Can you read kanji?

Just a month after writing about how agencies should give translators direct access to their clients, an agency asked me to go with them to meet their client for a big new job.

The back story

The end client had been burned a couple of times by horrible translations. So they contracted with this new agency, on the condition that they could meet the translator and verify his/her ability. The agency didn't have anyone suitable, so they found me through an introduction. Dealing with a translator directly was out of the question, because the end client has a strict bidding process that requires huge capitalization and credit rating just to bid.

The meeting

I met two nice people from the translation agency, and then we drove down to the client's office together. This was my first time meeting them, so although they had my CV, and we had exchanged emails, they wanted to know some more about me. One of their first questions was, "Do you read kanji?" The end clients would probably want to show us some documents, and if I couldn't read them it might not come off well.

I was flabbergasted. I asked the leader of their team, "Can you be a translator and not be able to read the language you translate?" Apparently, you can: this PM's other native English speaker (NES) is an interpreter who also translates. But she doesn't read Japanese well, and instead has her partner dictate her documents; she then "translates" from the voice recording.

I answered that yes, I could read kanji, and kind of shrugged it off until we got to the meeting. There, when the documentation lead brought out the documents that I was supposed to translate, he asked me the same question: "Can you read kanji?" I bemusedly told him yes, and we went on with our discussion, but it left me thinking. Are native English-speaking translators really so thin on the ground that our very existence is questioned?

The null hypothesis here would be that my spoken Japanese is so bad that they doubted my ability to actually read the language. This can be discarded, however: my spoken Japanese isn't at the native level, but it's good enough for these purposes.

It's possible that these two groups' small sample size allowed skewed results to be magnified. I don't know about the end-client's experience with native English-speaking translators, but as I wrote above, the agency's other NES doesn't read Japanese.

Part of it might also be my looks: I'm a big white guy, and I know that I tend to give off a vibe of being big, strong, and not too bright. People often tell me that they're shocked when I first open my mouth and Japanese comes out. ๐Ÿ™‚ So maybe that helped boost the incredulity factor.

Happy ending

Despite the initial doubts of both the agency and the end client as to my kanji-reading abilities, the meeting went well. I'm now working on an interesting project with good feedback from the client. I'm hoping that I can change some minds about NES translators and their abilities. I kind of feel like I'm trying to prove the existence of Big Foot. Which in my case isn't too far from the truth. ๐Ÿ™‚

17 comments to Can you read kanji?

  • Michael Turner

    Once burned, people can be quite shy.

    Years ago, in an interview for a programming job, I was asked rather timidly whether I’d be willing to take a test of my C skills. “Of course,” I said. “Why would that be a problem?” I was told that some candidates acted offended when asked this.

    The test took the form of telling them what a very simple C program would do. “Nothing,” I said. Then I told them where the syntax errors would be reported, if they tried to compile it. “Fix those,” I said, “and it’ll do a bubble sort.” The interviewer was embarrassed, but also pleased.

    Unfortunately, the next person who interviewed me seemed not quite as pleased that I found some bugs in his actual production code, after he asked me what *it* did. I didn’t get the job.

  • Cat Nakamichi

    Hi Ryan,

    These questions can be rather flabbergasting can’t they. I remember reading a Japanese book on the train and having a well-dressed business man asking me what I was doing with it. Quite what he thought I could be doing with it other than reading I have no idea…

  • stiobhan

    “Can you read kanji?”
    “Yes, do you need help with one?”

  • Karen Sandness

    When I was doing dissertation research in Japan, I bought as many relevant books from the Nihon Koten Bungaku Taikei series as I could find, things like Heike Monogatari and Gikeiki.

    My purpose in buying them was to find examples of the jodoushi (suffixes) that I was studying, so I’d be sitting on the train, marking these occurrences in pencil.

    I don’t know how many times people asked me, “Can you read Japanese?” or even “Do you know hiragana and katakana?”

  • It is rather stupefying when I tell people that I’m a translator, and then they proceed to ask me if I can read Japanese/kanji, or 2-3 minutes later in the conversation will show some sort of amazement when I read something (off a menu or whatever). To me (and I’m guessing you as well), I find it more amazing that there are people out there that have reached a level of proficiency sufficient to interpret and yet never took the time to become literate.

