Sometime toward the end of February, a longtime client of ours contacted me and asked if we could translate some elementary school math textbooks. Yikes! I’m freelance and try really hard not to say no, but I told her quite honestly that I have no confidence in being able to do that. I’m not stupid. I always did all right in math and I do like its logic and symmetry, but it’s just not something I’ve ever been very interested in. The same goes for Rochi. I consulted with him and he had the same horrified reaction, so I said no to the client. But she came back to me a couple of days later saying she really needed us. She’d contacted a couple of commercial translation services and they said the same thing—no confidence in translating math into English, so would I please reconsider? She said that she trusted us, a big word for which I have a great deal of respect. All right, I said, we’ll give it a go, but I can’t promise great quality and we’ve never done a project like that, so I have no idea how much to charge.
The only thing that we had translated that was even vaguely similar to this project was a script for a rather pornographic role playing video game. The client pretty much lied about the quantity of material, the deadline was impossible and the pay was peanuts. Plus, Rochi doesn’t read porn in Japanese, much less in English, so he didn’t know the words. There were times when I would stand up and say, OK, just point to the part. I know the names for them. It’s funny now; it wasn’t so funny at the time.
Our client got back to me with an offer of payment which was…well…hard to ignore. So we met with her. She wanted us to do all of 4th and 6th grade, 10 sets each of texts and answer books for each grade. The texts ranged from 30 to 36 pages, the answer books from 16 to 20, a total of about 890 pages. They only had print copies, so each and every sentence or phrase had to be numbered by hand and corresponding numbers were to be typed into Word files along with the translation. And could we please complete the project by the end of March? She was honest about the reason: they needed to use up their budget before the March 31 fiscal year end. And it wasn’t enough to just spend the money; we had to get the work done to prove they hadn’t done something fishy. We found ourselves between a rock and a hard place or at least in a very hard place.
At first I thought, well, we don’t actually have to do the math, we just have to translate it. But then I realized we can’t translate something we don’t understand. But then I realized the math wasn’t really very hard, but I had to go back and re-learn a bunch of stuff I’d forgotten 40 years ago. And Rochi, who had had even longer to forget, never knew the words in English in the first place. (Kudos to a website called Math Is Fun. We couldn’t have done it without you.) It’s true his English is very fluent, but he learned it mostly by using it. When was the last time you sat down with a pal and a cold beer and had a chat about trapezoids and inverse proportions? Add to that words like “quadrilateral” and “parallelogram”—that’s a lot of R’s and L’s for a Japanese tongue to navigate.
Early on, we were doing live translation, where he reads the text to me in English and I re-write in my head and type it out, which is the fastest but hardest way to do it. We were both tired and stressed, and he stumbled. “Quadri…quandri…quandi…quan…square: big word.” I laughed until I cried; he’d said it with a straight face and some frustration in his voice. He had some trouble remembering “isosceles”, but was very pleased when I couldn’t spell it. He also often said “deduced” instead of “reduced” and “distract” instead of “subtract” but after a while I just put myself on auto-correct and kept going. Same with the kitten fights. We would often snap at each other, which usually means a couple of days of long faces and silent treatment, but we had no choice other than to get over it and move on.
The words to A Spoonful of Sugar kept going through my head:
In every job that must be done
There is an element of fun
You find the fun and, snap, the job’s a game
And every task you undertake
Becomes a piece of cake
Unless it’s an 8 inch stack
Of elementary school math
Yes, I took some liberty with the words
We had met with the client on February 27, but because of prior commitments, couldn’t really get down to work until March 7. After a couple of days of getting oriented, we realized we could get through one set of text/answer book in a day if we started early and nothing went wrong, like the computer eating part of what we’d already finished (it happened twice), or a minor kitten fight blowing up into lions and tigers ripping each other into gory lumps of steaming meat (three times).
