Not much to report; I’m currently in “waiting for results/on pins and needles wanting to plan my future” mode. Also, “hoping money would magically rain down from the sky” mode. Doing a couple Japanese textbook lessons every weekend, some Read The Kanji every day, and translating a lot in my free time (neverending pile of things to translate). I’m happy though that translation has gotten so much easier and faster since I increased my level. It’s amazing! But I’m also having to work hard to get my fitness levels back to where they used to be before I took my studying break. It’s like I traded increased Japanese ability for decreased muscle/strength/endurance. But, super worth it and I’d do it all over again.

(One small note about gym stuff… remember how I said I probably wouldn’t still be doing Pilates if not for my amazing instructor? Yeah, well… she quit! The gym changed up the times for the classes I had with her, and took away a few others I wasn’t attending, which really pissed her off and made her feel unappreciated (she protested, as did many of her regular students myself included, but it didn’t help)… plus attendance dropped since all the changes made things more inconvenient… and I guess it wasn’t worth it for her gas/time-wise with less classes to teach a day… so she quit this location! Nooooooo. I totally understand her decision but I still hate it and I’m mad at the gym’s stupid management. I hope they’re sorry now. I got to have one last class with her, which I didn’t realize would be her final class here, and then the next time I went there was a sub, and there’s no permanent replacement yet. I’d like to say I’m still going to go, but… probably not. However, I’m trying to change up my weekly workout routine to compensate for it, and still get in some ab work on my own every week anyway. And at least I’m going to yoga 2-3 times a week. But–sigh. I’m going to miss her!)

First, a little follow-up to my entry talking about how hard it is to make and keep real Japanese friends in Japan, instead of just sticking close to the other foreigners/ex-pats there. Right after I wrote that I came across an article Debito Arudou wrote on the subject, and the follow-up piece with readers’ responses. Not a real fan of Debito Arudou (especially the fact that he makes a point to call himself by his naturalized Japanese name instead of his birth name; I just think that’s stupid even if it is his legal name now) and in general he’s a fault-finding whiner but in this case he’s more or less got it right. It’s an interesting read in any case.

Thinking about how irritating it is that in Japan you’re often considered more of a “foreigner” representative archetype than an actual human person, I’ve noticed there are some parallels when it comes to, of all things, feminism/sexism. One of the points there is to get men to view women as whole and complete people, humans, not “women.” Don’t ask “how do I talk to girls”–just talk to them like you would any other human being. They are people, not a monolith representing “women.” It’s the same with how many Japanese view foreigners–you’ll always get asked where you’re from (what’s your nationality), it will be assumed that you speak English (and you will either be avoided in order to dodge the possibility of having to speak English, or you will be accosted for free English conversation lessons), and many conversations will revolve around your country and the differences between it and Japan (with many subtle reminders of how Japan is unique and better–four seasons, anyone?!). For once I would love to see a Japanese person just ask a foreigner, “How’s your day going? What have you been into lately?” instead of, “Today is so cold/hot, I bet it never gets this cold/hot where you’re from!” and making almost every conversation about your differences instead of your similarities as humans.

Anyway! I had shabu-shabu recently with some friends and friends-of-friends; the dinner conversation should have been entirely in Japanese considering the four Japanese people there and three of us able to converse in Japanese, but everyone wasn’t spread out well so it wasn’t as immersive as I would have liked. The shabu-shabu was delicious though, of course, and I got to try out a new restaurant which is good but a little too far for me to want to go again. I also noticed something that bothers me: the advanced Japanese learner who nonetheless has a terrible speaking accent. Terrible. Just horrid. He can express himself quite fluidly, call on the vocabulary he needs easily, but his pronunciation is unbelievably awful. It hurts to hear. I seriously don’t understand how anyone can get to that level and never think to put serious time and effort into fixing your accent. Maybe I’m just biased because it comes easily to me, I mean I do know how hard it is to improve an accent (hello, French), but at least try. It gives the rest of us a bad reputation.

A friend also turned me on to this article and, by extension, Michael Erard’s book Babel No More where he studied hyperpolyglots, people who have studied 10-50 languages. (She sent it to me with the note “This is you! He should have interviewed you!” but I fall pretty short of those criteria!). I really have to disagree with that approach. If you haven’t mastered a language, to me, it’s not really worth it. Don’t say “I know [x]” if you couldn’t actually hold a real conversation with a native speaker. Because I feel like these people really aren’t mastering the majority of these languages; there’s just entries on a résumé. So to me that sort of thing really isn’t as impressive as it seems to people who don’t study languages, who only have high school French under their belt. As I said here, it’s really not that great to be a jack of all trades if you’re not a master of at least one. I’d rather focus on complete fluency in one of the most difficult languages to learn as a native English speaker, thank you. That’s what should be truly worthy of admiration.

What I really want to discuss though is the recent changes at my job. There’s been a lot of upheaval and weirdly I’ve emerged from it as the most senior person in my department in terms of longevity with the company–but I’m not the boss! That’s okay though, I don’t want to be. When I quit my other job to come back to this one, I was excited to work with my boss/managing editor, who had been such a great mentor for me since 2009 and also just a wonderful, warm, and sweet person. She was also eight months pregnant when I returned. We only worked together in the office for a few weeks before she had her baby and went on maternity leave. She swore to us she’d be back in December… then it became January… then on the day she was supposed to start back, we got an email instead letting us know that she had decided to make her maternity leave permanent (though still do freelance work for the company, mostly PR stuff) and as her replacement we were going to bring back my former co-editor, who had quit to go work somewhere else about a month before I did! Who was also someone I had grown close to as we’re pretty similar and we had gotten together a couple times since she quit. So it was very much a situation where the good news canceled out the bad news, even though we were all sad about the bad news. (It also turned out this had all been planned since Christmas!!)

I wasn’t upset at all at that my boss didn’t approach me about replacing her. When I was re-hired, I found out that she had also been in touch with this same girl, who had turned them down (even though she was unhappy at her new job just like I was), so they re-hired me instead. I’m fine with that. She’s an excellent editor and writer and she has a master’s degree in journalism, so it makes perfect sense that she’s the person they would pursue first. She is further along in her career than I am and it doesn’t hurt my feelings at all. It was the same here; she’s the much better choice for the job. It was also sort of a direct hire situation where my old boss went straight to her (“If I quit, would you consider replacing me?”) and they worked it out amongst themselves; no one else was considered for the position. And also, I don’t want that job, I don’t want to be the boss. I’m only 26! I’m very happy right where I am.

So that happened, she started in January, and things have been great with her in charge. Then, in February, another co-editor made an announcement: she and her husband were very likely about to adopt! This was someone who had been hired to start the same day as me, and had worked part-time (three days a week) ever since. When I came back we became office roommates and as the person with the most longevity in editorial she acted as interim managing editor during my boss’s maternity leave. It turns out that after years of trying for a baby, they had decided to go the adoption route at least to start. So very soon everything worked out and a pregnant girl chose them and they adopted her baby; she went into labor at the end of February and just recently we found out that my coworker’s maternity leave is also going to be permanent. We had hired a replacement just in case anyway, so that’s another full personnel replacement. Fortunately, I really like the new editor we hired and I think she’ll be a great addition to the staff.

And as if all that weren’t enough, we had another change: someone got fired. Well, it needed to happen. This was someone who was hired a couple months before I came back, to replace both me and the other girl who left (who’s now managing editor!). At my boss’s baby shower in September, I asked her how the new girl was doing. Her answer: “She’s good… she’s okay…” in an optimistic but not enthusiastic tone. After she went on maternity leave, it fell to me and the other editor (the one who adopted and left) to read and review her editorials after she wrote them. I quickly noticed several glaring red flags. It wasn’t that she was a bad writer… but there were a lot of details she wasn’t getting right. Consistently. I’d point them out one time, they’d pop back up the next. And sometimes the way she put the editorial together just didn’t make logical sense and I’d be moving around chunks of text to rework it. She would also frequently send me the wrong file, the wrong attachment, or no attachment. There were lots of mistakes to revise, constantly. It took time! I tried to remember my recent experience and give her positive feedback too. But it was hard when she needed so much work, and when she couldn’t remember to implement the changes we were asking her to absorb. (She also missed a lot of work for what I felt were trivial reasons, and this was after she’d taken time off shortly after she first started to get married and go on her honeymoon! I kept thinking, “You’re already on thin ice, why are you damaging your standing at work further!”).

She sensed that she wasn’t quite getting things, and cornered me one day while I was proofreading to ask if I thought she was doing a good job here. I told her I was too busy to answer her, and hoped she wouldn’t ask again. I also didn’t really like her on a personal level. She was nice, but also the type to talk big and never follow through, and the type who seems to make bad decisions in general (like deciding to foster a very needy adult dog–sorry, but you’re never going to get rid of that dog! Or telling me she wants to lose weight and then grabbing fast food for lunch every day), and I always lose respect for people like that. She also radiated insecurity and neediness, the type whose problems can easily transfer onto you, and I can’t be around people who are going to contribute to my anxious tendencies when I’m trying to be as relaxed and anxiety-free as I can in general. (I often have to tell myself, “Other people’s problems are not your own and you can’t make people behave the way they should. Don’t sink your mental energy into issues you have no power to change.”) I pointed out my misgivings about her professionally to my co-editor, and I pretty much knew she needed to go and wanted her gone, but we sort of agreed there wasn’t much we could do until our managing editor got back. Then she never got back, and I wondered if the new managing editor would notice the same things. I hoped she would, but I had pretty much given up on thinking it would happen when one day it did. She got let go, and it was messy–I heard her bawling loudly in my managing editor’s office. She left in tears.

