Thomas Coffey

Japanese and Chinese Translator

May 20, 2006


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RCA: On the Skype phone today with Mr. Thomas Coffey, an experienced technical translator. Tom is one of the very few people I know who translates complex technical material into English from both Japanese and Chinese. Welcome to the Japan Considered Project, Tom. Thanks for your time today.

TC: Glad to join you, Bob.

RCA: As I mentioned in the e-mail invitation, these interviews are quite informal. No interest in competing with 60 Minutes. Rather, the objective is to give Japan Considered viewers and listeners a more personal look at the people responsible for interpreting Japan, culturally, academically, and linguistically, to the English speaking world.

TC: That’s fine, Bob. Ask away. [Back to Topics]

Introduction to Japan and Japanese Language

RCA: To begin, as usual, how did you first become involved with Japan.

TC: Well, Bob, before I even started Japanese I had done Chinese for about ten years. I was fortunate during the middle part of the 1970s to get a fellowship to go to Yale for a couple of years to do their Asian Studies program. When I got to New Haven, I was, predictably, full of myself. I’d had some success with Chinese. I was already working, as it turned out, as an independent contract translator. So I had a rather good opinion of myself.

But when I got to New Haven, the first question I was asked was, “How much Japanese do you know?” That took me back a bit. I confessed that I really hadn’t studied it at all. They explained that serious students of Chinese at the graduate level have to know Japanese.

I approached it, I’m afraid, with a bit of arrogance. Again, because of the success I’d had with Chinese. But over the course of about a year, or 18 months, my initial hubris changed to humility, as I became aware of some of the difficulties posed by Japanese. So, I guess I did about three years of academic study of Japanese there. But I still was not at a level where I could read a newspaper with any competence.

RCA: Did you study anything other than language while you were at Yale?

TC: We had to do a certain amount. It was a very flexible program. I did modern Chinese literature. A course taught all in Chinese by native Chinese speakers, and so on. That was fun. I did classical Chinese with Parker Huang, who unfortunately now is deceased. But basically, it was a very flexible program. You could pretty much study whatever you wanted to study, as long as your adviser signed off. I’d probably still be there if I hadn’t run out of time.

RCA: The academic world is a lot more attractive for a student than for a faculty member, I guess.

TC: You would know more about that than I would. [Back to Topics]

Differences Between Japanese and Chinese Languages

RCA: Can you talk a little about how Japanese language is different from Chinese language? And also, do you have any thoughts on the larger significance of the differences?

TC: I have very strong opinions on that, Bob. To me Japanese was much more difficult, as a person coming from a background as a native speaker of English. Of course, they are totally different language families. And although they do have the kanji in common, I think many people coming from a Chinese background assume the knowledge of kanji is going to be much more helpful than it proves to be. Not only are there different meanings for the same kanji – For example, the Japanese term for letter, tegami, is pronounced shouzhi in Chinese, and it means toilet paper. So, there are some significant differences along those lines.

And in terms of learning the two languages, I think traditionally the Japanese have been somewhat less accepting of someone trying to acquire their language than the Chinese have been. It’s always been my experience that at whatever level of Chinese I had at any time, a Chinese speaker would accommodate that. I found a much greater reluctance of Japanese to deal with whatever Japanese I was capable of handling, again, at whatever time in my training. So, I think there are significant differences in that respect. [Back to Topics]

Linguistic “Fluency” vs “Competence”

RCA: You are one of the very few native speakers of English I know who is genuinely competent in both languages. How do you think that has affected the way you work?

TC: First of all, I’m very, very happy that you used the word “competent,” and not “fluent.” That word’s often thrown about. People say, “Oh, you must be fluent,” and I point out very carefully, “No, here’s where my levels of competence are. Here’s what I can do. Here’s what I cannot do.”

For me, it really has worked out very well. At this point in my career, if I can use that term, I have a very nice niche, as someone who can deal with materials on China written in Japanese, and materials on Japan written in Chinese. And, of course, given the increasing focus on the geopolitical situation in Asia – the ongoing tension between China and Japan – a lot of material is coming out in both languages that deals with the relationship. You almost have to have a very good skill set in both languages to do an adequate job at translating. So for me it’s a very nice niche. But, I must say, there were some serious dues paid along the way.

RCA: You’re very humble in describing your “competence,” as we put it. But, in fact, I know from third parties that you are extremely competent in both languages.

TC: As I say, I’ve been very fortunate since the work that I do does play into the skills that I’ve acquired. And, translation is one of the wonderful professions where unless you become completely demented, you actually get better with practice and experience. I can translate things now with relative ease that would have been extremely daunting, say, ten years ago.

