I was delighted when my friend Will Ferguson won the Giller last night. He and I and the film world’s Michael MacMillan were the only three people at the Giller Dinner in kilts, and it sure seemed to work for Will. (When we compared knees, his were sturdier, but mine were browner, and the hairiness was a manly tie.)
In kilted solidarity, Jane and I cleaned up in the side betting at our table, by putting our money on 419.
Although I have never published Will, we have had a friendly acquaintanceship for some years, and a story about him almost made it into Stories About Storytellers. It was in the original version, which (and I know this is hard for my most dedicated admirers, and my mother, to envisage) seemed to be a little too long. So, with the assistance of my editor, Jen Knoch, I edited out some stories.
Including this one:
After getting an Arts degree, like so many young Canadians Will headed off to teach English in Japan. He lived in an English-speaking bubble, so his use of Japanese was restricted to the usual tourist stuff: “Men’s room?” “How much?” “What time train to Yokohama?” and so on. And everyone he met socially was determined to practice their English on him, so he stayed at a basic tourist level.
When he came back to Canada, after the usual spell of hanging out with friends, it became necessary to get a job. A newspaper ad for a job with the Tourism Board in PEI, caught his eye. He met the general requirements – a B.A., and a willingness to relocate to P.E.I. (sounds great!) and an ability to write. But what caught his eye was a line about “the ability to speak Japanese” being an asset.
Will is like the rest of us, and he really wanted the job. So in his application, and the subsequent interviews he did not, let’s say, “understate” his fluency in Japanese. And he got the job!
He spent a number of happy months in PEI until the day his boss came into the office, rubbing his hands. “Great news, Will. You know how keen Japanese tourists are to come here to visit Anne of Green Gables sites. Well, next week, a whole busload of Japanese Tourist Agency owners are coming here, and you’ll have a chance to use your Japanese language skills on them!”
It was a dreadful week for Will. He spent hours secretly combing through phrase books and dictionaries.
Then the day came, when the busload of smartly dressed Japanese men filed off their bus, and stood attentively before Will’s boss. He welcomed them, in English, then proudly introduced “my colleague, Will Ferguson, who will address you in your own language.”
Will stepped forward, and said, in Japanese: “As you can hear, I not really speak Japanese. But my boss here, he not know that. So please not to tell him.”
There was a gale of laughter.
Then Will said, in Japanese, “Many thanks, nice to see you here, welcome to Prince Edward Island, and now I talk in English.”
When he finished, he was warmly applauded. A number of the Japanese visitors even came up, congratulated him, and said loudly to his boss, “Very good Japanese.”
When the successful visit was over, his boss was very pleased. “That went really well, Will. But tell me, what was the joke you made early on that really got them laughing?”
“Ah,” said Will, “It’s kind of hard to translate.”