  • Noo

    More importantly:

    Can you use chopsticks?

    All jokes aside, I think it is just a standard Japanese thing (I can only imagine why).

    The best answer to “Can you read kanji?” in my humble opinion is “Which one?”

    That response levels the playing field: even Japanese people can’t read all kanji.

  • @Noo
    “””All jokes aside, I think it is just a standard Japanese thing (I can only imagine why).”””

    I agree that it’s a common myth. But are we (meaning NES translators) really so thin on the ground that translation buyers don’t think we exist?

    If you listen to/read discussions of J2E translation in Japan, there’s an almost universal assumption that the translation will be done by a native Japanese speaker, with a cleanup/rescue effort by a native English speaker afterward.

    I’m optimistic and think this is more an issue of supply than of attitudes. Surely, by necessity the vast majority of J2E translation in Japan is done by native Japanese speakers. I’ve also almost never had trouble finding work because the client preferred a native Japanese speaker (and when I have, the *real* issue was usually that NJS are considered to be cheaper for J2E work).

    My conclusion is therefore that a huge segment of the translation-buying market has never come across this odd specimen known as a NES translator.

  • @Doug

    Probably the most mind-bending case of cognitive dissonance I’ve encountered was when I was going to a movie with a Japanese friend. We were seeing the subtitled version of an American film; my friend asked if I would prefer to see the dubbed version, since I’d probably have trouble reading the subtitles. ๐Ÿ˜ฎ

    I noted that I would be able to listen to the original English dialog if the subtitles gave me any trouble. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Carl Freire

    Just riffing tangentially off your last comment, I’m kind of amused that now among the regulars at my neighborhood bar, the general consensus is if someone uses some uncommon word in conversation and they’re not sure I know it–or I’m not sure I know it–that they should just write it down because “Carl knows all these weird old kanji.” It doesn’t always help, of course, but reading really can be easier sometimes.

  • Tom Curran

    Hello everyone. I am quite aware that most of you posting here are highly skilled translators who I honestly respect. However, I feel it is important to read between the lines here…

    The strange, awkward questions that us foreigners receive about our Japanese language abilities are actually statements. Although it does happen in certain instances, the Japanese are not the types who will voice their true inner feelings and say, “Shut the **** up gaijin! Don’t even TRYYYYYYY to speak OUR golden tongue!” Having dealt with them in the US, Europe, and Japan for around 25 years now, I can say that they are the LAST people on the face of the Earth who want us to obtain fluency. The closer you get, the more they pound you down. Don’t even get me started on the ใ‚นใ‚ฟใƒ staff who will pull ็Ÿฅใ‚‰ใ‚“ใทใ‚Šs no matter how good your Japanese is. I used to work in-house and was told by the boss to only use Japanese (which happened to be right up my alley). Lunch hours ended up being more stressful than work because the restaurants in the area were not too keen on a big white boy speaking Japanese and tried their best to ignore me. To this day, I dread ordering food (PTSD???).

    I now do my best to avoid contact with the Japanese which isn’t easy considering the fact that I live in Tokyo. Like most foreigners in Japan, I am often approached by Engrrrrrish vampires who attempt to force conversations despite an obvious lack of eye contact on my part. If I am pushed into a corner, I either recite the alphabet at the top of my lungs, give a mini lecture about the meaning and importance of ้ƒทใซๅ…ฅใฃใฆใฏ้ƒทใซๅพ“ใˆใ€€ , or simply go “yakie” on them. Believe me, my stuff beats RAID hands down.

    Should I blame the Japanese for their racist tendencies or the spineless foreigners who perpetuate these types of problems by not standing up for themselves?

  • Jamie

    Reminds of the time I went to visit my very good friend’s grandmoter (Japanese native) who was around 70 years old. I introduced myself perfectly in Japanese before jumping into a conversation about what to drink with my friend. My friend’s grandmother, obviously still awestruck at my Japanese level, suddenly said,

    “Does he undestand what he is saying?”.


