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?