Weird things have come to light since she left. She was 30, and this was her first full-time job (that probably explains all the absences). She had ADD and wasn’t taking her medication. She left an unacceptable amount of unwritten profiles, meaning she was way behind on her work and had been wasting a lot of time every day. In the end she benefited quite a bit from lacking a true supervisor for a long time. She probably would have been gone much sooner if that hadn’t been the case. So I’m glad she’s gone, since I wasn’t fond of her personally or professionally, but I do feel terrible for her–this happened the week before her birthday–and I have a feeling she’s going to be unemployed for a while and I just truly pity her. I’m full of conflicting emotions about this, but I am very happy that my managing editor recognized the same things I did and made a very tough but right decision. She also hired a replacement who starts next week.

So since October when I re-started here, the composition of my department has completely changed until I am the only one left who has been here the whole time! Ha, just a little ridiculous. But all the changes have been good, or good-but-sad, so it’s all right. Just, wow! No wonder I’m a “senior editor” now (got a promotion in name only).



First off, results came in today and I didn’t get the full ride scholarship I had been desperately hoping I could somehow beat the odds to receive. I was overlooked for academics who will likely waste their useless degrees working retail, not becoming esteemed professors and authors of valuable books on Asian culture. Yes, that sounds petty. But I don’t get it. I want to do something practical and useful, I’ve done many things to distinguish myself and I’m active in my local Japanese community–the president of our Japan-America society even wrote one of my letters of recommendation–and I’m passed over for people dabbling in nothing at all of any good to society (for the most part). Aside from the Ivy League names dotting the list (which begs the question, why do these people need funding again?), a lot of the successful recipients sound more like indecisive dilettantes, picking up one degree and then another in a totally different field because they can’t figure out what to do with their lives. How, exactly, are all these master’s degrees and Ph.Ds and detailed research proposals in Japanese ceramics in the 1600s and so on going to be used in concrete careers? Is that really behavior and life choices that should be rewarded and funded? Well, whatever, enough bitterness. I had suspected I wouldn’t be chosen for those reasons and I was right. I am just sorry they couldn’t see what a great candidate I am and how much choosing me would have enriched their foundation. Maybe that sounds narcissistic and entitled but I truly believe that. So, back to square one, back to worry over whether I’ll be able to do this. I really need funding.

Moving on… a side effect of resolving to read more Japanese new articles has been increasing pessimism about Japan and, by extension, my desire of basing a future career around Japanese products/goods/language. Besides the fact that all eyes are on China these days to outstrip Japan as the major Asian superpower (so I should really be learning Mandarin instead, but I took two weeks of it and really wasn’t feeling it–I love Japanese instead!), Japan just seems headed downhill. Soooo many cultural problems that those in power are sluggish at best (disinterested, close-minded, stubborn, and inactive at worst) about fixing. For example, if something could be done about women in Japanese society, I feel like so many problems could clear up, including the declining birth rate (because it seems to me that many Japanese women want to stay independent and not virtually enslaved to a husband and family, so they are choosing not to marry and procreate. So if you want the birth rate to go up, take measures to make marriage and motherhood more appealing to those women). Maybe I’m just going to sound like a presumptuous foreigner here, but I’ve been reading up a lot on this lately and I haven’t come across anything to disprove this. If society’s perceptions could change to accommodate viewing women as capable of pursuing careers independent of marriage/children–and to accommodate views of men as doing “women’s work” like shopping at the grocery store, cooking for the family, caring for the children, and doing the housecleaning; just anything to shake up these staid prescribed roles–that would do so much good. My sister teaches English and reports that so many girls, when asked what they want to be when they grow up, don’t dream very big: “Preschool teacher” and so on. No one wants to be a scientist, an engineer. Girls don’t want to stand out in class, either, and let the boys take all the attention for getting answers right. At companies it’s the norm for women to do administrative work and for men to do all the real professional jobs. I wish that would change so much! It would benefit society immensely to show women that career and marriage/motherhood are not mutually exclusive, that you can have both, and that you can dream as big and be as smart as men. And I look at the Diet and I just can’t see that group of old-fashioned fuddy-duddies doing anything that would help that.

It just seems like Japan is stuck in a rut and things are going downhill and it’s going to start affecting its position in the world soon, and it keeps seeming like not the best idea to align myself with a country and a language whose star is not so much on the rise. Also, exchange rates are absolutely ridiculous at this point in time, making an already expensive venture even more so. It just seems like everything is telling me, “Don’t go, this isn’t wise.” And yet… I just can’t listen. It’s what I want to do with all my heart, and my current career is not enough to sustain me forever, and I’ve delayed it so long already that to wait any longer would probably drive me crazy as well as make everyone around me roll their eyes and lose faith in my ability to follow through on what I say I’ll do. I have to try and it needs to be now. But I wish I could feel better about it; I wish there were better news coming out of Japan. I would love to be wrong about this but I don’t think I am. I also look back on my 2006 self who first went to Japan and I just feel embarrassed; so much I didn’t know even though I thought I knew everything.

On the bright side I’m learning a lot, so that part of my resolution has been successful.

Japanese-wise I keep having it confirmed that all my frantic studying has paid off and I really did launch myself into the next stratosphere of the language. I can read better, for one, and maybe I can listen better too. It feels pretty good. I’ve been able to crack open previously illegible books and find that I can read them pretty easily now. As an example, when I first visited Japan I bought a random volume of BL manga at a bookstore, just because I could. I’d been a BL fan for a long time (still am! Holla). I chose it purely because the art on the cover was good; it was shrink-wrapped (as most Japanese books in stores are) so I couldn’t look inside. When I could open it, I discovered the art inside was nowhere near as good as that on the cover. Shocking! I mean, I know now that everyone knows not to trust the exterior art, but I didn’t know better then. Anyway, so the art inside was bad and my Japanese wasn’t good enough to read it and figure out what was going on; I only had three (easy) semesters under my belt when I bought it. The other night I was sorting through things in my room and I came across it; I opened it up and finally I could read it. So I read the first chapter. It’s crap. I don’t want to own this anymore. If I wanted to buy BL in Japan just to say I did, I should have done my research and actually gotten something good by a vetted author, not a random book off the shelf. I have a lot of Japanese manga I don’t need anymore (most sent to me by TOKYOPOP while I was rewriting them) and it looks like the best way to get rid of them is going to be to take them to Japan and resell them at a Book-Off or something, even if I get peanuts in return. Seems cumbersome but I doubt there is going to be a market for them here and it seems weird to just throw them away.

That little episode–and the larger act of sorting through my possessions for what to keep and what to sell–reminded me to double down going forward on selectiveness in what I acquire. What seems worth paying full price now may be a regretted purchase years down the road as I bring it to Half-Price to get literally pennies in return and have to face the fact that I threw money directly down the drain. I always think I have this in mind and that I’m only buying what I really want to keep for good and then come across all these things I somehow need gone. The worst is when the item is no longer functional in any way but you have a sentimental attachment to it that prevents you from putting it in the trash can.

On another note… my sister is really good about finding things I’d be interested in and sending me links. The other day she pointed me to the (Japan-based) Society of Writers, Editors & Translators and I’ve been going through some of the fascinating articles posted online from their newsletter. I’m enjoying the articles, although groups like this just make me feel intensely desperate and envious, remembering that I’m not a part of that world yet even though I am dying to be. Although I am already a writer and an editor, just not (currently) with anything related to Japan/Japanese.

Anyway, I enjoyed the review of Globish, since the notion of English as the world’s dominant language has interested me ever since my French host dad mentioned, while my mom was visiting Paris and we were having dinner with my host family–and speaking in English for her benefit, some of us less fluent than others–that many French people have/had grown up with the idea that the dominant language in the world is French. Because for centuries, that was true. And it’s very hard for them to adjust to the fact that it’s pretty much English now, hence why a lot of French people (somewhat stubbornly) don’t speak English and expect your French to be very good or they are impatient. Anyway, I took particular notice of this, which begins with an excerpt from the book:

For centuries Japanese was remote, mysterious and separate. But this special linguistic inheritance does seem to have made Japan proud of its culture, as it did in Britain. Paradoxically, a nation that is assertive in business and commerce is unconfident in language and culture…Ever since Commodore Perry’s appearance off the coast of Tokyo in 1853, and long before Hiroshima, there had occasionally been suggestions from leading Japanese that the country should adopt English, or even French, as the national language. Many older Japanese, Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe, for example, are fluent in French, and well versed in French culture, a hangover from colonial days.

