Cool Word – オブラート

I’m in the Japan Times this week with a look at a couple of websites that I’ve noticed popping up whenever I search for a polite way to phrase something: “When stumped in Japanese, go where the stumped Japanese go.”

The websites are Mayonez and Tap-biz. Mayonez seems like a more fleshed-out, coherent project, but they’re clearly very similar. I wondered how they were funded, but further investigation has shown that the articles are really just cover for the job hunting websites that likely fund the whole shebang.

Still, the articles are pretty interesting, and I think they offer pretty effective language tips.

In the course of reading through the Mayonez article about 希望しない alternatives, I saw the phrase オブラート包んでお断りすることがマナーです (Oburaato tsutsunde okotowari suru koto ga manaa desu, Saying no in a roundabout way).

オブラート (oburaato, oblaat) is a very interesting word I hadn’t heard before. Oblaat are those thin, transparent layers of rice starch that are used to wrap things like dagashi.

So the phrase オブラートに包む, then, means to kind of mediate a phrase in a way that makes it more palatable/handleable. Pretty cool.

And of course there’s a ridiculous Yahoo Chiebukuro site involving オブラート: “「死ね」 をオブラートに包んでください(“Shineo oburaato ni tsutsunde kudasai, Say “Go kill yourself” in a polite way). Some pretty funny answers.

And on a side note, next month is the four year anniversary (FORTY EIGHT consecutive months!) of the Japanese Reading Group that I’ve been running through the JET Alumni Association Chicago Chapter. We’ve been meeting on Google Hangouts for the past year or so, and it would be great if you’d join us! Check out the event details here.

Magnetic Lassos and Other Translation Thoughts

Wrangling a translation.

The last five months have flown by. In March I moved on from my job with the Japanese Consulate into a new position here in Chicago that still has me connected with Japan. My exit from the consulate position was comically awfully, due to no fault of my own (…well, not really). I’ll resist spilling the details here, but you should definitely buy me a drink sometime and force me to tell you about it.

During the week in between jobs, I was contacted about translating a Japanese light novel. I started a sample translation the same week I started the new job, and the offer for the project came two weeks after that.

And for the five months since, I’ve been translating at a pace of about two 文庫本 (bunkobon, paperback) pages a day. Some days I did significantly more, and I took off a few days here and there and about two weeks to travel to Japan for a conference in May.

I submitted the translation last Sunday and wanted to record my thoughts about the experience while they’re still fresh in case they’re of use to anyone (and so that I can remember what this felt like when I’m 95).


  • I submitted the translations in two halves with two invoices, minus a small advance that came immediately upon accepting the project (which was taken from the first half payment). I had about the same amount of time for each half.
  • I won’t discuss my rate other than to say that I tried to get close to what I request for most translations (a fairly reasonable rate, as far as I’m aware). I wish I’d kept track of the hours I spent on the project because I’m confident I spent more hours on this project than I do on most translation work. Not that I slack off on other projects, but fiction is an entirely different beast.


