My first paid translation job was one that I will never forget. It was for a friend, whose father served as a US Marine during WWII and in the Battle of Okinawa. During the battle, my friend’s father took part in overpowering a machinegun pill box on a hill. On the body of one of the Japanese soldiers he found a Japanese flag, which he took home with him. The flag was covered with several handwritten characters and he had never had them translated. After hearing that I had lived in Okinawa for two years, he asked his son to bring a copy of the flag to me and see if I could translate it.
It turned out to be quite a challenging task. First, it was handwritten and the calligraphy was difficult in parts. Second, there are so many characters in Japanese that the government, in 1946, decided to limit the number of characters that could be used in normal writing; a process that was completed in 1981 with what is now known as the Joyo Kanji. When I would look up some of the kanji in our modern dictionaries, I could not find them. It was maddening.
At the time, I was taking Japanese classes at university and decided to show some of the kanji to my native Japanese professor to see if he could help. To my surprise, and his, he didn’t know many of the kanji either. But he was intrigued and said that his father, who had served as a Japanese soldier during WWII and who was currently living with him, might be able to help.
So, he had me come over to his house one day. I’ll never forget sitting there, together with my native Japanese professor and his wife, listening to his father tell us the story behind this flag. It originated from a 送別会 (Sōbetsu Kai) or “Farewell Party.” While living in Japan, I had experienced several of these. In fact, my Japanese friends held one for me when I left Okinawa and Tokyo.
During the party, family, relatives, friends, fellow soldiers and officers, would have gathered just before this soldier would have gone to war. It was probably at his house, or some gathering place where several people could be present. At some point, the flag was placed on a table and during the party his friends and relatives would periodically sign it, give their best wishes, state their patriotism toward their emperor and country, tell him how noble he was, how proud of him they were, and so on. This soldier then carried the flag with him throughout his military service, and died with it still on him.
I have been involved with translating and interpreting Japanese, in one way or another, ever since that day. There are very few things that give me as much satisfaction as being able to bridge the gap between people who speak and write in different languages. There is something so invigorating in helping people understand one another, when cultural differences are respected rather than despised or misunderstood, and a person understands that those who live across the Great Pond aren’t so different than what we are.
So, with this, along with other experiences that perhaps I’ll share in the future, I started translating. It took me a while to do it professionally. But now I’ve started that too. This blog is meant to chronical my experiences, endeavors, questions, mistakes, etc. as I go through my career as a linguist. I hope you enjoy it.
Richard Bennett is a professional linguist and owner of Enrich Language Services. With an MBA and Masters in International Relations as well as a background in law, Richard specializes in legal and business translations. He's also interested in political, historical, and religious language projects as well.