Rambling Incoherent Gibberish
(How I claimed the hole)
Aside from spending three years attaining an honours degree while simultaneously holding down a full-time job, running a business and learning a second language, then moving halfway around the world to Japan, getting citizenship, getting my mugshot on the cover of Newsweek, buying a house, getting married and raising a daughter, my life has been fairly uneventful, and not all that interesting to talk about.
So let’s do that then.
It was the summer of 1999, a hot one, if you happened to be in a hot place at the time, which I was. I had just landed at Tokyo International Airport and was eagerly anticipating my first assignment, an English teaching position at a junior high school in the middle of nowhere. What could possibly go wrong?
It was a junior high school, filled with junior high school students. That’s what.
Compulsory education applies to all children aged 6 to 15, and spans six years of elementary school and three years of junior high school. The kids had no choice but to be in that classroom, and given the choice, most would have been doing something else, and pretty much anything else at that, if we’re honest. Even the full-time teachers were less than enthusiastic about being there. As the saying goes: Those that can, do. Those that can’t, teach. And those that can’t teach, teach English.
It reminded me of the French lessons I was required to attend at my own high school. I had begun the first year enthusiastic, as the idea of speaking a second language was something that appealed to me. My enthusiasm quickly waned however, as it was only a matter of months before each lesson devolved into little more than copying lists of verb conjugations and inflexions off the blackboard into a notebook. I stopped paying attention very soon after, and it’s little surprise I left the class after five years speaking less French than when I started.
Teaching was clearly not for me, but I was committed to the assignment for two years, and this gave me the time and opportunity to get my spoken and written language skills up to scratch. That in turn helped land me a limited once in a lifetime (hopefully) contract job in the international affairs division of a prefectural government office. I could only do this for one year, partly because of the terms of the contract, but mostly because it was just too damned intense! I knew several of my predecessors, and none of them had lasted more than a year. One had even quit after three months. My successor actually did sign up for a second year, but had to quit a month down the line in order to die of a sudden stress induced brain aneurysm.
It was a tough assignment, lots of different responsibilities, fingers were in dozens of different pies, and I was required to do something or other I’d never done before on a near daily basis. In my second week, I had to stay at a local barracks to orientate and advise a 50 player high school orchestra from Britain, then next morning get the bullet train one direction to record a month’s worth of radio broadcasts, jump back on the bullet train in the other direction to greet around 120 new staff arrivals in Tokyo, take them on the bus back to the prefecture the day after that, orientate them, and then run down the stairs to the concert hall to catch the end of the orchestra’s performance.
It was always about the running, and there was always something else I was supposed to be doing at any given time. The year took a serious toll on my health. I caught a simple cold at one point, and the pile on of work was so relentless that I couldn’t take any time off, even at weekends or evenings. The cold worsened and nearly hospitalised me. I lost my voice for about two weeks, and it never fully recovered—probably because I was still required to record radio broadcasts, narration voice overs, interviews, orientations and interpretation, despite having no voice with which to do these things; I had to try anyway—that was my responsibility.
But as hard as the work was, it was also a fantastic opportunity to build a talent stack and flesh out my resume for future employers which, I knew a few months in, I was going to have to start thinking about soon. Of the many things I had been required to do, I’d felt that translation was the thing I could do better than anything else, and what I was most likely to find gainful employment using.
During some welcome downtime in the winter, I did some research and discovered that patent translation was where all the money was. A friend who had served an apprenticeship in the industry and was now working freelance for mega-bucks gave me a lot of advice, and for a couple of months I tried translating Japanese patents found online into English and had him go over them. He would point out all the areas where my use of language was too colloquial or too incorrect, and indulged me with many nuggets of patent related wisdom, such as “You cannot claim a hole”—Patents by and large are the domain of things, and a hole, by definition, is the polar opposite of thing, ipso facto. I felt, somehow, that this was a kind of metaphor for my predicament during those strangest of days. Needless to say, thanks to his help, I came to appreciate that I never wanted to look at another patent ever again so long as I lived. If I was to make a living translating, it would need to be one where language is used as a tool of communicative expression, not an instrument of technological exactitude.
One of the pitfalls that plagues even experienced professional translators is second language interference when they focus on the words rather than what’s being said. A skill I had made effective use of was to interpret via a place I call “the void”, a part of the mind that’s pure emotion, uninhibited by thought or language. In essence, I read something in one language, get a sense of the communicative intent behind it, and then try to express that same intent using different words.
