Translation queries

I get several emails a day–on a good day! sometimes it’s more than several–that have this subject line: translation queries about some aspect of the software that it’s my job to get localized. 

When I travel to various countries to meet with my translators, I have translation queries of my own: how do I order another beer? (in Japan, for draft, it’s “o sem a sen!–nama hitotsu”) how do I excuse myself after bumping into people on the elevator with my enormous multi-laptop-laden backpack? (in Korea, it’s “shilye hamnida”). 

And usually late at night, after a few rounds of beer, or wine, or mou tai, or sake, or soju, or shoju, or whatever the local firewater is, I get translation queries from my translators. These are the really interesting ones. These are the questions about English that professional translators are still wrestling with after years of translating professionally, so you know they’re the good ones. 

I’d become extra-professionally close with one of my Japanese translators and struck up an actual ink-on-paper personal correspondence, and I’d signed one such ink-on-paper letter with an “XXOO –Erin” kind of sign-off that we use all the time over here in the so-called New World, and when my translator asked by email what this meant, it turned into a back and forth that lasted several days. Since kissing and hugging are not normal Japanese behavior among friends or even intimates, this was a strange signoff, and the mysteries of how and why X and O signify hugs and kisses was yet another line of inquiry. I could go on about this, but I won’t. Not now, anyway. 

Recently after dinner, my Korean translators asked me to explain what “lovely” means. I’m reminded of their query by my blog mom’s use of the word several times in her most recent post

I said that it’s beautiful wrapped up inside loveable wrapped up inside elegant, but I don’t think I quite hit the nugget of loveliness in “lovely.” 

How would you answer that? Use the Comments link, people.

I forgot to clarify that in Great Britain (this translator’s company’s home office) it’s just yet another vague adjective for “nice,” i.e., it means nothing at all–same as brilliant, which here means brightly lit or brightly thought and there means anything from “thanks” to “mediocre.” And then there’s “cheers!” which means “drink your damned drink already!” here and means anything from “please” to “thank you” to “drink!” there. 

You know the dust has blown in from China when:

The morning dawns bright and clear except for the clear part, not so much. This was the view from my hotel room yesterday.

By lunchtime your contacts feel like they’ve been in for sixteen hours.

You blow your nose and get black gunk. Mind you, you don’t do this in public in Asia–they don’t mind sniffing at all, but think blowing is disgusting, which is the exact opposite of how I was raised–so think twice before ordering that wonderfully-piping-painfully-hot spicy soup.

You’ve probably read in the news about dust storms from China affecting Japan and Korea. It’s true. Deforestation and lack of forestation in the first place combined with strong winds have been making Asia one gritty, dusty place lately.

Breakfast potluck

Sometimes Dad hits the nail on the head. From his weekend email report today: “I just finished wading through the email that had accumulated over the weekend, including a whole bunch of spam and some of those sickening sweet inspirational things that would probably make Jesus puke.” He went on to talk about shooting pistols and give a weather report, so if you think my blog posts are random, you ought to try my dad’s email. (Hi, Pop!)

Sounds about right to me. And with that, I’ll continue my breakfast bloggage with a hodge-podge of accumulated observations:

Even luxury gets monotonous. Today I couldn’t face another breakfast of incredibly good lox with horseradish, capers, and minced onion on whole-grain bread. I’m having yogurt and muesli instead, and here’s a yogurt flavor I’ve never thought of: concord grape and coconut. It’s good! It’s white! We’re not in Kansas anymore.

Costs are all over the map here. I turned in several pairs of socks, 5 pairs underwear, two shirts, and a pair of pants to the hotel laundry yesterday. W75,000, about $75. Yesterday in Itaewon I bought five pairs of black dress socks with CK, Hermes, Boss, and Gucci logos (you might note that I’m not calling them CK, Hermes, Boss, and Gucci socks, although they might be) for W10,000, or about $2 a pair. Countless tailors offered to make me custom suits (ladies suits! dresses! you want blazer?!) for $200 or so. (Naturally I had to choose a tailor charging almost twice that, but even so it’s a bargain–I asked about custom suits in San Francisco once and got an answer with four digits, and the first one wasn’t a one, or even a two. No wonder the guy was skeptical about my interest!) Lesson? I should have thrown away my laundry and bought new instead. Oh, well.