This is all either misleading or just plain wrong. As those of us who live here know, the Japanese are second only to the French in taking loving care of their language. Those on the masochistic margins who have denigrated it are arguably no less enamored of it than the linguistic nationalists who have extravagantly extolled it. The first part of McCrum’s last sentence here is incorrect, and the final phrase is baffling.

Ha! First of all, I completely agree, but moreover it made me think: It’s interesting to me that the two languages I’ve focused on the most are also ones highly prized by their native speakers–indeed, arguably some of the most highly prized languages in the world. I certainly don’t hold English in such high esteem or feel as much pride for it as Japanese and French people do about their mother tongues, and I’m not alone. Everyone looooves to repeat that joke about English beating up other languages in alleys and taking their syntax, grammar, vocabulary, etc. If English has to be the dominant language in the world–no matter how convenient it is for me as a native speaker of it–I wish it could be a better, more ideal language. It has so many flaws. And most of us are uneducated about it; I’m still amazed every time I come across someone who believes English is a Romance language (I guess because when learning SAT words, the Latin roots of many are emphasized, so maybe people think that Latin-based vocabulary = Latin-based grammar and syntax as well; it does not and English is Germanic).

I also came across two more articles that address the rise of machine translation and how it threatens translators today, which of course is a topic I am very much interested in. Fortunately, at least in the opinion of the author–someone who also happens to be a California-based J->E translator, AKA my dream, so I’m definitely jealous–the outlook is favorable, which is reassuring.

Still, I just feel like there are so many obstacles keeping me from what I want to do and feel I need to/should do, and sheer desperate passion/fervent hoping isn’t going to make them disappear… I wish I had money!

Catching up culturally too

Well, the Japanese ability screening test I’d been studying for is now over, so I no longer have to spend every minute of my free time studying (or feeling obligated to study). I can get back to my full gym routine (and just in time too–muscles are weakening! Anxiety levels are increasing!) and I can get back to work on song translations and updating my website. I spent the past weekend doing that almost exclusively, and I’m not done yet (I was already behind though) but I hope to catch up soon.

How did the test go? Hmm… I was told it would be post-N2 level, hence the frantic studying, and I’m not sure if it was quite that bad. The test’s difficulty ranged from “super ridiculously is-this-a-joke easy” to “ooh, that’s kinda hard.” I feel pretty confident about the majority of my answers, but I’ve also completely lost faith in my ability to predict if my answer will be the correct one. Sometimes I’m right, sometimes I’m “whaaaat! How is that not it?!” wrong. It’s also difficult to know how you did on a test you’ve never taken before. With JLPT you know what to expect, but this was a test created by teachers I’d never encountered before. It was also strange in that for the listening and reading sections, the texts/dialogues were in Japanese, but you answered in English. It was that way for some parts of the kanji/vocab section too. This made it easier in some ways but it was also a little confusing/unexpected. I don’t feel like I bombed it or anything, but I feel like there might be a lot of answers I thought I got right where in reality they were looking for something totally different. Hard to say! Frustrating.

It will be a little while before I know if I did well enough for my goals… right now I am in a waiting period. And I hate it. I want to know so I can plan and announce, and I won’t know for a bit longer, and I’m worried, worried, worried the outcome won’t be what I’m hoping… it’s not fun. It will be this way for about the next month. In many ways this next month will be huge.

I’m not sure how much of my energy to dedicate to Japanese study from here on out… before this, I would try to dedicate at least a few hours of one weekend day to self-study at home with my textbooks, and usually I’d succeed. Last spring I tried taking the Saturday morning Japanese classes offered in my city–and then there’s a study group that meets at a nearby cafe afterwards, I went to that a few times–but it was too far away and I had a hard time motivating myself to go and to spend the gas. I promised myself I’d get serious about self-study if I wasn’t going to attend the classes, and I’ve definitely kept up with it the past two frantic months (I think my level has progressed quite rapidly and sort of launched me into the next stage of Japanese ability from where I was before, which is good–for the first time I feel like I’m solidly in the thick of N2 and just need to master it) and now I’m not sure of the best way to keep going now. I guess just keep reviewing and making progress in my N2 textbooks, but I also feel like I need more practical reading and listening practice. I’m considering downloading some raw drama episodes and just watching those. I have a lot of things I can read, although with that comes the urge to translate instead of just simply read. I’m also trying to find good reading sources online; my sister turned me on to a blog that’s been pretty interesting. I’m trying to read as much as I can without consulting Rikaichan but sometimes there are just words I haven’t learned yet. The frustrating part about reading is having to consult the dictionary so often, and feeling discouraged because of that–and also not knowing if it’s better to consult it for every unknown word or just press on. As for listening, I think I’ll go with dramas… maaaybe some variety shows I can find online. Dramas based on manga I read/like would be a good place to start, as well as those with theme songs sung by my favorite artists (that I’ve probably already translated). For a while there will be things that go over my head, but I’m hoping over time I’ll understand more and more. I’m not a huge drama fan, I’ve seen a couple series but that’s it, but this will also be good cultural education.

Because in the meantime, I’m trying to get my Japanese cultural knowledge up to speed by reading Japanese news and Japan-centric blogs. I was only there in 2006 so in a lot of ways I’m behind the times. I always scoff at people who focus on Japanese culture over language (because it’s obvious they’re doing it because they find the language too hard) so in some ways this makes me feel like I’m taking the ‘easy way’ out (especially because I’m mostly reading up in English–I plan to move to Japanese after I feel more knowledgeable overall, because news in Japanese is pretty hard) but I have to remember it’s just as important. One thing that’s particularly interesting for me is each year’s top slang/buzzwords. I’ve found 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006 (one and two), 2005, and 2004. What struck me when reading those–aside from recognizing which have become such a permanent part of current vocabulary that it surprises me to learn their origins here, and which would be considered so passé by this point–was remembering the ones we’d covered in the conversation classes I took spring 2006 and spring 2008, as well as the ones I picked up living in Japan in 2006. Of course, that very fact reinforces that since those are the ones I know, it means I definitely need to get myself caught up to present times. So from 2007’s I recall KY [空気が読めない] for sure, as well as どんだけ — which doesn’t surprise me that it originally came from Shinjuku Nichoume. I was also struck by this one:

Oubei ka! [欧米か!]: Oubei ka! (“You’re not a Westerner!”) is the catchphrase of comedy duo Taka and Toshi. In a typical skit, Taka acts as if he were an American or European, and Toshi tells him to stop acting silly (like a Westerner) by saying “Oubei ka!” The humor apparently lies in the fact that they are both obviously Japanese, and not from America or Europe.

Wow. That just sounds super racist. Could you imagine if two white comedians went onstage and one pretended to be a different race, speaking with an exaggerated accent and mimicking other stereotypical behaviors of that race, and that was the “joke”? Good lord. As if it isn’t hard enough as an obvious foreigner in Japan, you have to make fun of us too? Unbelievable.

I mean, a definite side effect of reading all these blogs, personal accounts, etc written by westerners in or about Japan is remembering all the bad parts, like how difficult it is to fit in, and how socially you don’t really associate with Japanese people all that often–how most of the time, westerners stick to others in their own foreign bubble, because that’s honestly what’s easiest to do. When I studied abroad I had a lot of Japanese acquaintances who hung out with us because they studied at the colleges we took courses at, and also a lot of them were studying English [and were very good] and wanted to practice with us, but almost no true, close friends. Yuuho is my only close Japanese friend I can think of and it’s only because we’re making an effort to communicate now–we didn’t then. It’s hard not to look down on westerners in Japan who say “I don’t have any Japanese friends/I don’t have any good Japanese friends” (or at least any they hang out with and talk to on a regular basis) and think that they must be lazy, but it’s really not the case–it’s just that it’s inherently so much more difficult to try and really be a part of Japanese society. There is a wall there, for sure, and you get fed up and don’t even want to try anymore. I see why it so often happens that foreigners stick together, especially when you’ve come over with a bunch of other people from your country so your urge is to stay near them instead of venturing out. Despite all that, I really don’t want it to happen again. I still want to try my hardest to make and keep real, close Japanese friends instead of hanging out with only other westerners. Not just because it will give me increased Japanese practice but because I think it’s pointless to come to another country for a limited period of time, with the goal of language mastery, and not do your utmost to become a part of it, even if you’re handicapped from the start because you look different and you’re not fluent and you’re viewed as temporary and a lot of adult Japanese people don’t venture out socially much anyway. I know it will be so much harder and in some ways almost impossible, but I still want to try.

But just in case anyone was worried that I’d end up tempted to live there forever, I don’t think so. Long enough to become as fluent as I can, yes; forever, no. While, don’t get me wrong, there is a lot about the culture that I do like, it really is true that for me it’s the language that’s the draw.

The problem with translation

I love translation (I mean, obviously, considering my career goals). I don’t want to admit it has any problems; there are too many common oppositions to it already out there. I always want to defend it with all my heart against those who say translations are inherently flawed. After all, you can’t have a translation that’s both beautiful and faithful, can you? It’s gotta be one or the other. Actually, I don’t believe that at all. I believe you can have both, and that’s the philosophy that guides me as I translate. Some people dismiss translations as ultimately imperfect no matter what you do–and maybe use that as license to get lazy–but I believe a translation can surpass that, and that you can create a definitive, Platonic, close-to-perfect translation. (Some would say this is naiveté. I will still strive for it.) To that end I try very hard to achieve a balance between beauty and accuracy, in search of the close-to-perfect translation, and if you must lean more to one side than the other, I think that it’s better to have a slightly less beautiful, more accurate translation than one that’s slightly less accurate, more beautiful. There are those who would disagree with me on that point. But while I prefer both, I would choose accuracy as most important any day.