I had a quick consultation with the calendar and realized with a bang and a bump that there was no way in hell we’d finish the project by the deadline. I had a couple of outside jobs I couldn’t cancel and about a dozen smaller projects going at the same time. So I contacted Keiko, a translator I’d worked with in the past, a real translator, licensed and everything. I knew that not only is she very good, she is extremely conscientious, a pleasure to work with and I can trust her. (There’s that big word again.) She agreed to take on half of sixth grade and was grateful, but got the same glassy-eyed expression we got when we showed her the pile of papers.
These were not standard school texts, but rather supplementary texts to give kids a leg up on their school work. All of it has friendly teacher characters who guide several kids through the material. Fourth grade was pretty basic: multiplication and division, fractions and decimals, line graphs and simple equations, how to use protractors and triangular rulers. This was all stuff I knew at one time, but with each new unit, I had to go back to Math Is Fun and find vocabulary and definitions. To be honest, that was kind of fun. The real problem was the convoluted Japanese. The point was less about teaching math than about teaching kids how to think, so each new topic was introduced in teeny, tiny baby steps. Have you ever tried to explain, in written words, how to do long division? It reminded me of a Basic computer programming course I took in college. One of our assignments was to write a program to pay the babysitter. We had to map out every tiny detail from finding the total length of the sitter’s sit to counting out the number of bills and coins to pay her with. It’s harder than it sounds.
After a couple of days, my computer desk was festooned cheat sheets—Post-its covered with equations and keyboard shortcuts and a diagram of a cube because I can never remember what goes where for V = L x W x H. The Math Is Fun website tab remained open for the entire month. I had a protractor/ruler set and a calculator near at hand. We worked out a schedule: in the morning, as soon as I had scraped the cobwebs off my brain, we would work for a couple of hours, then have an early lunch, back at it until 3:30 teatime, and continue until 6:30 or 7:00, at which point both of our brains had melted and we were making so many mistakes it was just a waste of time.
I discovered that I do actually use math in life…some. I use ratios and metric conversions in cooking—my Joy of Cooking is all in American units and my kitchen is metric. And I use ratios and proportions in shopping, which is also metric, and for price comparison. But honestly, I have very little use for the ability to find the area of an irregular rhombus or make statistical comparisons among the chest measurements of 12 year old boys. (That might be a different story if they were strapping 25 year olds.)
One thing that was surprisingly difficult was the physical proximity. We both had to be close enough to the screen to see what I was writing and I and my keyboard would be gradually pushed toward the edge of the desk as I tried to make space for both of us. I’ve always had personal space issues. My mother says she thought I was autistic when I was a baby because I didn’t like people to touch me. Perhaps that’s why I never get groped on the subway. There must be something in my face that says, “Keep your distance, mate. I may just bite you.” I just don’t like to be crowded. (“Why then,” you may ask, “did you settle in Tokyo?” Ah, one of life’s unanswerable questions.).
Rochi was truly heroic. Not only did he manage to learn all those dreadful words, he also did all the numbering and maintained a master list of often used phrases and terms. Every morning, he would be up by 6:00 and numbering by 7:00. He does have a way of burying himself in a project to the exclusion of all else. He said he sees himself as a workhorse with blinders on. I see him as more of a snapping turtle; he grabs hold of something and won’t let go. He’s probably the most stubborn person I’ve ever known, but at times that is a good thing.
March was the longest month of our lives, including my lengthy incarceration in the hospital for knee surgery, but we finished it, and we made the deadline. And we’re going to get paid. I closed Math Is Fun and threw away the Post-its. Yesterday was rainy and cold and a bitter wind was blowing, but when the tempest passed, I’m told there were rainbows. I didn’t see them because I was staring at the computer, but today I feel like someone put those rainbows in a bottle and used them to make me a sunshine cocktail.
I can barely describe the feeling of euphoria I experienced when I handed the shopping bag full of texts back to the client. I’ve rarely had such a complete sense of closure. I felt the elephant step gently off my shoulders and lumber off into the distance. Sometimes you don’t realize how stressed out you are until you aren’t anymore. And here’s a happy thought: Now we can get started on the much less tedious process of forgetting all this stuff again.