Another contradiction: strangers throughout Japan and Korea call me “sir,” yet the tailors in Itaewon yesterday were offering to make me dresses. I can’t help chuckling over how somehow both are wrong.

What is it with hotel art? Why do they even bother? It’s not like anyone ever appreciates it. We either ignore it or despise it. The art in this hotel is innocuous–a vaguely modern abstract in the living room zone, and two small, vaguely antiquey things (one diagramming a parachute, another seashells) in overly ornate gilded frames hanging in the bathroom of all places.

Hoteliers have a hard job. If the rooms aren’t beautiful, we whine, but if they are beautiful, we don’t notice them–we really just sleep, bathe, and dress in them. That is, we sleep if they’ve gotten the things that matter right: comfortable bed, sheets that aren’t itchy, and a way to get the room dark, by which I mean so dark you can’t find the Kleenex on your bedstand. My bedroom at home has loads of light all night long, and it rarely bothers me, but when I’m on the road, my room needs to be dark, because jet lag asks for the tiniest of opportunities to keep me awake.

Why do we say “on the road” and “road warrier” when it’s all about airplanes?

Jet lag is weird. I fly to the East Coast for a week, a meager three hour time difference, and my sleep schedule is messed up for two weeks, but I can come halfway around the world and be fine almost immediately. The nice thing about flying to Asia is you arrive tomorrow evening exhausted from the 11+ hour flight, so you go to sleep, you wake up 8-9 hours later, it’s morning, and you’re switched over, as long as you don’t think to much about how it’s already the day after tomorrow. For me, jetlag in Asia means I wake up every morning around 4am, then sleep some more until about 7am, after which I’m awake for the day. I’m not a morning person in real life, but it’s convenient that business travel makes me one. A week into the trip, I finally slept until my alarm went off at 8am, so I guess I’m getting adjusted–more’s the pity, since it means I didn’t have time for the gym this morning.

Flying back home from Asia is brutal. It’s a slightly shorter flight (something to do with headwinds vs. tailwinds) and you arrive home two hours before you left, and it’s morning, and somehow you have to stay awake for another 16 hours or else your sleep will be hopelessly screwed up for weeks. Since I’m coming home to a week of orchestra gigs and then three-plus weeks in Europe, I can’t afford that, so anybody who has ideas for fun things to make me do to keep me awake on Saturday is welcome to sign up for babysitting slots.

Please, I’m serious about this. Come keep me awake on Saturday. Last time I flew home from Korea (in 1992) I became desparate for diversions the second evening and ended up putting myself in the emergency room to be sewn back up after a bicycle repair accident. Thanks to the trip, I’d just had a tetanus booster and got to astonish the series of residents and interns who came in get my history by answering with great precision a question most people can only guess about. For those of you who are know scratching your heads (I guess I flatter myself that a few people might read this blog, even though nobody ever comments to cop to it), you probably need one–boosters every ten years, folks.

I love nanotechnology. I just spilled espresso on my “nanocare” or whatever they call it semi-plastic (insert brand name here) khaki slacks and wiped it off with my napkin.

Size matters

Americans seem to think everything needs to be bigger to be better. Japanese go off the other deep end.

I already knew this, as do most people who have any curiosity at all about Japan, but still I found cause for astonishment.

I arrived at Narita Airport early Wednesday afternoon and, after some frustration trying to get cash (the fourth ATM I tried finally spat out a meager ¥10,000, about US$ 100) took the Narita Express train into central Tokyo for about $30. At Tokyo Station I bought a bottle of iced tea, and faced with at least a dozen choices and having no clue how any of them differed except in color (gradations of light brown and light green), I picked the one that had a little bonus pouch of something around its neck–osembe (snacks), I assumed. I opened the pouch when I got to the hotel and found the world’s tiniest lunch. Too bad it was out of scale with the world’s tiniest little bottle of soy sauce, which had come with my lunch on the plane.