But there is a big issue with how translations are published. Accordingly with my beliefs outlined above, most of the time I disagree with translations made by other people. If I’m just reading it, I might think, “Oh, what good writing, what good English–this flows so well. This person did a great job!” and judge it solely on those merits. And I wouldn’t be alone in that thought. But then… I’ll compare against the original. And just about inevitably I’ll discover all kinds of things left out, embellished needlessly, mistranslated, and so on. Sometimes I can even tell when those things exist just from reading the English. I’m even noticing it in 1Q84, a major work translated 2/3 by a Harvard professor of Japanese! (One example, a character says something like “I felt like children in a Dickens novel, abandoned” and I believe it should have been a singular child–Dickens only wrote about one abandoned child per novel pretty much. In Japanese you often have to figure out based on context if a word is singular or plural).

But here’s the thing… unless you know the source language, you’re never going to discover that bad translation. Knowing only English, you will judge the English, as it’s all you can judge. And if the English sounds good, you will assume–and have no choice but to assume–that the translation must be solid as well. But that doesn’t mean it is! Often it’s not–at all! But well written English is covering that up.

Likewise, a translation could be extremely accurate and faithful, but if it’s not written well, people will judge it a bad translation, and call it clunky and so on. (I’m guilty of this too–I dislike stilted, dry academic translations; the ones of Kokoro and Snow Country stand out to me, though I believe Snow Country contains mistranslations as well. I haven’t re-read Kokoro since learning Japanese so maybe it does too.) That’s absolutely a problem as well; beauty is still important in translations. You simply have to try very hard to get both.

But the real problem is that the publishing house’s editors, same as the readers, are incapable of judging a translation’s accuracy–only its beauty. I saw this all the time at TOKYOPOP. There, freelance translators were contracted to complete a translation of a volume of manga and create a script. Then, a freelance rewriter came along to polish up that English from the translation and make it sound natural. So step 1 was translation (accuracy), step 2 was localization (beauty). (However, this second step wasn’t spelled out to the translators as clearly as it should have been, as many of them–at least the ones I worked with–took it upon themselves to localize as well, when they should have provided nothing more or less than a neat, non-embellished, accurate and faithful translation.)

And that’s all fine if the translator can be relied upon to produce a good–beautiful and accurate–translation. But that’s not always the case. Even professional, experienced translators can screw up–but if there’s no one to catch those mistakes, that’s not good. As the rewriter looking over that manga translation, I’d routinely uncover tons of mistranslations. Tons and tons. But as I was often the only other one in this entire process who knew Japanese, no one would have pointed them out if not for me! Of course, a few TOKYOPOP editors were more or less fluent in Japanese. But it wasn’t a job requirement; it wasn’t a necessity, so many weren’t and things just went over their heads. I firmly believe that if your regular job involves working with translations of [x] language, you must be fluent in [x] language in order to do that job. To this day I don’t understand why this isn’t valued more; why people like me, who can do a QC on these translations, are not in higher demand. I believe anyone who wants to be or is already a manga editor should be fluent or highly advanced in Japanese. It’s just an absolute necessity in my mind.

I imagine it’s the same with publishers of translations of Japanese-language novels like 1Q84, or really any publisher of translations in any format (but it’s probably worse if the publisher puts out translations coming from multiple source languages; the editors can’t be expected to know all those). The only one who’s in charge of the actual translating is the translator, and if you don’t know the language (and most editors don’t), you have NO WAY of knowing if their translation is actually good; if their language skills are actually that good. No way! No way of knowing. That is frightening. All editors can do is judge the quality of the English, which doesn’t equate to the quality of the actual translation. Even if the translators initially pass a translating test–judged by a speaker of that language–before coming on board, they can still make mistakes in the actual job, and no one will be there to catch them. Certainly not in the case of a 900-page behemoth like 1Q84.

So I think one of the worst aspects of the published translation industry is this complete lack of quality control. There is no one to check over a translation once it’s made, and to me that just seems totally reckless and dangerous.

The only solution I can think of to this problem, even though it’s a small one, is to offer myself as a recourse: as someone who will translate with an eye to both beauty and accuracy. At my current job I regularly call owners and founders of various types of businesses and ask them questions so I can write about them; I usually ask about how they decided to get into their industry and start their business. One frequent answer: “I wanted to provide a level of service and quality that I wasn’t seeing in my industry at the time. The lack of it was frustrating to me as a regular customer in search of those services, so I decided to step up and offer it myself.” In other words: if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.

I can’t transform the industry all on my own but I hope to at least make some small contribution to the world of beautiful, accurate translations. Unfortunately, translating is also very subjective; what seems both beautiful and accurate to me may not seem so to someone else. That’s probably the reason why I’m not able to ever think someone else’s translation–even one made by pros and experts–is as good as one I could make myself. Which is a problem–I’d love to have a translator I wholeheartedly admire, but I currently don’t. I’m just too picky. But hopefully that’s a quality that will make me a good pro translator myself.

In any case, if you don’t know the source language you’re not capable of judging a translation as “good” just based on how well its English flows.

Japanese progress, weekend of 2/17/12

This might actually be the last of these entries, at least posted every week. The thing I’ve been studying so hard for is this Thursday and after that I’ll move to a slower, more manageable pace of Japanese study. Cause let me tell ya, I’m reaching my breaking point. I am losing patience with this shit. I have basically taken away all my free time and replaced it with an overarching obligation to study. After a month, maybe longer… IT’S GETTING OLD. I want my free time back! I want to relax on weekends and weeknights! Plus, I’ve been reading a lot about this thing I’m studying for, and I think I might already be at the right level to do well on it. (But at the same time I have no idea what to expect and if it’s going to be harder or easier than I’m thinking, and that’s bothering me too. I like to be prepared and know what I’m getting into!). So I’m just ready to get it over with so I can have  my normal life back! I miss my other hobbies! (Which, come to think of it, most use Japanese too, but feel more fun…)

However, somehow I was able to still summon the motivation to work hard over this last weekend, and I pretty much got done everything I wanted to do. I finished my reading textbook, Nihongo So-matome N2 reading–and while it started out easy, it got pretty difficult by the end and I was getting things wrong. Frustrating. I’m still not sure my reading abilities are at N2 level–but they might not need to be, for this? I don’t know!

I dedicated Saturday to grammar, and got as far in my grammar textbook (Kanzen Master N2 grammar) as I could. It’s a really good book, but in the last section it started breaking things wayyy down. I can’t really explain it but I just started to feel like these lessons weren’t going to be all that constructive for my immediate purposes, and that I didn’t need to make any more progress in the book for the time being–I could better cover these things over the course of weeks as opposed to hours, and that I should just focus on reviewing what I already learned from here on out. Of course, again, I have no idea what sorts of grammar difficulties and challenges to expect.

Listening went a little better. I finished the lessons in my book (Kanzen Master N2 listening) and began the review test at the end. Of the first 11 questions, I got 6 right. Not super heartening. But I was doing very well with the last lessons of the book. Like with reading, I think I just need more practice; I need to read and listen more in general. I need more familiarity with actually encountering the vocab words I know in context in spoken and written language. I’m doing better than I thought though. I might be okay with this section. I did also listen to some unintentionally hilarious exchanges as part of the questions.

So, the rest of this week is dedicated to review. I’ll probably listen to the listening exercises without worrying about writing down answers, just focusing on comprehension, review the grammar points and read sentences over and over, do lots of Read The Kanji vocab drilling, and read texts (I haven’t decided exactly what yet–maybe go back over the ones from the textbook, or any number of Japanese books/magazines/blogs at my disposal). What I’m taking isn’t really a pass-fail thing, it’s more meant to assess my skills in a variety of areas (though of course it’s also checking to make sure I meet certain minimum requirements), but I still want to make sure I’m up to speed on everything so I’m not perceived to be a lower level than I actually am. And while exercise is still out for the time being (but, planning to hit the gym this weekend hardcore), I’ll eat mostly healthy and try to get lots of sleep this week so I’m in good physical condition.

Soooo… yeah. Getting sick of studying and pushing myself to the max (like I said, I never worked this hard even when I was in school, unless of course it was to cram the night before) and just want this to be over. I think I’ll be okay so I just want to get in there and prove myself so this isn’t hanging over my head anymore. Ahhh, I can’t wait to get back to translations, and to get back to the gym and the rest of my normal routine… and everything else I’ve been putting off doing for the past month. Wish me luck on Thursday…

Japanese progress, weekend of 2/10/12

[No kanji/vocab progress bar, because I’ve been using the site less this past week since at this point it’s just review and I had to focus on getting through my textbooks instead, so there really won’t have been much change from last week.]