RCA: How do you think the Chinese and Japanese languages themselves have affected the societies of China and Japan?

TC: Again, this is the view of someone who really has no academic credits or credentials in the area. But, not surprisingly, I feel very strongly that language and culture are intertwined. They’re so inseparable that to understand the Chinese or Japanese culture absent a knowledge of the language means you will stay at a very superficial level because the languages give so much insight into the sensibilities and thinking of the people. And, I would also argue, again without the academic credentials to back this up, the languages influence thought processes. And, in turn, thought processes influence the language. So, it’s an interactive kind of thing. Again, that’s why I think knowledge of the language of the country is critical. [Back to Topics]

Teaching the Challenging Languages in the United States

RCA: Do you think we’re doing a good enough job of training people in Japanese language now? Those we rely upon to interpret Japan to us?

TC: I don’t have a lot of experience in that. I’m not much involved with academia. I do notice, though, younger translators coming on line. And judging from them, there seem to be a lot of good programs out there. It’s unfortunate in some respects, though, if you compare language teaching and learning process in this country with that in other countries. We almost seem to have it backward. We wait until kids are in their late teens or early twenties to start them on really tough languages. Whereas, again, judging from what linguists tell me, you can most readily assimilate the grammar of a language when you’re eleven or twelve years old. Even at an earlier age.

I’d like to see more attention focused on language study at an earlier date. I don’t know how practical that is, given our educational system and other priorities. But it think if we were to start more intensive language study at an earlier date, there would be a lot of benefit down the line.

RCA: High school and middle school?

TC: Even middle school, Bob. I’m not a big fan of bilingual education because I think in many cases it leads to bi-illiteracy. Having said that, though, I do believe that if we were to introduce children to the challenging languages that are important geopolitically – the Middle Eastern and Asian languages – at an earlier point in their studies, it would make the whole process much easier. [Back to Topics]

Spoken versus Written Japanese and Chinese

RCA: How about the difference between reading and speaking one of the Asian languages? Any thoughts on that?

TC: It’s strange that I first learned to speak Chinese because I was at the Defense Language Institute where it was spoken Chinese for six hours a day for eight months. Then it was just a natural movement when I went on to school at Indiana University and Yale to get more into the reading. I think it was more natural, in a way. You acquire English by learning to speak it before you learn to read it.

With Japanese, on the other hand, we were working on both the reading and spoken simultaneously. At the time, I have the feeling, because I wanted to acquire Japanese simply as a window on China, that I tended to denigrate the importance of spoken Japanese. It was only after having the opportunity to attend the Foreign Service Institute in Yokohama, and to actually work as a translator in Tokyo, that I became aware that the knowledge of the spoken language is sometimes very, very important to understand nuances that you’re seeing in the written language.

RCA: So, both are important, then.

TC: Well, I seem to have found it less important in the case of Chinese. But maybe that’s because I worked on the spoken first. So it makes it an apples and oranges comparison. But I think the best translators will have a considerable facility in the spoken language as well. On the other hand, I don’t purport to be an interpreter. I’ve done that. I’ve been forced into interpreting situations on a couple of occasions. And I don’t think my natural skills are tailored to that environment.

RCA: You prefer working with written text?

TC: Absolutely. Even working under a deadline. You still have time to consider things. Also, you have the larger context to compare. And, unlike interpreting, you can go back and say, “Oops, I made a mistake there,” and correct it before you send off the translation. Whether one prefers to be an interpreter or translator depends a lot on the personality of the individual. Obviously, an interpreter will be better at inter-personal interaction. Whereas, being a translator can sometimes be like Johnson’s definition of a lexicographer: “a harmless drudge.” [Back to Topics]

How Translators Work

RCA: Can you describe your typical working day? How many hours in a sitting you can work, and how do you do it?

TC: Well, it’s really a pretty simple process. I do have a routine that’s important. I think anybody getting into the business needs to consider this. You’re working at home. So it would be very easy to find other things to do. You need to have, I think, a structured environment and a process.

For me, that means getting up and doing maybe three to four hours of translation in the early morning, when my mind tends to be about as clear as it’s ever going to get. Then, I like to go out and run around the hills here in Wytheville, Virginia, to get the oxygen running through the system. Then I’ll generally come back during the afternoon and do a little more translating. Maybe a couple of hours, and/or edit the stuff I did earlier in the morning.

In answer to a question you didn’t ask, I’ve found that it’s sometimes important, if possible, to let a translation sit for a day before turning it in. Because many times things will go on subconsciously, and you’ll think of something you could do better, rather than just finishing the translation, glancing over it, and turning it in.