You’ll often see tiny garbage cans lurking in the rear corner of the stall in Japanese bathrooms–say, four or five inches wide, and often a quarter-cylinder that tucks oh so preciously into that corner. You might not notice the wee trash can, though, for all the distractions provided by many Japanese toilets. Most of the toilets I used had seats heated to the point of being uncomfortably hot. A warm seat on a cold day is an enviable luxury, but a hot seat on a sweaty day seemed a bit much to me. My Japanese colleagues had a different view of the weather, though–where I was wearing short sleeves and sandals without socks and still sweating and wishing I were wearing short pants–they were putting on jackets and worried that I’d be cold. They must have some genetic adaptation for surviving the sweltering heat and humidity of +40˚C summers, whereas my ancestry prepares me for –40˚C winters.

Speaking of genetic adaptations, though, may I digress for a moment to share a comment made by my guide in Beijing last December? He said that in the millenia before water treatment plants, Asians boiled their water for safety and made tea, whereas Westerners came up with beer and so on, and that’s why many Asians can’t metabolize alcohol but can drink pots and pots of tea up to bedtime and still sleep like babies, whereas Westerners get the jitters after a few cups of coffee but can handle considerably more booze. Interesting theory, at least.

Getting back to the Japanese toilets, the obsession of many a world traveler, they also had amazingly complicated apparati (and, thank heaven, bilingual instructions) for “do bidet” and “wash bottom” with adjustable water temperature and pressure, “flushing sound to mask toilet, 25 seconds” with a button for repeating and another pair of buttons to adjust the volume, and on and on. Two hours’ flight separates the world’s extremes in toilets: in China many toilets are squalid porcelain holes in the soiled floor, bring your own toilet paper, and in Japan a toilet has more buttons, switches, and dials than an iPod. The one in my hotel room was a little simpler.

Speaking of electronics, both my hotels (in Tokyo and in Seoul) feature bedside control panels for everything. Necessary it’s not, but it sure is nice. I spend a lot of nights in hotels, seemingly around the world, and let me tell you, wandering around this night’s room in this city’s hotel trying to find all the switches needed to achieve darkness at bedtime can be enough of a challenge that it wakes you back up. Both hotels also offer tea kettles, but the one in Japan wins the prize. It boils water in ten minutes and then keeps it at tea-brewing temperature all day. When you’re making tea in Japanesely-small cups, you’d make yourself nuts putting water on separately for each cup. I suppose here is a case where bigger might be better–making one big pot, or at least a really big mug, is easier–but I think the Japanese emphasis is on having the tea painfully hot, just like the soup and the toilet seat.

After finishing up work on Friday, I had a few hours to kill before meeting colleagues for a settai (the Japanese business dinner, famously elaborate and expensive), so I walked about twenty minutes from the office I was visiting to the Ginza district. Around the corner from the famous Mitsukoshi department store was a store that my colleague Chie correctly predicted would thrill me: Itoya. You probably know the brand name: office supplies. In particular, my own fetish, cunning little pens and mechanical pencils. Mind you, a Japanese stationer in the States is plenty fun, but this was a nine floor department store of pens, pencils, writing paper, engraved stationery, gifts, wrapping papers, fountain pens and related luxury goods, novelty items and desk toys and garish but dear pencil cases, and god knows what else. I used up all my time just browsing the first four floors and managed to spend over ¥10,000 (US$ 100) on a fistful of delightfully fine-pointed pens and pencils, impossibly narrow-ruled notebooks, and assorted gifts.

Most Americans consider a .5 or .7mm pencil or pens to be “extra fine point,” but by Japanese standards, these are cloddishly fat; .4, .3, .25, .20, and even smaller are the sizes that prevail here, unless you’re looking at calligraphy brushes or their brush-tipped pen-style jobbers that I don’t yet fully understand. (I bought one, strictly for research purposes of course.) And then there are all the pens and pencils that are themselves tiny–I mean mechanical pencils the size of a swizzle stick and pens that fold down to the size of a golf tee and unfold, telescope, or otherwise contort themselves into something resembling a normal-ish sized pen. How was I supposed to resist?