Second weekend of three to spend studying… once again, I didn’t finish all the (very optimistic) tasks I had set out for myself, but I did get through all the grammar this time (and will spend weeknights completing listening and reading–I got through some of it but not all. I’m getting better at listening! Except numbers. I hate numbers, in any foreign language, always. I’m trying not to listen to each scene more than once–since tests will only play it once–but it’s hard when numbers are involved. Boo). Of course, that doesn’t mean I mastered all the grammar… I still made a ton of mistakes on the quizzes and I need to review the more difficult points. (However, some stuff was also really easy, so easy that I thought “This is N2 level difficulty? Really?” Good sign?!). I think I’m getting a little better at intuiting grammar though. Studying grammar and trying to pick up an intuitive knack for it has made me realize how much I rely on my intuition when it comes to doing well at things like this. The way I see it, there’s two routes: you memorize every single nuance of a grammar point and what situations are appropriate for it as opposed to the next very similar, only slightly different point, or you read all of that, absorb it, couldn’t repeat it back completely, but just know intuitively which one is right for the sentence.  Maybe the intuition route isn’t the most reliable or the safest, but I don’t think I’m capable of truly memorizing everything there is to know about each point. I would much rather read buckets of example sentences until I can just sense how to use it. And come to think of it, that’s how I do a lot of things in life: recipes, human interaction… It seems to be working okay…

But really, I hadn’t realized just how much of an intuitive person I am. I feel like a cat with extra-sensitive whiskers just going through life sensing things intangibly. (Well, maybe everyone is like this, I don’t know.) The Japanese word that applies in this case is 勘 or kan: perception, intuition, the sixth sense. Along those lines I’ve been thinking recently about personal compatibility, and how it seems like a lot of the time, I can just tell instinctively if I’m compatible with another person, if we’re going to be good friends. In Japan studying abroad, my study abroad program center wanted people to volunteer to help make a scrapbook of events that happened over the course of our semester. For some reason I volunteered, so a few times after classes I’d sit at a table in the center with a couple Japanese girls–who attended the nearby college where some of the program’s students took classes; I had some there–and we’d cut and paste photos and write descriptions. One of the girls had somehow been matched with me earlier as a conversation-buddy type situation, and I think we had exchanged emails? Which is why she’d been partnered with me for this project too, I think. (I really don’t remember this clearly.) But I thought the friend she’d brought along was my matched partner, because we made an instant connection, at least to me. I just sensed it, I had an immediate feeling of “This is someone I will get along with, this is someone I really want to be friends with.” (I had had that same feeling when I encountered Lil for the first time at Narita waiting for our bus shortly after getting off the plane–I saw her Rilo Kiley shirt and just knew! And when I think about it, I’ve had this gut innate feeling about my compatibility with someone else countless times, and it has compelled me to pursue the other person in some way, even just for friendship). I feel bad now because I was supposed to bond with my assigned partner, not her friend, but I ended up totally ignoring my partner–I just figured, “This person I instantly like must be my partner” when that was in fact wrong. The friend’s name was Yuuho and whenever I saw her the rest of the semester, I made sure to talk to her. I think we both felt that connection but we didn’t get enough opportunities to really bond that semester. She wrote me a very sweet message in our yearbook and we had become Facebook friends but I had had almost no contact with her since 2006.

Recently Yuuho posted a picture of her cat on Facebook, and I was shocked because her cat looks almost exactly like mine. I commented on the photo saying so (in Japanese, though Yuuho’s college was for students interested in languages so most were fairly fluent in English too), she replied, and I moved the conversation to Facebook message so we could talk in greater depth. We’ve been exchanging messages ever since and it’s been so much fun! (Good reading and writing practice too.) In the last one she commented on how it turns out we’re really alike–we both have individualistic personalities so we don’t have such a hard time with long-distance relationships (mine isn’t anymore but was for the majority of it; her boyfriend currently lives and works in Osaka and she lives in Chiba prefecture), we both like cats (and, as she said, they even look the same!)… and when she said all that it just confirmed my initial impression I’d had in 2006. And made me start thinking about all of this.

So needless to say I’m sort of realizing how much I really value my intuition and how glad I am that I have this ability to just sense things. I mean, I’m not always right–there have been many times where I had an initial very negative impression of someone, and then eventually grew to like them a lot, or times when I really liked and wanted to be friends with someone who turned out to be terrible. (And similarly, the word 勘違い or kan-chigai refers to when your intuition wasn’t right–a wrong guess or a misunderstanding.)

And on the subject of reconnecting with Japanese people, I also reached out and resumed contact with my host family that I first stayed with in January 2006. My host sister was six years old then and she’s 12 now! My host mom sent photos and it’s just insane! It was really good to hear from her; hopefully we can be in regular contact from now on too. I only lived with them full-time for a week (and then during the fall I’d come spend a night or two there every month) but we had so much fun together. For some reason she wanted to talk about the earthquake in her reply; she asked me if I’d heard about it. I’m going to have to be like, “Of course! Everyone heard about it! My relatives and friends wouldn’t stop pestering my sister about it even though she lives in Kyushu, and it really pissed her off that they didn’t know geography!” (okay, I won’t say all that)

I’m also reading some of Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 each night before bed, and loving it. I like Murakami–enough to have read his entire bibliography in English, enough to have purchased and read After Dark in French since the French translation came out before the English–but I’ve never been able to choose a favorite from among his works. This one just might be it, which for some reason is really exciting. The book is in high demand at the library right now though (I don’t buy hardcover books, only trade paperback, so when a new book comes out I always have to wait for the library to get it in before I can read it), with a long list of holds, and I only get two weeks with it before I have to return it. I do not expect to finish the 900-page beast in that time, so I’ll just join the hold list again and wait for it to come back to me! It’s a really, really good read. Highly recommended. Although I can’t say if it’s a good starting book for Murakami; you might want to read Norwegian Wood first to get a feel for his style? Hm.

In any case, slow and steady but hopefully real and lasting progress; feeling more confident about my Japanese all the time. Actually studying and putting in effort and time somehow works! I think I really am N2 level; I just need to master it.

Monterey representative meeting

Last night a representative from MIIS (my hopefully future grad school) was in town so I was invited to come out and meet him (I’m on a mailing list for potential students now I guess). Most of my questions had been answered during my visit, but I figured why not go. It ended up being me, the representative, a MIIS alumnus who graduated in 2009, and a lady whose title I never caught but I believe she was affiliated with the MIIS administration somehow. It gave me a lot to think about, mostly because I was able to ask a more in-depth question of what I could expect my starting salary to be post-grad. I mentioned earlier that I was surprised to learn it could be $35k, which seems low to me, and surely that had to be a mistake. Well… unfortunately, not so much. It could indeed be as low as that, but–as both the representative and the alumnus hastened to reassure me–I could expect to see my salary rise dramatically very quickly, even if things did start out that low. But they were honest that the few years post-grad could be a little rough, even though things would probably improve considerably after that point. Certainly they seemed tough for the alumnus, who was not yet working in his field exactly, even though he seemed on the verge of breaking in, but then he also didn’t do TI, he did international business with a concentration in German. So it’s hard to say what a Japanese translation graduate’s prospects would be, and if I could really expect $35k even with that. I guess I should ask the school to put me in touch with Japanese-language TI alumni. I still really want to attend MIIS but I also want to make the extra loans I’ll have to take out to go to grad school worth it–even though of course I’ll try for absolutely as many scholarships as I possibly can–by giving my career a more lucrative boost. I mean, in any case, I know I can’t stick with my current career forever and be happy. I have to do something, and I really want to work with Japanese and this seems like the best way to get into that field. But I also want this to be a smart decision, not just a passionate one, that will pay off concretely. Ahh. In any case, I’m glad I went. MIIS also picked up the tab of my cocktail!

I also mentioned before that I think getting a non-constructive graduate degree just because you don’t have anything better to do, with no plans for how it will benefit you career-wise, is silly, and I hate that so many of my peers are doing it. Well, what the alumnus and the representative said gave me some things to think about on that topic: namely, that while a graduate degree might not pay off in the short-term, in the years right after graduation, it will pay off in the long run. At some point, with only a bachelor’s, you’ll hit a wall in your career where you can’t advance any further, whereas with a master’s more doors and options will be open to you. So you have to view it like a long-term investment in your future. That’s what they believe, anyway, and I certainly wish that were true. Hmm.

I also spent the evening reading about the intensive Japanese program I want to do… and that was more reassuring. I learned a lot that made me more optimistic about my goals and plans. I also learned that it’s very likely that while I was told I needed to be able to pass N2 before entering the program, the average for most students in the past has been about N3. Which is really what I thought when I read some other things a couple months back. Which means I don’t need to be busting my ass to study as hard as I have been, since it looks like I’m already right where I need to be–but I’m still going to anyway, because I want to give myself an advantage any way I can, and I’m still worried about my aptitude regardless (have I mentioned how slow I am at reading and how hard grammar is for me? Yeah). So until the end of the month I still have 0 free time. March will be really big for me… and at least if everything falls apart and I’m having to deal with nothing but disappointments by the end of it, the new chapter of Sekaiichi Hatsukoi will console me (ahhh, so excited).