RCA: I’m that way in English!

TC: The other advantage I have here in this work environment is that my wife, who works part-time, still kindly puts aside time to read over translations with me. That means, she reads the English while I follow along in the Chinese or Japanese. That gives us a very good second go-through of the translation. Not only from the standpoint of picking up careless errors. But also because she’s a native speaker of English, she’ll occasionally say, “Did you really mean to say this, Tom?” Then, I’ll look at it and respond, “No, that doesn’t make sense. I wasn’t thinking at that level when I wrote it.” [Back to Topics]

Too often, for whatever reason, I think some translators don’t give enough time, thought, or effort to the editing part of it. They think once the translation is done they’ll get it off and get paid for it. But it’s been my experience that almost invariably I’ll find careless errors, or sometimes very serious omissions, in a translation that way.

Introduction of Technology to Translation

2230 RCA: What about change over the years. You’ve been doing this for a long time now. You’ve been working at translation through what we might call the electronic resource revolution.

TC: Yes, indeed. Sometimes when I’m talking to younger translators I try to explain what it was like way back. I first started serious language study at Monterrey in 1967. So, yes. It’s been a few years.

There’s an expression in military affairs that’s come into vogue during the past few years. It’s the “Revolution in Military Affairs,” or RMA. I’ve been thinking that there’s a parallel revolution going on in the world of translation. We might call it the “Revolution in Translation Affairs,” or RTA. It represents the confluence of a variety of technologies and capabilities that have evolved over the past several decades. It really is not too much to say it has revolutionized the way translation is done. [Back to Topics]

E-Mail and Newsgroup Collaboration Among Translators

I look at what I was doing 25 or 30 years ago, and I realize I was working pretty much in a vacuum. Unless I happened to be working in an office where there were other translators, it was pretty much a Lone Ranger kind of operation.

Now, of course, we’ve got on-line collaborative translation support groups like Honyaku for Japanese, or Fanyi for Chinese. Same characters, just different pronunciation. Those are a couple of internet newsgroups for Japanese and Chinese translators. I’m also in touch with a lot of other translators. So when I have a problem I can send an e-mail off an ask “What do you do with this?” and get a reply. So, that’s one part of the revolution: collaboration over the internet.

The other aspects are things that, again, compared to what we had decades ago, are mind-boggling. Not just the internet. But the Unicode environment on the internet, where’s it’s now possible for me to send out an e-mail with Japanese, Chinese, and Korean, and whatever else I can handle, in the same e-mail message. So this again has greatly facilitated the exchange from one translator to another, asking questions and giving answers, and so on. [Back to Topics]

Development of Digitized Translation Resources

Also, a tremendous amount of digitized resources are replacing traditional dictionaries. Even the Kenkyusha, the so-called “Green Goddess,” the big green dictionary that’s been the vade mecum of Japanese translators for decades, now is available on line. It requires a modest fee. But I find it incredibly valuable. And when I’m doing a Japanese translation, I have it running just in the background. It saves a lot of time just to poke in the term or expression and see the translation.

The other thing about the on-line version of the Kenkyusha, as opposed to the hard-copy version, is that it’s what they call an “evolving dictionary.” They’re adding terms in Japanese and English to it every day. So you’re getting the most up-to-date terminology lexicon available.

You’ve also got things like Eijiro, another Japanese to English dictionary, that you can get on-line for free. Or, on a disk. I use both of them. This is not to mention other cute little tools like “KanjiQuick,” which I learned about a few years ago. If you come across a kanji compound you don’t know, you just plug in the characters and it tells you the pronunciation.

Which, again, enormously speeds up the process. Traditionally you dig through the dictionary just to get the pronunciation. Then you go to another dictionary for the meaning. This process has been speeded up enormously because of the availability of digitized resources.

RCA: What about the Nelson’s Kanji Dictionary? Is that available on-line?

TC: Not to my knowledge, Bob. And the other one that came out some years ago. The Spahn/Hadamitzky. Comparable to Nelsons. I’m not sure whether or not it’s available on line, or on CD. But the Japanese really have gotten ahead of the Chinese on this. There aren’t as many resources available for Chinese translators as there are for Japanese translators, at this point. Although that’s changing.

Getting back to your question about how this has evolved, maybe ten years ago, the ratio of hard-copy to digitized resources that I used was probably 80 to 10. I think that ratio in my day-to-day activities has been reversed in recent years. I can go sometimes half the morning and hardly open a hard-copy dictionary. So it really is a revolution. [Back to Topics]

Progress of and Prospects for Machine Translation

RCA: What about machine translation? Specifically in Japanese. Years ago we heard that would put all of the translators out of business.