  • Given everything I had going on in life (mostly: day job, brewing beer, attempting to have a social life), I set a pace and stuck to it. Two pages/day was the average mark I tried to hit, but this was easier for the first half. I had a convergence of obstacles that slowed the start of translating the second half and upped my page quota. But even during the first half I tried to do closer to 3-4 pages a day. I ended up with about a week to revise for both deliveries. The quota was a helpful way to keep track of how I was doing but also to give myself permission to take breaks.
  • Something I realized (that may be obvious) is that not every page of fiction is created equally. Some pages are dense with description and others are lean with dialogue. And then there were the two pages near the end of the novel that were, mercifully, verbatim copies of a section from the beginning of the novel. This is another important reason to set a pace quota. You’re basically page-time averaging, although it’s also good to be aware of what the terrain looks like as you progress.
  • I did not read the novel in advance. Thankfully, this didn’t screw me later on in the translation process…I don’t think. I’m not sure how long it would’ve taken for me to read the novel (maybe 10-14 days based on previous paces), but that would’ve cut into my translation and revision calendar. Over the course of the project, however, I did start to read ahead. I read a few pages ahead on my commutes, just to get an idea of what was coming up, or even just a page or two as I was translating. This was generally “skimming” rather than looking up every word, but it was important to get a feel for the text. If this project confirmed anything for me, it was that you have to translate on the paragraph and page level and not the sentence level.
  • Having both a Kindle and Paper version was helpful. I managed to get a full copy of the book right away with Kindle, so I was off to the races, but it was reassuring to see my progress through the paper copy. It also came handy during revision when I could have the book version open and use my phone for a dictionary app instead of the Kindle app.
  • I do have some major complaints about the Kindle app. The app limits the number of times you can copy and paste from the text. Once you’ve reached the limit, you’re out of luck. This can make it difficult to find the reading of words you don’t know because the Kindle dictionary will only find exact matches (i.e. no inflected verbs or adjectives). You can also use the “share” feature to export text to email and instant message, but this feature is also limited. I mean, I get why they’re doing this, but I also have a hard time imagining that someone would copy and paste an entire ebook. Although maybe I’m underestimating Japanese internet pirates.
  • A portion of what I made from this project paid for my Japanese teacher, and it was well worth it. During my week between jobs, I hired a Japanese teacher over Skype to brush up some of my business Japanese. This ended up being extremely convenient; once the translation project started, we just shifted to my questions about the book. I used the Kindle app to highlight the sections I had questions about and then took screenshots. I sent my teacher the screenshots, and we went over the questions an hour at a time. I found these sessions to be most helpful if I reviewed the sections of the text before the lesson. It was also important to take notes on her explanations and then to make the revisions necessary as soon as possible. And there were definitely revisions necessary. I’m not sure how I imagined translators when I first started studying Japanese and then translating myself, but I think there’s a certain sense that they are supposed to be flawless experts who know every word immediately. It’s safe to say that this isn’t true. It’s critical to have someone to bounce text off of when you don’t understand it. It doesn’t do any good to be too proud to admit you don’t understand something. My teacher helped me figure out some pop culture puns, countless grammar patterns, and general nuances for different sections. She also made fun of me when I asked questions that were too easy. “Just translate it however, it doesn’t matter,” she said a couple of time, ha. I don’t usually promote services, but I can safely recommend Linguage. I believe they have a physical school in Japan, but they also do introductions to online teachers. You can buy sets of 10 lessons, and they cost less than $30/lesson (although this varies with the exchange rate), which seems extremely fair. My teacher actually lives in Germany, which makes the time difference less of an issue.
  • Revise as you go. This is a mistake I made in the first half. I was doing all these Japanese lessons but also so concerned about keeping pace that I pressed forward rather than take a half hour after each lesson to fix what we’d just gone over. I adjusted my process for the second half of the novel. Not only did I make the revisions from the lesson immediately, I did a read through after each chapter and revised as much as I could so that the final revision wouldn’t take as long as it did during the first half. I think this probably made the final revisions easier as well.
  • For the final revision, I tried to read the translation and focus on the English as an entirely separate product. Does the language make sense? Are there any phrases that could be more natural, and would it be too much of a stretch to simplify or combine words/phrases? What exactly was the author trying to say with this section and has that been communicated? I looked at the Japanese as necessary, but it’s an important step to take the English on its own.
  • The metaphor that came to me as I was working was the Photoshop magnetic lasso feature. Translation doesn’t produce an identical product as the original, but it does resemble that original. I like to think that there’s some ideal English product, even though this isn’t true. I do think there are more ideal phrasings (or maybe more natural phrases) than others and that the translation should stick to the original loosely in the way that the magnetic lasso sticks to the outline of an object. If your language strays from the original, you’ll notice. If the language is too far off, the reader will notice as well, even without knowing the shape of the original. I have some examples of this from the revision process that I’ll be able to share when it comes out.

I’ll share more information when I can. It’s a relief to be done! I can adapt the adage and say that it feels better to have translated than to translate, but to be honest not by much! It’s fun to be in there with the text, wrestling with what the Japanese means and how to convey it in English. By my measure, translating fiction is far more pleasurable than writing fiction.

My Translation Desktop

Monday night in Kanda, May 2018. Apropos of nothing other than that I, too, am a hardworking person.

I only vaguely remember my first electronic dictionary. I know I had a very small one I bought in Akihabara in 2003 that deftly jumped around between kanji and compounds. But I left it in a classroom when I got back to the states and someone took it. I’d written my name on it, I think, but it smeared a little.

