TOKYO — When I decided to move to Tokyo, I didn't truly understand what learning Japanese meant. Three alphabets, thousands of ideograms, and a way to omit the verb's subject (known as the null-subject rule) that often left me frozen with that polite-but-crooked smile of a dinner guest who can't grasp what the conversation is about.
Some very painful memories remain from that experience. Like trying to use just my hands to explain to a tax office employee (a very nice one, by the way) the logic of my income deductions. Or calling my bank's telephone service and being eternally stuck in "press 2" limbo.
A year-and-a-half later, I can read, with much effort, lifestyle articles in the newspaper and congratulate myself when I can chat without any major faux pas for 45 minutes at the barber. And of course I'm hardly the first person to have observed the gigantic gap between European languages and Japanese.
With an eye to 2020 and the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan is striving to improve a general level of English that has largely stagnated in recent years. The goal is of course to improve individual language skills, but also to increase both public and private investment in simultaneous translation technology.
For example, the VoiceTra app, developed by a Japanese state-owned institute, allows users to speak into their smartphones in English and then get the Japanese equivalent from a synthetic voice. I tested it and its rival Jspeak from private company Docomo. As long as you limit yourself to short sentences, it works surprisingly well to ask your way around or book a plane ticket.
It can also provide you with a good laugh if you utter such colloquial phrases as "when pigs fly." Of course, these apps are bound to improve on the idiomatic front, even before pigs fly. I can already imagine how the way we experience being abroad could change if this technology is adapted to smart glasses or watches.
Does this prospect make me happy? Yes and no. I often think back to my first few months in Tokyo, of the sounds my tongue wouldn't allow me to make, and the strange but pleasurable sensation that somehow results from it. When the words abandon you and signs become too abstract, other means of observation and communication come to the fore: the theater of bodies, the eloquence of the eyes, a choreography of manners and postures, the music of conversations and mosaic of clothes, that odd beauty hidden in advertisements and road signs.
There's much to be gained from being lost in translation. It'd be a shame to see it go.