I created a Google group which has a sleek discussion thread feature which, with the touch of a button, completely translates every email in a given thread -- or at least it tries to!
As the Tokyo ladies geared up, organizing everything from logistics to publicity, a flurry of Japanese emails billowed through my inbox. And every day or so, I'd check the translated group page to see what all the chatter was about, and then weigh in, if necessary.
Yesterday's round told me that Tuesday night would be a Special Evening.
PURE-NYC's good friend, the Japanese-English BodyPoet Kazuma, had given them the DVD of PURE Reflections recorded in April at Columbia -- and many of the dancers who had signed onto the project in blind faith would see the show for the first time.
I chatted briefly online a few hours earlier with Naho, one of the PURE Tokyo facilitators.
"We're so excited to hear what your reaction will be to it," I wrote.
What I really wanted to say was, "We can't wait to hear what you think of it," but for some reason whenever I talk to a non-English speaker, I always find myself imitating their speech pattern (or at least my perception of it... which, come to think of it, probably ends up comically confusing to them).
"I appreciate all your help and very precise comments and advices :)", she wrote back, and then had to take a phone call.
This morning, I saw a long Japanese email on my mobile and ran to the laptop to read the translated thread.
"Reflections on DVD today held a meeting 10/28. The report. Here are some details as well as topics mix. ... Performance about 58 minutes, after which the 15-minute Q & A."
OK so far. Then followed a bulleted list of their reactions to the show.
"Acting is terrible."
My jaw dropped. Oh god, I thought, they hate us!!
Then I read through the rest of the list:
Scene 7 -- Demon, scary!
Scene 9 -- Spiral, wonderful scenes of the sun.
"Everyone (even those not moving) to the acting, which everybody understands the meaning of the scene."
In other words: They liked us!! They really liked us!!
So clearly it was just a translator issue... right?
I scrolled back up to the fateful characters -- 演技力がすごい -- and brought up a variety of online translators, first Dictionary.com and AppliedLanguage.
Both spat back, "Acting is terrible."
Then my inner-HitchHiker took me to AltaVista's blessed BabelFish, which rendered, "Performance power is enormous." And WorldLingo concurred.
Ahhhhh! Now that's more like it!
But how did this happen?
I broke the phrase down, character-by-character, and fed it to each translation engine.
Piecemeal, it reads something like this: "Performing/Played skill/technology force/power the it does us."
So the issue it seems was in switching "enormous" with "terrible" -- which by colloquial English standards is a pretty terrible thing to do, as we are used it meaning "really, really bad."
But earlier meanings have more to do with awe-stricken fear. Indeed, the word itself stems from Indo-rooted Sanskrit and Avestan for "feared" AND "revered" -- indeed, anything that would cause us to tremble in awe, as enormous things are wont to do.
My guess is that the Japanese character for "force/power" must have multiple meanings which, when combined idiomatically, could render as "terrible," "enormous" -- or, dare I say, awesome ☺ -- and probably dozens of other ways depending on the translator.
Given the vast sea of translational possibilities, the fact that Google and other online translators do as good a job as they do is pretty freaking camel-through-the-eye-of-a-needle amazing.
And the fact that there are so many translation engines to offer second, third and fourth opinions is beyond mind-blowing to me.
But in the end, perhaps it is best to remember these two rules of online translation:
(1) Always give your correspondent the benefit of a doubt. Even in the same language, email can be easily misinterpreted; and
(2) Some online translations are best experienced like a John Ashbery poem -- just let let the images wash over, smile sweetly and pretend you understand.