  • Heather

    So it isn’t just me then! I get that on nearly every job I go to. Most of my clients are direct, i.e. not through agencies, and so I have to get out and find/meet them myself. Even after 10 years here in Japan, and 5 as a full-time interpreter/translator, people (including clients) still try and ‘test’ me by asking me to read random hiragana/kanji(or worse, bring an Enlgish speaking Japanese person to the meeting to interpret for the interpreter!?…. )I wonder how they think I translate their documents…

    …and sometimes people I have known for 10 years will still marvel at my ability to use chopsticks at dinner…but then its my turn to do cartwheels in the middle of the floor and thrash my head against the wall in complete disbelief over their ability to use a spoon when the dessert comes out ๐Ÿ™‚

    Gotta laugh these things off (especially in rural areas) though, otherwise we’d go mad… ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • The Whores of Jericho

    May I just say I love this blog. It’s so down to earth unlike 90% of blogs
    on Japan, although I know this is specifically about translation.

    @Noo you sound like a funny character.
    Reminds me of people who say “ๅˆ—ๅณถใฎ่ท้›ขใงใ™ใ‹โ€๏ผŸ when asked โ€ๆ—ฅๆœฌ้•ทใ„ใงใ™ใ‹๏ผŸโ€

    ๏ผ Tom Curran I really feel for you buddy. But I think I know what your problem is.
    Despite your high fluency in Japanese and years of experience and no doubt
    high linguistic prowess, you give off what I would call a “gaijin aura”.
    I don’t mean big clouds of a butter-like gas substance, but just a look/feel that
    Japanese people interpret as you being a non-speaker of Japanese.

    To reinforce my hypothesis, Japanese people always engage me in Japanese as though
    they expect me to understand. It’s not because I have an oriental gait or that
    I have chopstick-shaped eyeballs, it’s just that I have an aura that says “this guy
    is white and stupid but he can understand our language”. It must be the way I stand.

    I think Mr.Ginnnerstrong alluded to the same thing when saying “I’m a big white guy, and I know that I tend to give off a vibe of being big, strong, and not too bright.” It’s a vibe, an aura, whatever you want to call it.

    Tom – I hear you, loud and clear. It can be so frustrating.

  • Just an observation I’ve had, but the kind of stuff Tom referred to above can differ greatly even within Tokyo depending upon the neighborhood one finds themselves in.

    Once upon a time I worked in Yoyogi and found myself trekking off to the edge of where Akasaka meets Roppongi for a certain client, which usually meant that I’d grab lunch in Akasaka. I’m assuming that these people are so used to talking to expat-types who don’t even make the slightest effort to learn the language of their borrowed surroundings. I got the blank stare many a time there.

    This contrasts with my normal surroundings a mere 10-minute taxi ride away in Yoyogi, where not only is Starbucks safe, but I was once randomly approached in Japanese by some guy on the streets asking me directions.

    Oh, and I’m totally stealing that ๅˆ—ๅณถใฎ่ท้›ข line. ๐Ÿ˜›

  • The Whores of Jericho

    @ Doug Durgee, this rings true with my experiences too –

    @ Tom Curran –

    the way avenge annoying solicitations like this
    is to ask the offending Japanese if they are married. If they say yes,
    ask “to a Japanese?” and watch the reaction. It’s as though
    you’ve just offered them animal porn or something.

    an old-timer like me knows all the tricks !!

  • Richard

    Although reading kanji is important it’s clearly not essential to be able to read all kanji in all contexts in order to be able to translate a document. When a kanji has been forgotton or a new kanji is encountered there’s no harm in using a tool like ‘Rikaichan’ (the Firefox plugin) to help you along the way. Having said that, being able to read the kanji doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll fully understand the nuance of the text.

  • Hmm… it’s interesting to see how learning to read/write Japanese can actually be separated from learning to listen/speak Japanese. Being able to read kanji but not speak that well… being able to speak fluently and listen without trouble, but not knowing what those damn squiggles mean…

    It’s funny how the leader of that agency overcame the problem of not being able to read, but that just adds an unecesary step to the process of translating. Be glad that you know how to read and write, which are the most essential aspects of translating… but don’t neglect practicing your speaking skills.

    Thanks for sharing this anecdote! ๐Ÿ˜€

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