A Cramming Case Study

Recently a company I do R&D consulting work for asked me to serve as a translator on a conference call with a potential client in Japan. Although I consider myself a fluent Japanese speaker—I literally have no problem carrying on a conversation if roused at 3:00 a.m. (as actually happens sometimes)—this task was somewhat intimidating for three reasons:

(1) Intepreting from Language A to Language B is a specialized skill, for which knowledge of both Language A and Language B is necessary but not sufficient. The ultimate in interpretation is the simultaneous interpreter, who manages to translate the first part of a sentence while listening for how the second part will turn out. But even at a simpler, taking-turns level, interpretation is trickier than you might think if you haven't tried it.

(2) The subject matter under discussion—digital imaging technology—is something that I don't usually discuss in Japanese, so there would be a lot of unfamiliar vocabulary.

(3) (This is a particular issue with Japanese:) the stylistic register of the conversation, being a business meeting, was different from what I am most used to, which are informal, friendly conversations.

I had about three days to prepare. In that time, there was little I could do to address points (1) and (3), but I could hope to do something about point (2)—vocabulary. I did my best to bone up using available tools (all of which happen to be available for free).

I was lucky enough to receive a 30-minute video showing a conversation similar to that I would be required to interpret. I listened to the video and jotted down (in Notepad) words and phrases it seemed would be useful to know off the top of my head. I ended up with a list of roughly 200 terms. I then processed my notes as follows:

1: I copied the list of terms into a single column of an Excel spreadsheet. I could have typed them into Excel to begin with, but this took only a few seconds.

2: I uploaded the Excel document into Google Docs and converted it to a Google spreadsheet.

3: Using the GoogleTranslate() function, I created a second column containing the machine translations of the terms in the first column.

4: Mrs. Gorodish—a native Japanese speaker with however no expertise in digital imaging—did a sanity check of the translations. Most of them did not seem to need fixing. I went back over the list and together we decided on translations for the most easily misunderstood terms (think, for example, how many possible meanings the word "form" has).

5: I downloaded the spreadsheet back into Excel format and cut-and-pasted the contents into a tab-separated text file.

6: Finally, I imported the text file into my Anki deck of Japanese vocabulary.

The foregoing prep time took perhaps an hour, with the bulk of time spent on step 4. It then became a matter of studying the terms over the next three days, taking perhaps an hour a day. Many of the terms were actually easy-to-remember adaptations of English words, but I intentionally "failed" them in Anki in order to make sure they would be presented the next day.

The meeting itself came off well, and all parties declared their satisfaction with the translation. Of course, how would they know? ...since I was the only bilingual present I could have committed the most outrageous translation errors and no one would ever know (including myself).

Prince Edward Island - Quebec City

 (Click on any photo for a larger version)

How I spent my summer vacation: three days driving from Maryland to Prince Edward Island, a day driving from Prince Edward Island to Quebec City, and then two days driving back to Maryland.

In recent years Prince Edward Island has gone from being an isolated backwater in a remote corner of Canada to a backwater with a substantial tourist trade. I think this change is due to two main factors. One is the opening of the Confederation bridge connecting the island to the mainland. 

The other is the series of early 20th-century Anne of Green Gables books, which take the island as a setting and feature the plucky but somewhat mishap-prone Anne as heroine. Unaccountably I missed out on reading these books as an child but even as an adult I found them entertaining--provided one can recalibrate one's sense of humor to something considerably more subtle than the body-function jokes prevalent today.

I found Prince Edward island to be charmingly relaxed. I encountered the bizarre phenomenon of people actually driving below the speed limit. The primary city of Charlottetown played a historic role in the confederation of Canada as an independent nation. Between this, and the existence of the big bridge, and the general atmosphere, Charlottetown seemed like a weird mirror image of Annapolis. I like to imagine that while we were driving northward for three days a Charlottetown couple was likewise driving south to Annapolis, so they could exclaim over how quaint and atmospheric everything was. 

This is the Green Gables house, where the fictional Anne grew up. This is possible because the author Lucy Maud Montgomery was apparently inspired by a real house. Somehow none of the books mentioned that Anne grew up a stone's throw from a golf course. Not to mention the nearby Anne of Green Gables Bungee Jumping Experience and the Anne of Green Gables Casino and Floorshow. Okay, I made those up, but there really is an Anne of Green Gables Museum of Oddities and an Anne of Green Gables Tattoo Parlor.

This picture and the next, from the interior of the house, prove that Op-Art was not invented in the 60's.

In the unlikely event that you find yourself in the neighborhood of New London (a very small town—on Prince Edward Island, two buildings next to each other apparently constitute a "town") around lunchtime, I highly recommend you try out the Kitchen Witch restaurant in this old farmhouse here. For all that I describe Prince Edward Island as a "backwater", I found it to be in an advanced state of civilization for people (like me) on gluten-free diets, or vegetarian, or whatever. The Kitchen Witch maintains a separate kitchen for baking gluten-free bread, cake, etc. (baked goods being the rarest of gluten-free items). The proprietress—a proud immigrant from Texas—embodies every cliché about country warmth and hospitality.

SPOILER ALERT: The Kitchen Witch is the kind of place chock-full of bric-a-brac, old license plates, and puzzles improvised from household items. One of these last was a challenge to balance six nails on the head of a seventh. I managed to do so using the configuration shown here. The proprietress said I was the first customer ever to figure it out. Suck it, Canadians!

This is what downtown Charlottetown looks like. Amazing what you can do with a few trees, umbrellas and tables on the sidewalk.

And now on to old-town Quebec, which I'm pretty sure is the most picturesque spot on the North American continent. Several shots here are included on the basis of general picturesquositude.

I wanted to buy all our friends gifts at this boutique, but Mrs. Gorodish unaccountably vetoed that idea.

A shot from the lower town, with the hotel Château Frontenac in the background.

The Rue Sous-le-Cap may be the narrowest street I've seen anywhere—certainly within North America. If you plan on strolling here, make sure not to bring any obese friends along.

Quebec again. If memory serves, the building with the red roof is the oldest in town still standing (1677).