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June 8, 2012

Transcending the language barrier

photo of the translation team

The RIKEN translation team

Who are you and what do you do at RIKEN?

We are a small group in the Strategies and Communications Section of the Global Relations Office at RIKEN Headquarters on the Wako campus in Saitama, northwest of Tokyo. The team was formed just over six years ago and currently consists of five people: three Americans and one Japanese for translating between Japanese and English, and one Chinese for translating between Japanese and Chinese. We help to facilitate communication not only within RIKEN, but also between RIKEN and the outside world, by translating the large volume of documents generated daily by the various administrative divisions and offices at RIKEN.

How has your work changed since the team was formed?

The volume of our work has increased steadily over the years as RIKEN evolves into an ever-more internationally oriented organization. In an indirect way we help to generate information on RIKEN’s diverse scientific activities and infrastructure for an increasingly globalized audience. The development of RIKEN’s capacity to communicate in foreign languages is still a work in progress, but there is certainly more information available in English within RIKEN today than there was a few years ago.

What are the biggest challenges you face in your work?

Translation is an imperfect way of conveying information between different languages because it provides only an approximate meaning of the original. At worst, translation can even lead to confusing or misleading information. Many of the Japanese documents produced by RIKEN are complex and use bureaucratic language, which can be challenging to render accurately in other languages. Language barriers are also inherently associated with cultural barriers, which are much more difficult to transcend. This is especially important within RIKEN, where so many different nationalities and cultures are represented.

How do you address the cultural differences in your work at RIKEN?

The documents we translate range from routine notices to important policy statements, but each receives the same high level of professional commitment and attention to detail. When translating, we often have long discussions as to what is actually meant by the Japanese text and how to convey that meaning in English. Sometimes we have to contact the original writer of the document for background information. We also discuss the contents with RIKEN’s administrative staff, who are always receptive to our suggestions and work closely with us to draft accurate and easy-to-read documents.

What is the best thing about your job at RIKEN?

The translation team promotes cross-cultural communication by highlighting not only the different communication styles between Japanese, English and Chinese, but also the different cultural values that underlie those styles. During the translation process we discover new cultural perspectives that help us to render the core message—not just the words—of the original text. This cultural exchange is a real joy and improves communication skills for both the Japanese and non-Japanese staff at RIKEN. We are proud to be contributing to the ongoing internationalization of RIKEN.