Will Ferguson’s Translation Tale Sparked Another Fine Story

My friend Bob McArthur was inspired by Will’s encounters with the Japanese language to recount this story from Toronto in the late ’80s. He was working at City Hall and had the pleasure of dealing with foreign delegations arriving to study major projects in Toronto.

In Bob’s words:  “One of the biggest of these delegations was from the Japan Building Centre. We organized a serious program for them . . . with architects and so on . . . but at that moment, many people were trying to claim credit for having been instrumental in building the SkyDome. A well-known architect who had a marginal role in the project learned of the delegation and astonishingly came to the Committee Room where we were meeting . . . and took my chair at the head of the table and began to pronounce in English about himself and his firm’s important role.”

ENTER THE JAPANESE INTERPRETER.

Bob continues, “I explained to the tour guide/ interpreter that this gentleman was not one of our presenters and was not invited to speak (unlike Rod Robbie and others who had designed the building). He kindly told the delegates so, and that they should ignore him, and when he was done we would get on with our planned program.”

Can you imagine the delights here for a bilingual observer? Here’s my unkind reconstruction:

ARCHITECT (in English): “. . . very proud of the contribution made by our firm in helping to construct this historic . . .”

TRANSLATOR (in Japanese): “You can ignore what this man is saying. He has no role here and is just boasting.”

ARCHITECT (smiling): “ . . . a great opportunity for me to explain to you just how experienced our people are in handling international projects . . . and now I’ll just pause to allow my translator to catch up . . .”

TRANSLATOR: “I have really nothing to say. We’re just waiting for this rude man to stop talking, so that we can get on with the real meeting. He should be stopping soon.”

ARCHITECT: “So if there are no questions . . . no? . . . I’ll just thank you for your attention and look forward to doing lots of business with our admired Japanese friends. And by the way, I really like sushi! Thank you.”

TRANSLATOR: “He has stopped talking. Now the man moving into the chair is our friend Bob, and we can get on with the planned meeting.”

Bob ends his story with the pleasing words, “I believe that gentleman and his famous architectural firm did not win any work in Japan.”

There’s a special pleasure in imagining the architect getting back to his office and reporting, “Yes, I got to make a pitch to them . . . and I think it went pretty well!” There may be a whole book about translation stories. A good title might be Lost in Translation.

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