I bought a new one on Amazon Japan first thing when I moved into my JET apartment, but it was bigger and bulkier and didn’t do the same tasks, despite being the same brand. Should’ve stuck with old reliable.

This was 2005, and I didn’t end up using the dictionary all that much. I switched over to the Nintendo DS kanji dictionary, which made it a breeze to draw out kanji I didn’t recognize. Since I got a smartphone in 2012, I haven’t even used that all that much.

Some of my reading I do either “skimming,” without looking up each word, and the rest (which I’m likely doing for JT articles or translation work), I’m right next to the computer and have the internet at my fingertips.

Part of the reason I can find these characters is Jim Breen. I was in the Japan Times late last month with a profile of him and a look at his WWWJDIC and underlying EDICT dictionary files: “At 180,000 entries, Jim Breen’s freeware Japanese dictionary is still growing.” has been my favorite EDICT-based resource. I know that WWWJDIC has the mult-radical method as well, and maybe I should give the website another chance, but I just find Jisho so easy to use and well designed.

It’s also not often that I have to look up characters. I’m working on a big translation project that I hope to share soon, and I’m reading the text through Kindle on my iPhone, which I’ve written about previously.

I do have major complaints with the dictionary feature. Unlike Jisho, you have to hit the exact word or else it won’t return any hits. Which basically means you can’t search for conjugated verbs or adjectives or you have to hope that the individual kanji has a separate meaning/reading that will then enable you to find it with other stuff.

And my most major complaint with the Kindle is the limit on your ability to copy and paste text. I mean, I get it. You don’t want people copying and pasting the entire text, but it was so damn easy to copy from the iPhone and then paste on my desktop through the MacOS/iOS integration. There must be a way to allow copying and pasting single phrases/words with no limit. We have software smart enough to do this.

So my basic translation desktop setup is this:

Kenkyushu Green Goddess (5th edition) app open on my iPhone (for deep dives into usages and meanings that aren’t easily summarized in a few words)

And the following browser tabs, in no particular order: (for basic word look up) (for usage and context clues) (to give a tired English brain some alternatives or inspiration) (for more diverse and at times reliable context and usage clues) (for Japanese definitions in order to more fully understand a word)

What am I missing? I feel like there must be an easier way to look up individual kanji. Any suggestions?

The Best Japanese Postcards

Quick update for June aimed at any travelers headed to Japan this summer!

The best place to pick up post cards in Japan is at the Post Office, and one of the best post offices is the Tokyo Central Post Office, just opposite the Marunouchi side of Tokyo Station. You can walk around and do your shopping at the Maruzen nearby along with all the great Tokyo station shopping, and then you can pick up post cards, have a coffee while you write them, and drop them in the mail.

They have the very cool postcard set featuring famous sights in a kind of simplified cartoon style. For a while they offered only the old school Japanese postbox, but now it’s expanded to include sights across the country. Stop in the local post offices while traveling to see what’s on offer.

And they have a variety of nicely designed postcards celebrating the history of the Japanese Post Office with really nicely styled post cards.

There are also great souvenirs to bring home as you can see above. Bags, magnets, and other goods. I came home with two magnets.

And don’t forget to ask for nice stamps. There’s almost always something cool, even if it means your stamps exceed the actual cost of postage. They had a Mario set that I regret not asking for, although I did get to use 風神 and 雷神 stamps, which was cool.

PDF Quote-a-palooza

Greetings from Kumamoto! I’m here for work for the rest of this week and then I’ll have a few meetings in Tokyo. I’ll have a few days free at the end of the second week, so if you’re in Tokyo and are interested in getting a beer, get in touch and I’ll let you know what I’m up to.

I was in the Japan Times last week with some tips on deciphering dialogue in Japanese fiction. Big props to the editors for this headline: “Whose line is it anyway? Tips for deciphering dialogue in Japanese fiction.”

Thanks to the JT, this tweet got a bump:

Seems like it’s a topic of interest for many. It sparked a conversation about dialogue in light novels between a few folks on Twitter, which I have to admit I couldn’t really follow.