Japanese progress, weekend of 2/3/12

Ups and downs since a week ago… I reached the end of the N2 deck quicker than I thought; somehow before I knew it I’d made it through most of it and in this past week I eliminated all the red words that were left and now I’m just cycling through the deck again for a review. I can safely say now that I know the readings for just about all the words, but meanings are another story. I don’t have all those locked down and memorized for every single word. So now when I go through the deck I’m also making sure I can recite the meaning in my head as well before inputting my answer for the reading. Some things are harder to make stick than others, especially very similar terms that use the same kanji.

But having vocab more or less down is a big, big step. It’s so big that for a few days this week I started to feel like, “I might already have this and don’t need to study as hard as I thought in the next three weeks. I pushed through! I’m on the other side!”

Suffice it to say that was an overly hopeful thought and in reality I still have to buckle down hardcore. I finished taking a full N3 practice test and while I’m fairly confident I’d pass if I took the real thing, I still made tons of mistakes in a few sections (mostly certain grammar ones) and it’s worrisome, especially considering that I need to be able to pass N2, not N3. Then I took a reading practice that was supposed to determine my weak points in reading, and it was timed at 45 minutes, and in that time I only finished half and I wasn’t confident at all about my answers (but I think I did get most of them right?). So it looks like my old problem, that I struggled with when taking the real test, that of not being a fast enough reader, is still with me and seems an insurmountable problem at the moment. So that, and reading some things that made me realize again just how audaciously ambitious my plan is and how unlikely it is that it will all somehow miraculously come together for someone like me (who has no prestige, noble goals, etc), took the wind out of my sails. I started to get so overwhelmed with everything I still wanted to cover before the end of the month that I wrote out a study schedule/timeline, which was slightly reassuring, but the tasks I set out for this past weekend were too optimistic and remain undone. I’ll have to try to finish them on weeknights this week but it’s still a lot and I don’t even know if that will allow me enough time to get through it.

But this weekend I did a lot of work in my grammar and listening textbooks, even though sometimes (with grammar especially) it was slow going. I hate how with grammar, it all seems so easy when you’re learning each point–and a lot are already familiar to me so I always think I have it down already–and then when the time comes to choose how best to use it in a sentence, or choosing which term among similar ones is best to use (this is the worst!!), it’s just insanely difficult. Last night I took a quiz that covered the first six sections of the book, and I got like half wrong. Uuugghhhh!!! Frustrating because there are other times when I get everything right and it feels so easy I don’t even need to check the answers in the back to know. But I guess I’m still just getting into this and getting used to it, and I’m learning from every mistake, and hopefully if I took a similar quiz again I’d get less wrong. But ugh, why do some things have to sound exactly the same! I just have to keep rereading the example sentences, absorbing the right contexts, until it sticks I guess. And I must say again that having vocab down is a big step. I can at least understand the words in a sentence, and that is key. It’s fundamental and essential, really. Also, my grammar book is entirely Japanese, so I have to be able to understand all the explanations too, and fortunately I can (but I’m also writing in the English translation of each grammar point; makes it easier to remember and differentiate). But unfortunately that’s not enough. Have I said before that just when you’re feeling proud of yourself for mastering one aspect, there’s still a million more things to learn? I feel like I climbed a mountain, though I’d reached a nice flat clearing, and then discovered an even taller climb ahead of me. Making progress is like fighting my way through molasses, but at least each bit of success then feels hard-won and like I earned it.

Still very jealous of everyone at a higher level than me, especially those who make it seem soooo easy and effortless. Does it seem to anyone else like people who are more or less fluent at a language–not just Japanese but any one–never talk about their difficulties and frustrations? It always just sounds like “Oh, I get everything easily, no problem. I’m super fluent, no big deal.” That doesn’t seem realistic to me. Is it just that you don’t want your abilities called into question so you have to always appear perfect? I don’t get it, and it just makes me suspicious that you might not actually be that fluent especially in speaking. In contrast I try to be honest and admit my weaknesses, like here in these posts. Yes, I have a badass native-sounding accent (which always makes Japanese people think I’m more advanced than I really am) and I’m on the N2 spectrum, but I still have a ways to go. Even when I’m fluent–please let that day come someday–hopefully I don’t take on that same arrogant-seeming “I’m perfect already” attitude. Of course, it goes both ways too; I sometimes feel like friends who know that I call myself advanced in certain languages don’t really believe I’m actually at the level I say I am. Obviously we’ve all witnessed people who took Spanish in school claiming “I speak Spanish” when they really don’t, but that isn’t me! I actually do know those languages! Frustrating. A random aside: I had to laugh when I was reading a scanlated manga the other day and while the translation seemed legit (no real way to know until you compare against the original though–I know I discovered tons of things that were wrong or misleading in Sekaiichi Hatsukoi once I went from the scanlation to the original, but then I never like anyone else’s translation upon closer review anyway), 生ビール was translated as “raw beer.” Heh. Raw beer! (That’s a very clueless literal mangling. It should be “draft beer.”)

Unfortunately I spent all of Sunday on grammar (only finishing half of what I needed, too!) and didn’t even get to my reading textbook, so that’s another thing to make up over the course of the week along with the other half of grammar. Ahhh not enough time for everything.

Just feeling anxious and overwhelmed… I need to be a master of N2 by the end of the month and it’s such a lofty goal… I just need to remember, I could at least get half the test right with no real studying two years ago, so hopefully the addition of actual studying will mean I can at least get a 70-80% this time on a test at a similar level… please!

I also told a few Japanese friends I was studying, and one who’s local offered to help any way she could while another (in Japan) that I’ve been exchanging long Facebook messages with recently told me “今の[Séri]の日本語なら大丈夫だよ(^o^)自信を持って、挑戦してね!! [You’ll be fine if it’s your current Japanese! Have confidence in yourself and challenge it!]” so that was nice! It’s always hard to tell though if a compliment on your Japanese from a Japanese person is real or just the result of them being easily impressed by anyone who can manage it at all (after all, in an earlier message she expressed amazement over my ability to read and use kanji!!! Clearly Japanese people don’t know we have the ability to deploy and abuse Rikaichan so it doesn’t matter if you use kanji we haven’t learned as long as it’s online). As for the local friend who offered to help, I’m not really sure what she can do except conversation practice (which would equal listening practice) but I also don’t really have time to go meet in person. I guess I could ask her whenever I don’t understand why an answer in a quiz is this one over the one I was so sure was right (most of the time I see my mistake, but there are times when I’m like “What! That has to be wrong, why would it be that?”) but it would take time to type out that question and email it to her, then wait for her response, etc. So, not sure if I should take her up on that. In any case though, it’s really good to have support!! And what my friend in Japan said meant a lot even if she was just easily impressed.

This is the hardest I’ve ever studied in my life, probably. In school I always slacked off on studying and did the bare minimum all the time (with lots of cramming the night before). I never made study schedules, for example. So it’s kind of crazy to be so good about it now. Good thing I’m actually enjoying the learning process, even though I wish I had more time.

Japanese progress, weekend of 1/27/12

I think every week I’ll post a screenshot of my Read The Kanji vocab/kanji reading progress, and also talk about where I am in my studies.

I’m very pleased with the progress I’ve made in really a month, more or less. Of course, I had already gone through all the words in 2009 (except for the handful of new ones they added when they updated the site to the new JLPT N5~N1 system), but I had to remember and re-learn most of them (which is why I wouldn’t consider the success rates completely accurate; it still has the failure rates from when I was first learning these words–and when the site’s algorithm was much less effective–factored in). Just today though I dropped the N3 deck from my rotation; only a few words were still red (weak) and I made sure to memorize them. Everything else was going to be a review of easy things and a waste of time, so it had to get dropped for now when time is of the essence. From now on it’s nonstop N2!

I also finished my two N3 textbooks today! I started them maybe 10 days ago so they went fast. They were Nihongo Sou-matome grammar and vocabulary. I received these from a friend so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I like this series a lot but it does have some downsides. It has English, Mandarin, and Korean translations of the new points/words each lesson introduces, so it’s not as intimidating as all-Japanese Kanzen Master, plus it divides everything up into bite-size lessons with cute pictures. I really like how all the similar vocab words are grouped together; someday I’d like to get the N2 vocab one from this series. Each book is set up as a six-week course but you can progress pretty quickly if you want. Pretty much everything was a review for me, but I did learn quite a few new things and I deepened my understanding of others. The grammar book also gave me the chance to practice the new JLPT questions with the bits of the sentence scrambled and you have to put them in correct order. I’m much better at that now. The problem I have with the series is it seems like they rushed it a little and it wasn’t fully proofread; some of the English is way off (cf. “A wired guy” when it should be “A weird guy” and other potentially disastrous-if-you-don’t-know-better typos) and I also caught a typo in Japanese too. The grammar points also don’t always have a clear translated explanation or even one in Japanese, which is especially necessary when the lesson lumps in very similar expressions and you need to know how to tell the difference. I could always more or less figure it out [whether from intuition or prior familiarity] but I know that could be a drawback for people approaching this book from below my level. It’s obvious that when compared to Kanzen Master, the production quality is nowhere near as good. But it is really approachable and that’s not to be underestimated. I decided to buy some N2-specific textbooks for this next phase of my study, and I went with Nihongo Sou-matome for the N2 reading comprehension textbook (I already have an inherited Kanzen Master 2級 reading textbook as well). Aside from that though, all my N2/2級 textbooks are Kanzen Master. I’m diving into those starting now!
(Regarding ordering this series: the images link to Amazon, but White Rabbit Press also seemed like a good place to get them. When I ordered three more textbooks recently though, I went with Kinokuniya, the NYC location, since I knew it would be fast coming from inside the US already. It was indeed lightning fast! White Rabbit was going to cost a tiny bit less but it was also going to take 2-3 weeks to ship, so my choice was easy.)