2581 TC: I still read, from time to time on the translation groups, especially from newer members, statements about the sky falling. Machine translation is going to put us out of business. I worked with some machine translation systems in Japan in the 1980s. We had a fair amount of success demonstrating that if you had a massive amount of digitized material, you could generate enough meaningful data, so that someone who didn’t know Japanese could, at least, find articles that might be of some interest.

Maybe the technology has advanced in the intervening years. But there’s no small irony here. If you run a gigabyte of data through a machine translation system, and give that to someone who doesn’t know Japanese, and ask, “Can you find things of interest here?” The person will respond, “Yes. This, this, this, and this.” They have, in effect, created more work then for a real human translator who’s going to put it into much better English than the machine translation system will. So, you can see where I’m going with this. Sometimes machine translation actually can generate more work for human translators. That’s one aspect.

The other aspect is that when people become afraid or intimidated by the possibility of machine translation, I tell them I’m not going to worry about machine translation until it can mimic the very human aspects of translation. For example, when I’m going through a translation. I may be three paragraphs into it when I realize that my first sub-title or first sentence was completely off base because of what I learned in the intervening text. Then I can go back, of course, and correct it. You’d need some very sophisticated artificial intelligence applications there to have the system realize, as we humans do all the time, that it’s made a mistake and go back and correct it.

So, I think the real impact of computers still is going to be in machine-assisted translations, and the other kinds of things we’ve been talking about. That is, the massive databases of terminology. I’ve got so many bookmarks on my computer here: Japan oceanographic terminology; Japan aerospace terminology, and so on. It just goes on and on. So, it’s the machine-assisted translation, the digitized resources, for the time being, that are going to continue to have a greater impact than straight machine translation per se.

RCA: Is this a hardware problem, a software problem, or a complexity of culture problem?

TC: I don’t think it’s a hardware problem any more, with the computational speeds of supercomputers. I’ve forgotten the fellow’s name. But one of the foremost Japanese researchers in machine translation, some years ago said they had squeezed all they could out of existing translation algorithms, and weren’t sure they were making a lot of progress.

Again, I’m not a specialist in this area, but I have a feeling that the capability of our hardware these days may overcome the inadequacies of the software. What I mean by that, Bob, is that we can start talking about not just gigabytes, but terabytes, and even petabytes of data. Going up by orders of magnitude. Let’s say, for example that you put a terabyte of Japanese text into a computer. And let’s say you have the official translation of all that in English as well. Then, if you come across a sentence that has not been translated before in that terabyte of data, it’s likely there will be something analogous to that in the data. You can then just tell the computer, “Use that model and plug in the different words.” So, again, this is more of a brute force approach to machine translation than trying to figure out all the rules that possibly can apply to any and every sentence. We just find analogs in enormous databases. Again, I’m not a specialist. But that’s where I think there’s some potential. [Back to Topics]

Machine-Assisted Translation Rather than Machine Translation

RCA: Perhaps I’m misreading you. But you don’t sound terribly optimistic about at least the near-term future of machine translation.

TC: Well, you can go into various sites on the web and plug in sentences. Sometimes I’m surprised by the results. Put in a Japanese sentence and it will generate an English sentence. And sometimes, especially if they’re shorter sentences, you can get a very workable translation. So there are areas in which it can be helpful. But if you’re trying to replace the human element, that’s another matter. It’s not uncommon, for example, to see Japanese text where the writer will ramble on for half a page in one sentence. To deal with that adequately you have to make some serious decisions about whether you’re going to try to mimic that writing style in English, or break it down into smaller bites, if you will.

So, maybe I haven’t seen what has happened recently in machine translation. But, no, I don’t feel threatened by it at this point. You have to remember, though, my niche is working on Japanese material dealing with China. So your machine translation will have to make that jump too.

Personally, I don’t feel threatened. But someone coming into the profession today probably would be well advised to stay abreast of technical developments. Because things do happen so fast. There is, for example, translation-assisting software, like Trados, which I do not use, and I’ve heard mixed evaluations of. So things are coming along constantly. Obviously, there is a tremendous monetary incentive. If you come up with a translation system that will turn out very highly sophisticated and technical translations, there’s a lot of money to be made. [Back to Topics]

Training A New Generation of Japan Specialists

RCA: As you can imagine, I think a lot about these problems, and how we can train new Tom Coffeys, if we ever find one. What sorts of training they should have.

The young people we see coming in to Japan studies today nearly all have good spoken Japanese, and fairly good written language. Whether they’ve spent enough time using their language skills to learn about Japan is another matter, of course.