I’ve been reading a detective novel recently and had forgotten how difficult it can be to follow dialogue in Japanese fiction sometimes. I guess I’m so used to reading Murakami, who makes a point of marking his dialogue well…and, now that I think about it, rarely has more than two people talking on their own.

I don’t have too much to add other than what I wrote in the article, but I did find two interesting links worth looking at. The first is a paper on an Ekuni Kaori short story collection by Michiyo Goda: 江國香織『きらきらひかる』における会話の提示――英訳版と比較して (An Analysis of Speech Presentation in Kaori Ekuni’s Twinkle Twinkle: In Comparison with the English Translation).

Her statement at the top of the paper is similar to the point I make at the beginning of the Japan Times piece:

小説の会話の分析というと、キャラクター 造型との関わりから、発話「内容」に注目が 集まる傾向がある。もちろんこのこと自体に問題はないのだが、文体という観点から会話を扱うならば、その提示「方法」にも注視してしかるべきであろう。
In analysis of dialogue in fiction, there’s a tendency to focus on the “content” of speech in relation to the construction of character. Of course, there’s no problem with this in and of itself, but if we take dialogue as an aspect of literary style, it seems appropriate to place more emphasis on the “methods” of its presentation as well.

I haven’t finished reading this article thoroughly, but there are some really interesting examples, and some excellent points made. She notes for example that in Japanese 伝達部の省略は当たり前になされる (It’s natural to eliminate the communication tags), and then she goes on to explain why:

When communication tags are repeated for each element of speech as in English, Japanese can quickly give a monotonous impression, and this can be considered a mechanism to avoid that.

I need to read this more fully. It has some really interesting thoughts for translators to consider as they work with Japanese. Any translators out there have strong feelings about dialogue work?

The other link is by Kazumi Tachikawa: 日本語教育における引用表現 (On Quotation in Teaching Japanese as a Second Language).

Another super interesting article. I need to read it more in depth, but I fast forwarded to the conclusion (as you do), and found myself nodding:

Even when comprehension of quotations is sufficient, it is apparent that their level of verbal expression hasn’t developed. On the other hand, diverse methods of quotation are used in written expression.

Very interesting indeed. Especially in light of this observation:

First, in classroom (spoken language) quotation expressions, student speech was mostly made up of fragmentary utterances and quoted expressions were not observed. On the other hand, instructors made use of a wide variety of quotations, in terms of phrases and speech content, and they also made use of many different sentence-ending speech constructions, not only using “と (to) + quotation verb” but also “と(って) [to (tte).”

I wonder if there’s a hesitation to drill casual forms of the language such as って. My own experience in the classroom was definitely a です・ます experience, and I can understand why, but I feel like this can be a disservice at times.

Adding these articles to the reading pile, and I hope you do too.

Cool Compound – 出欠

I was in the Japan Times this week with a tutorial on how to teach yourself Japanese that you’ve never learned before (a task that perhaps sounds easy until you think about it for a second…): “OK Google, auto-fill the gaps in my Japanese.”

I changed jobs recently, and I’ve been using more Japanese in my day-to-day thanks to this (somewhat ironically, given the last place where I worked…I’ll leave you to Google this).

I’ve been writing a lot of emails, and I’m often forced to fend for myself as the only Japanese speaker in the office. I’ve gotten fairly adept at using Google to piece together different fragments into what are (hopefully) near-native sentences.

One example that I didn’t have space for in the article was the excellent kanji compound 出欠 (shukketsu, presence or absence), which is a compound made up of opposite words.

I located this compound by searching for 参加するかどうか (sanka suru ka dō ka, be able to attend or not) plus 敬語 (keigo, polite speech). I was eventually able to track down a useful sentence with this phrase after some Google sleuthing and then isolating the phrase “出欠のご返事を” (shukketsu no gohenji o, a reply with your RSVP).

That led me to this sentence, which I used in an email: 出欠のご返事をいただけると幸いです (Shukketsu no gohenji o itadakeru to saiwai desu, We would appreciate it if you could reply with your attendance).

Pretty useful technique. This is the website I found, by the way. It has some excellent examples that are very useful in business emails.

I noticed on Twitter that Tomo brought up some other interesting Google autofill examples, including a way to explore Japanese curiosities about foreigners. The thread is worth checking out.