Sometimes when I think about how clueless I was when I took 2級, I want to shoot myself. I didn’t even know the Japanese names of each section of the test (語彙・文法・聴解・読解), I had never taken a practice test for ANY of the sections, I barely understoood ahead of time how the test was divided up and administered, I waited until the night before to BEGIN studying grammar, and I was woefully under-prepared for both the listening and the reading sections, which just steamrolled me. (I also failed to eat a good snack during the break so in the last section, reading–THE HARDEST ONE–I got light-headed from hunger and had a hard time focusing. In the end I ran out of time and wasn’t able to answer all the questions in that section). However, all that considered, it’s a miracle I still got at least a 50% when you needed 60% to pass. I did come really close even though I naively pretty much only studied vocab/kanji readings and didn’t have time for anything else. So that has to say something, right? (I’m a genius! Right? That’s it, right?). Imagine how I’ll do when I’m actually fully prepared!

The one thing the test doesn’t measure though is your ability to produce language freely; there’s no speaking or writing section. Of course, that makes it a little less difficult too–I believe that as a language learner, comprehending (reading, listening) is infinitely easier than producing (speaking, writing) language. Even though reading and listening are hard too! But the real challenge comes in trying to reproduce the correctly formed sentences you’ve learned, and trying to remember the right vocabulary words for the situation you want to express. That’s also where the native speakers are going to judge your overall language ability the most, even though I don’t think it’s a fair assessment, since usually you can read/understand better than you can write/speak! I know my French host sister (teenage, and thus impatient/unforgiving) decided I was an idiot because my pronunciation/accent and ability to express myself out loud were so bad, and then when we chatted on Facebook after I got home she was like, “Oh, so you can speak French. Huh.” But of course, as English native speakers, think back to how easy it is to get impatient with someone struggling to express themselves in English, someone with an accent and bad sentence construction. It’s really easy to think, “This person can’t speak English” when probably in reality, they can read and comprehend infinitely better. I hate to think of myself in a foreign language/culture as that person who others get impatient with because they aren’t fully fluent, who sounds like an idiot all the time, but that’s just part of language learning. You have to put aside pride and just keep pushing through, hoping practice leads to improvement even if you sound stupid for a while. At least in Japan, people are more patient with you than in, say… France. (Hmm, why do I prefer Japan/Japanese again…?)

I’ve found that in every language I’ve studied substantially, there’s one major thing that I get stuck on–for years. To this day I have trouble with that one thing, sometimes a handful of things. It’s like a hump you have to work super hard to get past, and if you don’t put in that work you’ll never master it. With Spanish it’s telling the difference between when to use ser and when to use estar; with French it’s many things but especially how to insert y and en into sentences, as well as ce and all its forms. These are things you think you should only have to learn once but when it comes time to write or speak, you keep messing them up. It’s enough to make you want to quit the language because it’s just too hard. But it also feels like this is the breaking point of learning a language, the point of no return: it will require a lot of effort from here on out to push through to the other side, but once you do, you’ll be much more advanced and closer to fluency. I feel like I’m at that point with all the languages I’ve studied the longest, and only with Japanese do I have the willpower to keep pushing and trying to make it through. I feel like the distance between mastering N3 and mastering N2 is that wall; once you’ve gotten there, you’ve made it, but until then, it’s an uphill battle. That’s where I am right now, and actually it’s where I have been for the past couple years. Only now am I really putting in the amount of effort that it’s going to take, though, so I’m the most confident I’ve ever been that I will do this.

In many ways Japanese is easier than romance languages: no genders to learn with each noun, no making the adjectives agree with those genders, no six conjugations to learn for each verb, and so on. But of course it has its own difficulties. Keeping my politeness level consistent is really still super tough for me, especially when I’m speaking and I get nervous. There’s also the fact that you have to learn a lot of different forms of the same verb: the polite and regular forms (and in some cases respectful and humble synonyms), as well as the transitive and intransitive forms. (And all the tenses too, but those aren’t so bad. They don’t have to agree with a certain perspective [“I” “we” etc]  so in that respect romance language verbs are harder.) The transitive stuff is also one of those things that I worry is still a little confusing for me; it’s easy to read, not so easy to remember how to produce correctly. “I do” and “It does [that]” require their own version of “to do,” for example. So every verb has a transitive and intransitive form to learn. (Words like “transitive” and “intransitive” used to make me zone out even in English grammar classes–even though I graduated an English major, I have no patience for nitty-gritty stuff like diagramming sentences and so on–so when they came up in Japanese too, I thought I might be in some major trouble here.) Once you learn enough common phrases and get a feel for how things are said, it gets a little easier, but I still get worried that I’m going to mess it up. I don’t think I actually have though.

Really my main difficulty, that I mess up often, is politeness level consistency. I always seem to switch throughout the story I’m writing or telling, without realizing it. It’s so frustrating! I have a lot of formal phrases that I fall back on to explain things about myself or answer questions (“Sou desu” and so on), but then I’ll start telling a story and slip out of my formal speech as I focus on simply expressing myself clearly. It’s so, so, so hard to be consistent. Of course you also have to judge the situation and decide on a politeness level at the start. What if you’re talking to someone you just met, but she’s younger than you? Polite or regular? Regular seems a little rude/forward for someone you just met, but polite seems over-the-top for someone your junior and also for someone around your age. To make things easier I will often try to go for a combination of regular forms with some “desu” thrown in, to make a sort of in-between politeness level. Using only regular forms still freaks me out and makes me worry I’m being rude, though! Of course as a foreigner you get a lot of leeway and Japanese people generally won’t take offense at a too-casual politeness level in your speech (most of the time; my horrible landlady from study abroad is a glaring exception) because they know you’re just clueless and not actually rude, but you still want to get things right.

It’s also hard to judge your politeness level when writing like blog entries, because you don’t know your audience. Should you make everything polite? Everything regular? Based on the lang-8 corrections I’ve seen, the Japanese people there seem to think we should be writing using all polite speech. (Is that because we’re foreigners learning the language or because they feel blog entries in general should be polite? But what about the Japanese blog entries I’ve read that are all regular/casual?). What if I know my audience, like if I’m writing on mixi, is all people my age who would think my using polite speech a little unnecessary and strange?

I think this is one of those things where you just have to study, study, and study native speech, and eventually you’ll pick it up yourself. It’s my belief that an immersive environment will eventually cure you of these mistakes if you pay enough attention… I hope!

Japanese shame

I wanted to expand a little on something I touched on in an earlier post… namely, just why it took me so long to recognize (really 認める) Japanese as the language I wanted to be fluent in, when I entered college supposedly as a French major. I think for a long time I was embarrassed about it because of the public perception of those who study and are interested in Japan/Japanese things. I thought if I showed everyone that I was studying French just as much, I wouldn’t seem as “weird.” A noble goal, but one that in the end added to the delays and cost me time I can’t get back.

When I meet Japanese people, sometimes I get asked the classic question, “What made you want to study Japanese?” (どうして日本語を勉強しますか? and similar variations). If you study Japanese, you’ve probably answered this question in conversation with someone or you’ve written a small essay on the topic. My reply often goes along the lines of “さあ… よくわかりませんが… [Hmm… I really don’t know…]” before I have to, usually, make up a real answer like “It sounded interesting?” Because the truth, the real reason, is: anime. And manga. But I don’t want to get labeled an otaku, because I’m really not–anymore–and I don’t want to scare off potential Japanese friends, so I never ever say that. (And despite what I’m about to say, I stand by that, because I can’t do anything about Japanese perceptions of otaku, especially Western otaku–which might cost me potential friendships–but I can at least try to  feel okay about other Westerners labeling me weird.) We’ve all seen the super anime/manga fans in your typical Japanese class, and they’re annoying as hell (fortunately, they usually quit after a few semesters, because–yeah–Japanese is hard). I didn’t want to get lumped in with them! I didn’t want to be perceived as a “weeaboo,” someone obsessed with Japan stuff to an unhealthy degree. Actual weeaboos make me feel Fremdschämen (embarrassment on the behalf of someone else’s behavior) intensely and I avoid them.

