Faces of Gengo: Kenta
A Japanese to English, English to Japanese and German to English translator, Kenta started translating while at college in Japan. Now he lives and works in Germany as a neuroscientist studying how the brain changes as we learn, and translates for fun.
What languages do you speak?
As well as being a native English and Japanese speaker, I am learning German through working and living in Germany. I currently listen to podcasts and audiobooks and use babbel.com. I also studied a bit of Spanish and Mandarin on the side while at college. In the coming years, I want to study these two languages a bit more, and I also want to try a bit of something really different such as Turkish, Hungarian or Arabic.
How did you become a translator?
Growing up bilingually as a Japanese-American, I was always interested in languages and how they mold the way we perceive the world. One of my first insights was that I would act differently when thinking in English or Japanese. As a bilingual kid growing up in Japan, I would listen to dual-language TV broadcasts with earphones, one language per ear. The live sumo wrestling broadcasts were particularly interesting, because the English-language commentators would often have a completely different take. I started translating as a college job.
What have been your most enjoyable and challenging translation experiences?
My most enjoyable experience was translating an email from a small mom-and-pop bike shop in rural Japan. They were trying to order a specialized bike from a top-end European bike manufacturer, and you could tell that they really loved bikes. Some recommendation letters have also been quite memorable—it’s often easy to tell when something is heartfelt and carefully written and I try to translate those intangible touches as much as I can.
I find that a particular type of Japanese to English customer can be very demanding and challenging. They probably did really well in English in their university entrance exams, and tend to be proud, overbearing and quite rude in their comments and requests for changes. More often than not, their complaints are off the mark or incorrect. As a physician, I’m used to dealing with difficult customers and, luckily, I think I have mostly learned to avoid this kind of customer based on the tone of the original Japanese.
What’s your favorite thing about being a translator?
Getting a glimpse into other professions and the lives of others.
Describe your office setup or workspace.
I work at an Ikea standing desk in my home office, right next to a huge window. I love to watch the streetcars go by while I think about a particular wording.
Based on your specific cultural expertise, what are the best books or movies you would recommend to others?
Kirschblüten–Hanami (Cherry Blossoms) by Doris Dörrie. I think this film depicts some of the most beautiful aspects of both the Japanese and German national characters, and melds them in a touching way.
What is your favorite snack for while you work?
Green tea or coffee, fruit when hungry.
What are your preferred translation tools?
I use online translation services to jog my memory vis-à-vis vocabulary but generally speaking, I type things in. I am continually amazed by how bad machine translation can be—especially when it’s completely wrong but sounds sort of right. This is also quite a relief—translators will still be needed for some time to come!
What’s your favorite productivity tool or service?
What are the best ways to relax and stay sane as a translator?
Realize that the difficult customers are really a very small minority and that, unfortunately, putting up with it is part of the job, too. It’s nothing personal, those customers are probably just stressed out in their jobs or lives.
What are your top tips for translators who are just starting out?
I think the key is to choose jobs that are right for you—just challenging enough for you to grow but not too difficult. For example, for English and Japanese, I prefer complicated medical and pharmaceutical translations that interest me professionally. On the other hand, I am relatively new to German as a source language, so I stick to more simple stuff such as web pages and formulaic clinical reports. Hopefully, I’ll feel comfortable handling more complicated German academic writing at some point.
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