Are Korea and Japan similar or different?

The answer, of course, is both. The better question is: why would we ask this question?

Because Koreans do.

One of the most sweetly jarring things I noticed when visiting Korea for the first time in 1992 (while on tour with the Chicago Chamber Orchestra) was a national obsession with not being Japan. The hotel room’s little “Welcome to Korea” picture book, for example, went to great pains to explain the many ways Korea is very different from Japan. I never managed to reconcile this with its also prominently featuring a Japanese restaurant and offering numerous Japanese and Japanese-derived dishes in its other restaurant. But it wasn’t just the hotel–seemingly everywhere I turned was another demure if dogged denial of Japanese influence.

Even a typically ignorant American probably realizes that there are good reasons for this. The main one would be that Korea, like most other countries if you bother to read any history or guide books, has endured its fair share of invasions, occupations, and turf wars over the millenia–and also the usual series of dynastic turnovers and skirmishes–and the most recent occupation, by Japan from 1910-45, still smarts. Comfort women, conscription, and complicity by those Koreans who benefited are the painful side. On the other hand, this period is also credited with vast infrastructure improvements. Caveat lector, jump to your own conclusion, etc.

Anyway, my reaction in 1992 was along the lines of, “Methinks she doth protest too much.” If I hadn’t seen all these stubborn denials of influence or similarity, I wouldn’t have thought to confuse the cultures at all.

Yesterday at lunch, one of my translation team members asked, “Do you think Korea and Japan are the same?”

I answered carefully. I said that perhaps to Westerners, Korea and Japan seem more similar than different because both are so different from Western culture, but that the longer you stay and the more you learn, the more differences you see between them. Superficially all the Asian cultures I’ve seen or read about so far have more in common with each other than with the North American and European cultures I’ve experienced. Mind you, I have yet to visit Japan myself–please wait a day or two–but for business reasons I’ve studied the subect to death and hope that by now I know enough to seem respectful, at least, if bumbling.

Case in point. Many Americans know that Japanese etiquette demands that you fill others’ sake glasses (especially your superiors’) and wait for others to fill yours. So far Korean etiquette is the same, but last night at dinner I learned some distinguishing details. When you pour, you hold the bottle (and it probably contains soju, not sake, although Americans would probably confuse them) with both hands, and when being poured for, you hold the glass up (not leave it on the table as in Japan) with both hands (vs. saying thanks in Japan, or tapping the table with two fingers in China). Similarly you hold the glass with both hands when toasting, “Gombei,” (yes, this sounds a lot like the Japanese and Chinese toasts). Since you might not have room for all these hands, you can instead touch your sleeve with the second hand to represent the same thing. In the presence of a superior, you turn away to drink.

I also learned that you always eat with the soup to the right of the rice, except one day a year to honor the dead you switch the bowls. I have no idea (yet) whether there is a Japanese rule about this sort of thing.

Back to the dreaded question, my team seemed happy enough with this answer, so I turned it back on them. They gave me a surprising answer: they thought Japan and Korea were similar, and they really liked Japan and Japanese culture.

My team is young. I’d guess that the three women and one man ranged in age from 23 to 33, and probably they’re closer to 23 than 33.

I remarked that I knew this was a loaded question and thought perhaps there was a generational difference of opinion.

My reviewer, a distinguished professor who announced at some point that he is 55 years old (now there’s an East-West difference!) was also at lunch. He quickly agreed with me.

