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.”


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.


Will Ferguson Almost Made It into My Book!

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.”