, even though I totally could have because the English translation was WRITTEN. |D It’s like she kept all the easy things to herself… And they probably would have understood my English better than hers, too… Oh well.

      O: Really? The kids like me? I was a little worried. xD I feel like I’m super awkward and that they’re afraid of talking to me. Hahaha! I know a few of the kids like me, but only because they come up to talk to me on their own or invite me to eat lunch with them.

      Their English is surprisingly good. I think they’re like me though, at least when it comes to speaking — I can understand their Japanese, but I can’t speak it back to them.

      Speaking of which, Tomoya, one of the first years, has been trying to give me “Japanese lessons” which mostly consist of Japanese tongue twisters. xD It’s really funny.

      I clean the classroom with students from class 2-2. I feel like they switch off who cleans the rooms each time, because it’s a different half of 2-2 each time. They’re a great class to clean with, I think. I play with Haruna a lot (when she comes to school…), and Masaharu always tries to talk to me. And the other day, I arm-wrestled Naoya H. He’s a leftie, though, so we were evenly matched. xD He beat my left, I beat his right.

  7. Kim says:

    Yay! Haruna was my cleaning buddy too.. she gets bullied a lot (not extremely, but she is one of those kids who other kids just don’t like much) She also gets horrible migraines, which I tried many times to talk to the teachers about (since they just act like she is doing it for attention) but they always just blew me off. If she ever starts crying and holding her head in class you can take her to the nurse. I am glad you are taking an interest in her, she is a student that really benefits from having someone at school who looks out for her.

    Masaharu is a good kid, but he also gets bullied a bit (by teachers….) He has pretty good English though!
    You arm wrestled Hanawa?? HAHA Tell him I am going to go back to Japan and beat him up! His older brother (graduated) was one of my big “problem” kids when I first started, he freaked me out because he always hit on me and was TERRIBLE in class… when he showed up and wasn’t sleeping through it… but I just started hassling him like crazy and in the end I was the ONLY teacher who could get him to do any work :D Naoya Hanawa is loud and annoying, but a really good kid <3 Complicated family life though. Awww I miss these kids.

    Seriously.. you are doing awesomely.. my first year I SUCKED at everything, was too scared to talk to any of the kids and made no progress whatsoever. When the staff changes you will be one of the "old" teachers and things will get easier since you will have the new Elementary kids coming in as 1st year students (and that class is SO AWESOME.. all such good kids!) and will have the routine down. It sounds like you make an effort to talk to the kids as much as possible which is wonderful! Sometimes playing games with them in the English classroom after lunch can be fun too :D

    That still sucks about the whole interpretation mess, but look out for NUMBER 1 and good luck in the new school year! I need to write letters to the teachers O_O

    • Haruna doesn’t come to cleaning much, but we have fun when she does! Poor girl misses a lot of school… I’m a little skeptical about the migraines, because I had friend in high school who would actually fake illnesses for attention. :/ They wanted/needed that attention for several reasons, so it was still complicated, but… In any case, even if she doesn’t actually have headaches, there’s something that needs to be addressed there, so I’ll be on the look out. :)

      WHAT. WHO BULLIES MASAHARU? I’LL TAKE ‘EM DOWN. That kid is friggin’ awesome.

      Hahaha! Yeah, Hanawa is a riot. His brother hit on you? WTF? And now I wanna know about their family life… I wish I could solve all these kids’ problems. |D Rikuya and everyone with family problems. I couldn’t reach Yusuke, though I tried. I wrote notes to him in his notebook when I was checking diaries, and sometimes he responded. (Like, they were supposed to write diaries anyway, and he didn’t do it often, but I always just wrote questions for him anyway.)

      I don’t feel like I’m doing awesomely, but thank you so much for saying so. That actually makes me feel a lot better. And I think I’m getting along with the kids great — this week was fantastic, as far as it went with the students. We talked A LOT.

      I really like the incoming first year class! I also really like the soon-to-be 6th grade class in elementary school. They are so funny. XD

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