Later our conversation wandered to North and South Korea and whether they would ever be one nation again. I remembered the words of my Korean host (who coincidentally shares my reviewer’s name) in 1992, who commented on the pro-unification riots that were on the TV news as we sipped our tea after dinner that “Young people have too freedom! They want North Korea to be same as South Korea. They don’t understand. They have too freedom.” He had fought in the Korean conflict or police action or whatever it was that we were supposed to call that war. He had seen much suffering and as much as fled to the United States to study medicine. He returned to enjoy his wealth and made a great point of eating his favorite, most expensive fish every day, as if to erase the years of suffering. To him the pains of war clearly were still fresh, and he despaired that the youth would naïvely undo an uneasy armistice with their silly rebellions. I couldn’t help thinking at the time that he seemed to view the students’ positions much the same way my elders viewed my college generation’s demanding divestment from South Africa–yes, sure, that’s right, but you really don’t understand how complex it is, and have you taken the garbage out yet?–except that their naïvete was not just silly but also painful for him.

So I wondered aloud at lunch if perhaps younger generations view this topic differently. I said that it seemed to me if Korea could hold itself together for most of two thousand years of history, it would probably be one nation again eventually. (I should note that others had already commented on the division with some sadness; my reviewer’s family, for example, had been from North Korea and as a result his parents and all the rest of his family now live in the U.S.) My reviewer shook his head sadly and said it would take at least a hundred years.

This sounded about right to me but astonished our young colleague. He said, “No! I would have said fifty, at the most!”

The young women just listened.

In other news, I have learned how old I am. I could sit on the floor cross-legged for hours when I was a kid, and I remember my mom and great aunts once chuckling about how it hurt just to look at me sitting that way. Sitting that way for three hours at dinner last night, under a table so low I could scarcely shift without making a big production of it, was excruciating! Dinner was delicious, opulent, amazing, beautiful, and included almost nothing I’d ever had before in all my years of visiting Korean restaurants (including in Korea)–one of my hosts described it as food for royalty that the lower classes were not allowed to eat–and I worried if I’d be able to walk out afterward.

The time it took me to put my shoes back on after dinner let my joints recuperate enough for the ten minute walk back to the hotel. The bill, for three hours and four people dining in luxury? W250,000–about US$260.

Was anyone else an Alastair Cooke fan?

Don’t worry, my pretensions are modest this time–I just stole his title.

It’s Korea day 2 if you count an evening to get to the hotel, have a drink, and crash. I don’t.

An aside about business travel: when I travel in my real life, I’m about as low-budget as they come. I’m happier in a pup tent with a pup curled up next to my sleeping bag for a $10 camping permit than a hotel, especially when I’m spending my own money, even Super 8 costs more than I can see spending for a lousy bed in a noisy room that won’t get dark no matter how hard you try. My dream vacation involves that tent, a canoe, and nothing resembling a telephone or email device. But when you travel for work, at least if you’re I, you completely wear yourself out in marathon workdays, and the hotel where you grab too little sleep between onslaughts can’t possibly be too luxurious, all the moreso because you need to be looking crisp, cleaned, pressed, and otherwise professional, and these things are not natural occurring phenomena right out of the suitcase. Quick services for pressing, shoe-polishing, and so on really count.

Anyway, I’ve decided since I have little choice about how I eat when I travel for work, I can at least be strict about working out each day, in yet another ambitious plan to avoid packing on ten pounds per business trip. This morning I got up at 7 and hit the gym, which is gorgeous. I survived only 13′ on the treadmill, outfitted with a personal LCD TV with headset jack yet!, but to make up for it I did all my arm weights for the first time in centuries, so now I can barely lift my espresso cup. Then I wandered into the lovely aerobic room, complete with hardwood sprung dance floor, for some pathetic push-ups and sit-ups, and finally strolled out past the swimming pool, where there was a little station offering pots of Korean “herbal detoxifying tea, provided with compliments,” which was a hot, sweet, gingery delight. Yum! Now that’s a classy touch! There was also a little refrigerator full of Gatorade and the local equivalents, such as “Pocari Sweat” and “Enerzen” for W2,000-8,000, or about US$2-9.

Tomorrow (or late tonight) I might try the pool and sauna. Everything in the fitness center is free except the sauna–go figure! Fortunately the club rate includes sauna. Luxury can be addictive.