TC: It is interesting that you see younger students coming in with significant language skills. But the skill set is not all. You have to have, as you intimate, some deeper understanding of the cultural and social backgrounds of the country.

One of my observations over the years is that a lot of people get into the Asian languages because of the mystique involved. And in some cases …. [Back to Topics]

Good Translators Must Start With Good Native English

If you want to become a translator, something that cannot be overlooked are your skills in your native language. That’s something that often is overlooked. Some people have fairly good understanding of the language from which they’re translating, but their English language skills – I’m not speaking only of native speakers of Japanese or Chinese, but sometimes native speakers of English! – aren’t as highly developed as you might like. To bridge the gap requires sophisticated understanding of both the languages involved.

I think there was a time in Japan where it was much more difficult to study Japanese because of the assumptions in Japanese society that it was impossible for foreigners to learn Japanese. I think there are enough foreigners there now who speak, read, and write Japanese that that myth has been dispelled.

RCA: Yes, there are a lot of non-Japanese speakers of Japanese now – even Western speakers – who have very good Japanese language, especially spoken Japanese. Many of them from working and living there for a long while.

Any final thoughts before we let you get back to work this morning? [Back to Topics]

The Technology Revolution and Learning Japanese or Chinese

4152 TC: Well, Bob, I think we’ve covered the high spots. You can’t over-emphasize the technical aspects of this RTA, or Revolution in Translation Affairs. And I was glad to be able to address that a bit. I’m not as conversant on what is happening now in academia, and on the language learning front. But, as I say, the availability of technical resources not only makes the translation process easier, but even the language acquisition process easier. There are a lot of tools out there now that will speed up the process if you’re serious about acquiring an Asian language. One example: access to live materials on the internet.

RCA: Such as NHK video news.

TC: So, I don’t think we can over-emphasize the impact of technology on the learning process as well as on translation.

RCA: My idea of technological advancement years ago was to put my Nelson’s character dictionary on a bookstand, and then use both hands to search for words.

TC: Yes. And Nelson’s increasingly is being supplanted by things such as KanjiQuick, where you have it on the computer disk. It’s another aspect of the online Kenkyusha phenomenon, Bob. For example, sometimes I have a term that I don’t know in Japanese, or that I’m hesitant about, or am not sure of the pronunciation. Rather than go through all of the radical, stroke, character hoops that we traditionally had to go through, I just plug the individual characters, using whatever reading comes to mind, into the Kenkyusha search engine, and it takes me right to the entry, tells me the pronunciation and the meaning. They’ve conflated those processes. One-stop shopping, if you will.

RCA: I can’t believe that the Kenkyusha is on line. I’m looking at my hard copy right now. The Green Goddess, as you called it.

TC: Not only is it available electronically. It’s also updated constantly, and is one of the great resources. It’s a few dollars a month for 24-hour access. I’ve heard some people gripe about the cost. But I’m guessing that they’re not serious translators if they do. Or maybe they’re so good they don’t have to use a dictionary ….

RCA: By the way, do you know of anyone else who, at your level, does both Chinese and Japanese?

TC: Of, of course, Bob. We like to think of ourselves as indispensable. But remember what de Gaulle said about indispensable people? “The graveyards are full of them.”

Well, there aren’t many. If we take the number of people who can competently do Chinese to English, and then sort for those who can do Japanese into English, the number declines sharply. But there are such people. I know one man who’s been in Taipei for several years. He lived in Japan for a number of years before that, I know his Chinese and Japanese skills are excellent. I have seen him on the Japanese Honyaku list. So, there are people out there.

In fact, one person from one of the former Soviet republics, does Chinese, Japanese, and one or two other languages, and does them quite competently. So, I’m not unique, but it’s still a solid niche.

RCA: Indispensability aside, there aren’t many people who can do both languages.

TC: Well, yes, if only because of the number of years involved. In my case, I was half-way through a government career when I changed gears from being mainly a Chinese linguist to getting cross-trained, based on what I had in graduate school, to become a Japanese linguist as well. I had to accept the fact that it would put me behind the curve on promotion cycles, and the like. But I felt that being qualified in both languages would be worth it in the longer term. And I think that has been borne out by developments.

Most people aren’t aware of the years of commitment that it takes to reach the point at which you can claim competence.

RCA: Thanks again for your time and your thoughts on this important aspect of the Japan studies enterprise. I hope we can call on you again for comments on developments in translation, and on Japan’s relationship with Mainland China.

TC: Any time, Bob. Glad to do it. [Back to Topics]