In Osaka, Japan, I had recently taken the opportunity to sign up for a recording device “experiment” through a company that needed native English speakers to test out their translating device on Japanese people in some sort of field experiment. All I knew was this, and that I would get paid 100 dollars for about three hours of “work”. Most often, I signed up for things like this because for one, the extra money never hurts and two, it always turned out to be an interesting experience. I have found that if I walk into things blindly and with no expectations, I always have a new and interesting experience to talk about later.
This recording was taking place in Kyoto, which was only a stone’s throw away from Osaka, about 45 minutes by train. On this particular day, the heat was soaring and I was suddenly very sorry that I had signed up. If anyone has survived a Japanese summer, you know what I'm talking about. Muggy, hot, humid...no wonder the Japanese carry umbrellas everywhere in the summer to shield themselves from the intense sun.
The experiment, I discovered, involved completing three tasks in which you had to use a translating device in various situations, and get Japanese people to speak into the device. The experiment was to test out the device to discover if improvements could be made on it and how convenient it would be to use them. The translating device, I was told, was worth about $4,000. I just hoped that I wouldn’t drop it.
My first task to complete was to buy pickles, using the device to translate my English into Japanese, after which we had to try to get the Japanese speaker to speak into the device, translating their Japanese back into English so that we could communicate.
This was not as easy as it sounded.
Approaching the pickle stand, I chose the my first victim, a rather young and nervous looking guy.
“Excuse me, I’m looking to buy some pickles. Do you have any recommendations?” I asked loudly into the device in English.
The young man looked at me in alarm.
Pressing on the button to translate my sentence to Japanese, I held the recorder up to his ear. He jumped back and shook his head.
“It’s okay, it’s okay," I soothed him in Japanese. “I am testing this equipment. Please speak into this device.”
“I can speak English,” he stuttered, still looking at me with wild eyes, clearly terrified of me and my strange device.
“No, no, please just speak in Japanese,” I replied back.
He looked at me in confusion and then looked at the recording device like it was a ticking bomb. I noticed his hands were shaking. Again, I pressed the button so that the device would translate my previous sentence into Japanese. Since he seemed reluctant to get anywhere near the recording device, I showed him the character translation that appeared on the small screen.
“Aaaah…so ka,” he said, indicating he understood.
Pointing out some fluorescent yellow pickles, he nodded.
I pointed to the device again, indicating for him to speak in Japanese into the device.
“You should try these pickles,” he said in English.
I sighed softly to myself. This was not working.
“Dake Nihon-go,” I said, instructing him to speak only in Japanese.
I tried again.
This time, he replied in Japanese, which I showed him, was then translated into English. However, he still looked absolutely terrified of the handheld device. I was sure he thought I was just another crazy foreigner. I had to get this done quickly or else he was going to run away and I would have to start all over again with someone new.
After asking a few more questions such as “how much are they?”, “do you have any other recommendations?” and “do you have any for under 500 yen?” and nearly pulling teeth to get him to answer me, I was finished with my first task. And I had a bag of delicious pickles to show for it.
My next task was to ask for directions in the train station.
This time, I was looking for someone who wouldn’t want to run off screaming into the night after talking to me. Approaching a young and hip-looking guy leaning against a wall and smoking a cigarette (surprising fact of the day: 70% of Japanese men smoke), I confidently walked up to him, large handheld device in hand.
“Hello! What bus can I take to get to Kiyomizudera temple?” I asked (into the device).
Looking at me like I was the biggest nerd on the planet, he shrugged.
“Basu….ni-ju go…tabun,” he replied, taking a drag of his cigarette.
I pressed on.
Indicating to him to speak into the device, I felt extremely embarrassed. Why had I signed up for this? Fortunately, he obliged and spoke into the recorder. Pressing the button to translate it back into English, I showed him how it worked. He nodded, uninterested. Unfortunately for him, I had been instructed to ask at least four questions.
Four questions later, he was clearly annoyed. I apologized.
Finding the facilitator, I let her know which sentences I had asked him and what responses I had gotten for her notes.
“I’m sorry, can you ask him one more question? Can you ask him if he knows how much a bus ticket is?” she asked.
It is really hard to say no to the Japanese when they ask you to do something. When you are asked to do something for your job, you do it, no questions asked.
I nodded but inside I was groaning. That guy was going to kill me.
Setting off to find him, I was happy to discover that he was still in the same place, smoking another cigarette.
“I’m very sorry but I have to ask you one more question”, I said, approaching him timidly.
He did not look happy.
“How much is a bus ticket?” I asked, then showing him the translation.
“Wakaranai,” he replied. I don't know. He didn’t know and I wasn't going to press the issue with him any longer. I mean, if he didn’t know, he didn’t know right?
Finding the facilitator, I let her know this and also that I was unable to ask any more questions of this particular individual for fear of him taking the $4,000 dollar device and smashing it to bits on the ground (leaving out the last part of course). She nodded.
My last task of the day was to buy a souvenir at a traditional shop in Kyoto. Entering the shop, I groaned. All the shop staff were elderly ladies. There was no way they were going to want to talk into a $4,000 dollar piece of equipment and to a foreigner at that.
Approaching my first elderly victim timidly, I admired a stand of delicious looking Japanese sweets to give her a chance to approach me. I spoke into the recorder.
“I’m looking for some sweets for a souvenir for my family. Do you have any recommendations?”
She looked at me strangely and backed away a couple of steps. Pressing the button to translate my English into Japanese, I held it out to her so she could read the kanji. She looked at me as though I was carrying a live bomb and backed away further.
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” I soothed in Japanese, as though speaking to a small child.
From the look on her face, it clearly wasn't.
She came closer, squinting at the letters on the small monitor of the device.
Nodding, she pointed to a box of strawberry-flavored daifuku, a Japanese dessert.
As I motioned for her to speak into the device, she backed away again. I was clearly getting nowhere. Thanking her for her time, I shuffled back to the facilitator, my tail between my legs. I had failed the task.
Explaining to her that none of the older ladies in the shop seemed receptive, I threw up my arms to indicate that I wasn’t sure what to do. She nodded.
“I would like for you to ask that woman at that snack stand over there where the bathroom is,” she replied.
This woman was a slave driver! This seemed to be the final task however. I could do it!
With confidence, I walked to the lady at the snack stand, asking the question into the recording device. Laughing heartily in response, she pointed to the left and began rambling away in Japanese. Pressing the record button on the device, I tried to record everything she said. Giving a small bow to show my appreciation, I finished the recording and walked back to the facilitator.
“And what does this mean?” she asked, listening to the translation.
I had no idea.