I can’t decide if it’s good or bad that my room rate includes breakfast in the club lounge. On the one hand, it’s nice to use the free wifi and save the $25 or so it would cost to eat in one of the hotel restaurants; on the other, I could get traditional Korean and Japanese breakfast there, and here is your basic European continental (cold meats, cheeses, beautiful lox, pastries, cereal, etc.). It’s a pretty good version of that, but I’m in Asia, for crying out loud!

One consistent theme I’ve found in world travel is that you can never tell about juices. I’ve seen the reddest looking V8-y tomato juice in the world turn out to be (blood) orange, something that looks like generic lousy orange juice turns out to be some kind of carroty concoction, and so on. You just pour what looks most appealing and hope it tastes good if not quite what you expected. This theme is at play again this morning.

One juice that looked like grapefruit tasted more like some kind of melon, and the red stuff that looked like pink grapefruit but was incredibly pulpy and frothy turned out to be tomato–not V8ish or anything like that, but more like fresh tomatoes had been thrown into one of those juice-it-or-else machines approximately two seconds before I poured my glass. Not exactly what I was wanting for breakfast this morning, but an incredible taste all the same. I can’t help wondering what sort of bloody mary could come from this stuff, but the rest of the ingredients aren’t on offer, alas.

It’s 9:30am here, dinner time yesterday at home, and it’s time for me to pack up the pair of laptops, gifts, etc. and head over to the office, which I think is across the street. I’ll be happy to get all the chocolates and teas for the team and two of the three bottles of wine I schlepped over here out of my suitcase and even happier to get it out of my backpack today. (I know, I should use a briefcase, but when you schlepp this much crap on your business trips, a briefcase is a lousy idea. I can only take the whole “dress for success” thing so seriously…)

Letters from Asia

I’m in Korea and Japan for two weeks on business, and I thought my email home might make a reasonable sort of blog post, so here goes:

I’ve arrived safely and found my way through the usual hassles of getting cash, bus to hotel, checked in, and so forth. Now I’m in the club floor lounge enjoying their free happy hour drinks and fussy snacks, and it’s all so comparable to the Hilton Paddington lounge (but a lot fancier) that it feels like you ought to be here, Mom and V. I’m having a negroni in your honor. I don’t see any orange marmalade, so no breakfast martinis for me…

I’m staying at the Grand Intercontinental in the convention center district, which seems to be a fairly recently developed area, and it’s pretty darned posh. The room is modest in size but luxuriously fitted out; I’ll have to take some pictures for you. It’s more similar to the St Regis in Shanghai, except that the prices are closer to American prices–and no iron in the room means that getting two shirts and a suit jacket pressed is going to set me back about W27,000, roughly $28.

It’s a long flight here–12 hours doesn’t seem that long until you spend it in an airplane seat after several hours knocking around an airport. Food wasn’t great, but we had a decent selection of movies–I watched Family Stone, Geisha, and Rumor Has It. I’m pretty tired, but the good thing about flying to Asia is you get here in the evening, and you feel like crap, so you have a bite and a drink and just go to bed, and jetlag isn’t so much an issue. It’s 5:30am body time but 8:30pm local time.

My seatmate was a pleasant older roundeye woman from LA who is marketing manager for a Korean tourism agency, but she was a bit more interesting than you’d expect from that description: daughter of New Jersey dad, Irish war bride mom, lived here in Seoul for last two years of high school when her dad was stationed here, married a Korean man, knows Korean, etc. She gave me some pointers. Turns out next Friday (my last full day here, with both Thu and Fri to be days off) is both Children’s Day and Buddha’s Birthday, so it’ll be a big spectacle with parades and all that. I’ll have to summon the energy to take my camera and be a tourist.

My mobile phone doesn’t work here and won’t work in Japan, either, and so far I’ve decided not to rent a phone, so for now email is the best way to reach me. Internet is free in the lounge, though, so Skype turns out to be the way to check my voicemail, call home, etc. If you sign up for Skype you can call me for nothing, assuming I’m online, and in the meantime I can “call” numbers anywhere in the world for about 1¢/min. The call quality could be better, but $2-4/minute for actual telephony makes me care less about that.