The Care and Feeding of Translators

by Rich Maloof

Recently, I’ve been translating at the Honbu on Saturdays and there are a few points I’d like to bring up on how to make your experience there a little smoother.

Recently, I’ve been translating at the Honbu on Saturdays and there are a few points I’d like to bring up on how to make your experience there a little smoother.


When you walk in the door, there is a group of students and a teacher. The translator is a student like everyone else. If you find that you have a question that needs to be asked, please direct it to the INSTRUCTOR, and not to the translator. I don’t know how many times I’ve said to someone, “Are you asking me, or XYZ sensei?” This is a very common mistake, but is also very rude. The translator will actually appreciate it if you FOCUS YOUR ATTENTION ON THE INSTRUCTOR, even as he interprets for you what the instructor is saying. This is an act of respect for the teacher, and that’s the most important thing. After all, you want to build a relationship with the teacher, and not the translator, right?

This does NOT mean that the translator is an invisible slave who will hop to your side every single time you feel the urge to open your mouth! Keep in mind that the translator is there as a service to the TEACHER, and NOT as a service to the students. He is there spending his own hard-earned time and money to train, just like you, with the added effort of having taken the time to learn the Japanese language beforehand. If you want him to stop his own training every five minutes and run over so that he can translate a question for you, you should discuss and arrange this beforehand and pay him his hourly rate.


There are some Japanese shihan who will want to try speaking English or Spanish with you. By all means have fun in these situations, but do your best to handle them on your own. Don’t involve the translator in your efforts to be understood unless absolutely neccessary. Smile, keep it simple, and be ready to save it for later and get back to training.


Sometimes, when a concept is being demonstrated, people get excited and want to blurt out comments about what they see, or what they think the teacher means. This urge is understandable, but is considered rude, REGARDLESS of what dan rank you hold, how many seminars you’ve taught, how many books you’ve written or videos you’ve made. It blurs the line between who is the teacher and who is the student, and this is HIGHLY inappropriate when training anywhere, but especially in Japan. It is also annoying to the teacher, who will more often than not be unable to fully understand and/or verify your re-interpretation of what he is saying. (It drives me nuts when, after I translate something simple, someone says something like, “But what sensei really means is to polish your knob until it gleams like a mirror,” or some other such garbage!)

Bear in mind that this mistake can also happen when translating from English into another language, for example Spanish, Dutch, etc. etc. PLEASE don’t assume the role of teacher yourself. The shihan is the teacher, you are the student. As a co-translator, the shihan is speaking through you. Please do not grab a friend and begin demonstrating the technique as you translate into your language. Let the teacher demonstrate with *his* movements, you just translate the words. Later, on your own, you can discuss and re-interpret to your hearts content.


Another thing people often forget or don’t realize is that when you come into the dojo, it’s perfectly okay say ‘hello’ to the instructor. While you yourself may feel somewhat shy as a newcomer to Japan, think how would you feel if you were surrounded by a group of people all speaking their own language–and not one of them made an effort to talk to you or greet you? Even in your own home town this would feel uncomfortable, especially when these same people are suddenly hounding you for advice once the class has begun! Small talk is fine. Say ‘good morning’ or practice your Japanese or talk about the weather. You don’t have to be a megadan or a ‘personal student’ of his in order to walk up and say hello.

You don’t have to ask about ‘winning a fight’ or ‘what do you think about XYZ sensei leaving the Bujinkan?’ (However, if you want to stir up a hornets’ nest like that, I’m sure I can find someone ELSE to translate for you!)


On those cold, rainy Saturday afternoons, there’s nothing wrong with asking the teacher if he’d like you to make him some tea before class. If he’s driven a long way he’d probably appreciate it.

Lastly, bear in mind that the happier and more at ease your instructor feels, the more likely he is to offer you the ‘keys to the castle’ which is what you came all the way to Japan to get in the first place!


(Originally published in Muzosa Journal 7/22/05. Author retains all copyrights.)

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