Video Game Lingo – 覚悟

I was in the Japan Times a couple weeks back with a look at how to improve your Japanese by cheating at video games: “Cheat your way to better Japanese with walkthrough video game guides.”

I bought a Nintendo Switch over the New Year’s holiday. I’ve picked up three games since then, but other than a weekend spent playing Mario Kart 8 with my brother in St. Louis, I have only been putting time into Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. There is so much joy in this game. In every single detail. The weather, the terrain, the puzzles, the atmospheric music, the voice acting, the anime-like storyline.

So much joy that it has outweighed the slight guilt I feel at cheating. In my defense, a friend from college who has two young sons noted on Facebook that the game is “imposiburu” without using online guides. Also in my defense, I just don’t have time to figure out everything. I’ve done most of it on my own, but I have used the guides so I don’t miss things here or there or to save myself some time.

These guides, as I mention in the article, are called 攻略 (kōryaku, walkthroughs), and I’ll let you find them yourself. Finding what you need (or what you want to say) in a foreign language is always good practice. Fortunately, Japanese walkthroughs don’t seem to be the ASCII-laden tomes I remember from the early days of the internets. Even the English walkthroughs these days are more visual and presented in marked up hypertext for ease of browsing.

I think I’m about 60-75% through the main quest in Breath of the Wild, but I have plenty of stuff left to smoke out in terms of side quests and whatnot. I’m kind of in a holding pattern right now, squeezing a little more juice out of the fruit before I start to make more progress on the last leg of the main story. I don’t want it to end.

It’s been fun to play in Japanese. I’ve been running into some of the video game lingo I used to encounter more regularly at my old job. One of these is 覚悟 (kakugo, readiness/preparedness/resolution/resignation).

I’m surprised I haven’t written about it previously, but the search engine tells me there are no instances of it on the blog. You see this word quite frequently in games, such as in this instance:

This was a pretty funny part of the game, and I won’t spoil more than that, but as you may or may not be able to tell, this is immediately before you fight this guy. He’s telling Link to “prepare yourself” with 覚悟 and しな (shi na), which is a short, impolite version of Xしなさい (X shi nasai, do X).

So…are you, punk? 覚悟できているのか? (Kakugo dekite iru no ka).

Get ye to a Nintendo Switchery! Get ye to Hyrule! This game is too good to miss.

Yoshihisa Arai: Floating on Air in Chicago

I’m in the Japan Times this week with a profile of a Japanese ballet dancer here in Chicago: “Yoshihisa Arai: Floating on air in Chicago.”

I don’t have much to add in terms of language other than that “ballet” in Japanese is バレエ and was designated so to differentiate it from volleyball, apparently. There are a lot of Chiebukuro posts about ballet. This is a good read, too.

This is one where I wish I’d had another 1,000 words. I was really impressed not only with his performance but also with all the members of the dance community I was able to speak with for the article and also Yoshi’s own thoughts on art and creation. I guess it makes sense when you consider that he has dedicated the last 18 years of his life to performance and its meaning. (One more year of Japanese study and I’ll be at 18 years…)

You can see video of Yoshi on YouTube discussing The Nutcracker here:

You get a really good sense of the rehearsal space in this video, which is amazing. The Joffrey building is on State Street, and the rehearsal studio has a room-length window looking out over downtown Chicago. The day I went it was snowing and very pretty out.

Here are previews of the latest “Modern Masters” production as well as a look at each of the four pieces in the production:

4koma Coma

Happy New Year! I’m in the Japan Times this week with a look at 四コマ漫画 aka 四コマ aka 4koma: “Yonkoma manga: Lives told, lessons learned in four frames.”

I wrote this article before reading’s look at the nominees for the word of 2017. It made me wonder whether the strips I wrote about were a result of うつヌケ うつトンネルを抜けた人たち (Utsu-nuke: Utsu tonneru o nuketa hito-tachi, Utsu-nuke: The people who made it through the tunnel).

But I realized that Utsu-nuke may be a culmination of sorts. Ryu Tamako’s blog began in 2015 with a look at OCD and seems to have been relatively successful. I’m sure there have also been other examples of mainstream pop culture (dramas? novels?) that have helped make the topic of mental health more accessible over the last 10-15 years.