Being a weeaboo is actually a big fear for me, and it’s easy to get a little like that when you have any amount of enthusiasm for Japanese language/culture. (I do find that weeaboos generally are not as enamored by the language, since it’s difficult, whereas my primary love is for the language and culture comes second, so there’s at least that to comfort me. Plus, I’m quite aware of the negative parts of Japan, and a part of me was glad to go home after four months.) It’s why I sometimes won’t purposely speak Japanese to waitresses in Japanese restaurants, or the people at my local Japanese mini grocery mart, something that totally perplexes my boyfriend. I just don’t want them to think of me as annoying, over-eager. But part of that shame is similarly what kept me from acknowledging Japanese as the language I wanted to build my career on for so long. I was afraid of how other people, mostly people who don’t know much about Japan and just have a few stereotypes in mind, would view me as a result. I knew it would make me seem a little weirder than if I simply had a slight obsession with France, for example–after all, Americans love French stuff, but with Asia it’s like “Hmm, why? Why can’t you like something normal?” It’s sort of a problem–I wish I could just embrace it instead of feeling slightly embarrassed.

Interestingly, I learned my first Japanese word in second grade unwittingly. It was 班長, hanchou, or as it’s known in English, “honcho.” Of course, at the time I didn’t know it was a Japanese-origin word–I think I only found that out a few years ago, and it blew my mind. One of the popular girls in my class had invited me to spend the night at her house, and I went; while we were playing with dolls, she told me one was the “head honcho.” It was the first time I’d ever heard the word and I didn’t know what it meant.

It wasn’t until middle school that I actually started to want to learn Japanese, though. (Buckle in, this is gonna be a long story.) Towards the end of elementary school I’d become friends with a few people who introduced me to the world of Sanrio characters (already a Lisa Frank fan, I got sucked in by the cuteness aspect), and for a while that was the extent of my interest in Japanese things. In sixth grade I became friends with Aro, someone who already had several nerdy interests, and we bonded over a love of the Animorphs book series (I have always been a great reader–although I honestly can’t remember which came first, the friendship or my own interest in Animorphs). Over time we merged our friends into a larger group with Aro as the ringleader thanks to an uncanny charisma; whatever Aro got into, everyone else soon followed and liked it too. Thus around 1998, sixth/seventh grade, when reruns of dubbed Sailor Moon episodes began to be broadcast, Sailor Moon became Aro’s new obsession and the rest of us were persuaded to fall hard for it too. That was it, our group was identified with an anime/manga obsession from that point forward. (I’m still close friends with the vast majority of those people today. Anime bonds?!). Thanks to series like Sailor Moon, Pokemon, and so on gaining visibility at that time, even a friend who didn’t go to my school started to share my anime/manga love (of course, I encouraged her). I even went with her to an anime store sometime in seventh grade shortly after the late 1998 release of volume 1 of Sailor Moon, where I purchased it–my very first graphic novel. Published by Mixx (later TOKYOPOP–where I worked! In Japan I ended up meeting the people who had worked on that volume. So strange to look back on!), it was one of the first translated manga to come out; of course they were all flipped at that time, something I didn’t know for a while. I also purchased and fell in love with another early Mixx-published title, Magic Knight Rayearth, which was my first foray into Clamp works (I’m still something of a Clamp fan today). Sailor Moon, Magic Knight Rayearth, Pokemon, and Ranma 1/2 were the series I was most into then–Ranma was really popular with the whole group for a while–and over the years my friends and I would trade copied VHS tapes and translated manga volumes until we’d all seen a wide breadth of series.

At the same time, Aro and I got involved with a site called Otaku World. (We embraced the word “otaku” at the time as newborn fans with no idea of how derogatory it is in Japanese.) It was there that we learned about kami-shibai, paper theatre plays, since the site had a program that allowed people to create their own stories told via the kami-shibai program. (I made a lot of online friends after joining a forum for kami-shibai program authors then, and still keep in touch with a few to this day–I even met a couple in 2007!). I remember debating with Aro about how to pronounce kami-shibai–“kah-me-shee-bay” vs. “kah-me-shee-buy” (I was the latter, and correct, though how I thought kami was pronounced was still off). I don’t know how I ended up correct there, as I only had a grasp of a handful of Japanese words; somehow I had an instinct. (I wasn’t always right, though: I had to learn that the Ranma 1/2 character Akane’s name was said “ah-kah-nay,” not “a-cane.”) But moments like those–learning Japanese words and how to pronounce them–made me hungry for more. I wanted to learn more. I even wrote out a list in one of my notebooks of the Japanese words I knew so far.

Throughout high school, my friends and I continued to get each other interested in series we had discovered, passing around tapes and manga, attending anime conventions and cosplaying, though by graduation our passion had cooled a bit. (For the record, today I occasionally watch anime and read manga, as I have a few series I remain a big fan of, but I hate going to anime conventions and I hate a lot of the fan culture. I try to be a “cool” anime/manga casual fan. Is that possible?!). I wanted to learn Japanese badly the whole time, but my school didn’t offer it so I settled in to wait until I could take it in college. I wanted to study it properly, formally, and I also didn’t know where to look for good self-study resources, so I didn’t try very hard to learn it on my own. I did however attempt to “translate” romaji song lyrics–a deeply misguided mistake! I also taught myself how to sing several Japanese songs. But I was deeply jealous of anyone learning Japanese who could read it–I viewed that as an insurmountable task.

When applying to college, I made sure to choose one that offered Japanese, even rejecting my acceptance into a semi-prestigious private college because it didn’t have Japanese (much to the bafflement of my mom, who didn’t see why that should be important in light of the name recognition!). Upon arriving at college and registering for my first semester of classes (old-school style–in person!), I had to wait in a long line of freshman as the upperclassmen registered before us and, subsequently, classes filled up. As each class became full and unavailable, someone would write its name on a board. When “Japanese 101” appeared, I began to slightly panic. If I couldn’t take Japanese 101 this semester, I’d have to wait until sophomore year. I tried to console myself by saying I could always begin German instead, but it wasn’t very helpful. Finally I entered the hall where the professors sat at tables to sign our slips and register us into their classes. After registering for my other classes, I decided to approach the Japanese professor and try my luck. At the time there was only one. I went up to him nervously and explained my situation–that I really wanted to get into Japanese 101 and was there any way I could anyway even though it was full? He grimaced–I was the third person he’d be letting in over the limit, to my surprise–but agreed. I was elated and relieved. In the end, several people dropped the class the first week–almost all weeaboos forced to recognize the difficulty of even beginning Japanese for the average person without foreign language aptitude, or regular people who had foolishly thought “Japanese sounds fun/interesting!” and quickly regretted it–bringing our class to an acceptable size, while I stuck with it to the end. Giving in to the impulse to try and fight for Japanese 101 remains one of the best decisions I made, but it still makes me a little nervous now thinking just how different things could have been if I hadn’t!

I look back on all this now–rejecting a college that didn’t offer Japanese, desperately wedging my way into Japanese 101–and almost can’t believe it happened that way. I have a bit of a haze around my memories of how I got started in Japanese, because I’ve spent so long downplaying it–“oh, I don’t really know why I took it, it just seemed interesting” and other excuses. To actually look at the facts is a little shocking to me now! It was a conscious decision, very much so, even though it doesn’t seem that way to me at all, it feels very much like I just fell into it quite accidentally. I’m not sure why that is.

As I’ve said before, I entered college as an English-French double major, and planned to study abroad in France my entire junior year. I also thought I’d spend my sophomore year living in the French wing of my campus language house. In the end though, I lived in the Japanese wing and spent half of junior year in Japan instead. Japanese began to dominate more and more. I graduated an English major, French and Japanese minor. I guess I held on to French so long to sort of legitimize my Japanese–“see, I’m not a weeaboo, I like other stuff too!” Of course, I genuinely liked/like French and France, but I just don’t have the same passion for it, the same drive to be fluent. It would be nice–but I’m more inclined to look at my shoddy accent that just embarrasses me, as well as the intolerant attitude of French people towards anyone who can’t speak fluently, and give up.

This was frustrating when I told my parents about my plans to try and undergo more formal Japanese study: they didn’t get why, Japanese/Japan is still a foreign inscrutable thing to them, lumped in with China and the rest of Asia in their minds. “Why not France?” my mom asked me, confused. Of course they’d prefer if I went back to France because then they’d have an excuse to return to Europe! (They have no interest in coming to Japan.) But maybe it’s all the time I spent trying to cover up my Japanese shame by playing up my interest in French stuff too that really confused them. (For what it’s worth, my French host family was baffled by my interest in Japanese as well.) And in hindsight, I wish I’d given that up earlier and just focused on Japanese alone as soon as it became clear that I preferred it to all other languages, which I could have done more easily if I hadn’t clung to French for so long as a cover. Having a Japanese major–even though at my school that would have just meant a lot of culture/literature classes in English and very long essays, as opposed to the more rigorous language study that I would have wanted–would be good right about now.

I don’t know… I just know that part of my journey, as I attempt to make a career out of Japanese, involves coming to terms with the idea that people may misinterpret me as a weeaboo when I tell them what I’m doing. I know I’m not–well, maybe a little, but not in the bad way–so that should be enough. Right? (Yes, I’m a very self-conscious person. But the whole point of this post is to say I’m going to try to care less!)

As for whether I’d be honest and tell my Japanese friends that I like anime/manga… which to me is a completely separate issue, tied to Japanese perceptions of otaku that I can’t do anything about… um, maybe later.