An old favourite I use for illustration is, “Otsukaresama desu” which is commonly heard in a wide variety of contexts. It’s a curious verbiage, which sort of means, “It’s a honourably tired one (as in, person, you)”. I don’t think anybody really understands what the words mean any more, but it’s a go-to expression we all know how to use. After a particular instance, a person might ask how you say this in English. A professional translator would weigh in and suggest, “Thank you for your hard work.” I, on the other hand, would offer up, “Hello.” The hypothetical professional had done a bang-up job making some sense of the gist of the words, but had made a jolly pig’s ear of the message—he’d completely missed what was being communicated. In another context I would even render it as, “Have a nice weekend.” It’s all contextual.
This kind of communicative translation was something I was good at, so it was just now a case of finding a company that was looking for one.
Short story way longer than was really required, I found one. Sort of. The company I ended up working for was not looking for a translator so much as a writer that could translate—it was a subtlety of nuance that put the emphasis on written English skills, the ability to produce consistent publishable quality content suitable for different age groups as required on an assignment basis. This was ideal; it was a hole that I could claim, so to speak. If anything, it was a little too ideal and I was a little too good at it. Assignments that would be expected to take three to four weeks I could complete in three to four days to a consistent level of excellence, and that left me with a lot of time twiddling my thumbs.
It was around this time that I received a message from my oldest functioning friend, Jack. Evidently still traumatised by a conversation we had when we were eleven in which I had challenged him to write better fiction than the “rambling incoherent gibberish” that filled the shelves of libraries, he told me he had been penning a science fiction series and was posting it online. I took a look and had to admit to being impressed by the sheer volume of it. If it were to be adapted into a TV series, it would have to run for six or seven years to cover all the material. Overall, it was a good read—the plots were well conceived, there was a reasonable balance of expectation management and subversion in the form of plot twists, and most importantly it left the reader wanting to know what would happen next.
With that said though, there was still an abundance of room for improvement in the actual writing itself, as I explained at the time quite plainly. As being able to string words together ‘all good’ and with that being kind of my thing, he not unreasonably asked my advice on how he might set about making such improvements. It was there that I came rather unstuck, so to speak, as it soon became apparent I hadn’t got the first clue what I was talking about. That is to say, I knew at a gut level that various things were off kilter or sub-optimal, but I was quite unable to cognise and articulate precisely what they were or why, or what should be done about it. I tried finding examples for comparison in classical literature to show him, and when that invariably failed to connect, I found I had a little better luck with Thomas the Tank Engine. Still, I needed to be able to express my harsh feedback effectively using words, and preferably my own.
And so with this, I began to research in earnest everything I could about the style and structure of storytelling. It wasn’t that I was compelled to pen voluminus tomes of grand sagas that would pother the fragile hearts of men, it was purely so I could better tell Jack what he was doing wrong, and how to fix it.
Of course, it didn’t stay that way for long. Once I dip my toe into anything like that, it’s only a matter of time before I find myself diving in with both feet. It soon became all-consuming as a purpose unto itself. I found myself writing micro-fiction during downtime at work to fill the time and keep my skills honed (all safely locked away on a company server never to be seen by human eyes, for legal reasons). Emails to colleagues in overseas offices would be structured thematically and scripted in flowing prose to maximise communicative potential. During meetings, I would get lost in headspace searching for just the right combination of words to articulate why my being there was a waste of everybody’s time, with a perfectly seasoned tonal punch. It was all I thought about night and day, and as the quality of my work output was vastly improving in the process, my company clearly got a lot of value out of it too.
Often, I would also immerse myself in the literature of numerous well-regarded authors, to really get a grip of what made a good book tick, how the expressive choices resonated with the reader, how the author’s voice sounded in my head. I read JRR Tolkien, Isaac Asimov, Douglas Adams, George RR Martin, David Mitchell to name a few. The one that resonated with me the strongest though was PG Wodehouse. He was somebody that had really mastered the art of phraseology and taught me long ago through his quirky prose that any combination of words could be made to communicate anything one liked, if asserted with sufficient bombastic bluster, and a tone of playful joviality.
Sadly this left me with precious little time to write my own materials that I could try and repeatedly fail to publish under my own name. But as I am literally writing for a living, and have my works not just read by millions, but also translated into up to 13 languages as of last count, I’m perfectly happy to reserve my highly developed penmanship for the more noble goal of insulting people I disagree with on the internet.
And at the end of the day, is that not what life is really all about?
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