The pixiv strips I looked at are more recent, so maybe they benefited from the Utsu-nuke phenomenon as well as technological advancements (new social media, easily/affordably accessible digital art supplies). At any rate, I think they’re both great, and I think they both capture the artists remarkably well.

I dug around pixiv for a little lagniappe for the blog and I ended up finding this awesome 4koma: 5分でわかる「羊をめぐる冒険」. It’s basically a manga Cliff Notes version of A Wild Sheep Chase, not your prototypical 4koma structure. I can’t tell if it’s finished…seems like there’s more of the story to tell. I really like the art. It’s very clean but not overly simplified. I’ll have to check back in.

The artist also has a more typical 4koma series titled めがね夫婦日乗 (Megane fūfu nichijō, Daily life of the glasses couple…although I’m not sure I understand the nichijō pun). One funny example is this gem which required me to listen to the 1972 song 北風小僧の寒太郎 (Kita-kaze kozō no Kantarō, Kantarō, The North Wind Kid…as translated here) to understand. If you don’t get the joke, I’ll explain it below*.

Judging from the Wikipedia, the song was NHK’s attempt to make 子供向け演歌 (kodomo-muke enka, enka for kids). Pretty interesting. It comes right as the word enka was starting to coalesce into its own style.

Searching for this song also reminded me of the banana song that used to play over the speakers in my grocery store in Tokyo. I don’t really have an excuse to share it (and I think a stand-alone post would be kind of silly…although maybe silly is what I’m aiming for with this), so here it is. It’s an earworm. 甘熟王!

*In the song, background singers repeat Kantarō but the second verse has やってきた in place of Kantarō, and the husband messes this up and goes with Kantarō again, ruining the wife’s perfect rendition and resulting in his subsequent orz. This is only made funnier by the fact that he says he messed it up on purpose. Ha.

差し入れ Redux

Merry Christmas! I’m home in New Orleans and not scheduled to be back in the Japan Times until early in the New Year, so I wanted to be sure to get a December post in. I may be able to get to another chapter of Hard-boiled Wonderland during my New Year’s break, but I’m not sure, so…

There was a work holiday party that I was unfortunately unable to attend because I was flying out right after work on December 20. The really unfortunate part is that we sat on the tarmac on the plane, fully boarded, for 2.5 hours before leaving, so I probably would have been able to have a quick drink at least.

I was reminded, however, of the lesser-known Japanese tradition of 差し入れ (sashi-ire), which I wrote about over nine years ago now. Fortunately I was reminded of this tradition with enough foresight that I was able to put together a 差し入れ of my own:

I brewed a Dark Mild for my homebrew club’s advent calendar and had plenty to share with coworkers. I’ve heard that it went over well, which is nice. It’s one of the better brews I’ve been able to put together.

I’ve updated one of the links from the earlier post that had died and I also looked through Yahoo Chiebukuro for some more examples. I found this post about someone who was scolded (?) for bringing a 差し入れ. Sounds like it was a kind of bizarre situation, although the best answer does note that bringing them too frequently could be pooh-poohed and that they generally only use them in the case of travel (which is good for me this time).

However, this post shows an example of someone bringing them to バイト coworkers when they have tests and other obligations. The best answer provides an EXCELLENT example of text you can use when providing a 差し入れ. It’s so good I’m going to blockquote it here:


You’ll probably want to adjust the punctuation here slightly, adding a few commas and periods, but the language is solid and very polite. Lemme break down how the language works: Apology (申し訳ありません) for being unable to go in for reasons (私用) —> Expression of appreciation for coworkers (大変お世話になっています) —> Expression of humility for gift being brought (気持ちだけですが) —> Performative statement expressing action of bringing a gift (差し入れを持って参りました) —> Expression asking coworkers to enjoy gift (召し上がって下さい).

13/10 would use myself.

The real goal of 差し入れ is to provide consideration coverage. They are a way to demonstrate that you’re tuned in and considerate of your surroundings. They show you’re a part of a group, that you can participate. In 2018, we should all endeavor to bring a little more consideration and participation into the world.

Except for Donald Trump and the Republicans. Seriously, fuck those guys and anyone who stands with them because they are petty racists and we’re going to unseat them all in 2018. They deserve no consideration because they give none.