Translating for the Fire Department: When it’s Okay to Shout “Fire”

It’s been just over a year since TranSenz went online, so I thought I would take this opportunity to share a story about one of my favorite parts of the job of translation. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that, in addition to my role with TranSenz, I also work with international students at a local university. The story below actually comes from that job, but it applies to everything I do.

Translation keeps you learning.

To be happy in my job, I always need to be learning something new. One of my favorite parts about translation and interpretation is that I never know what I’ll get to learn at my job in any given day. Some days, I’m trying to translate Japanese insurance laws into comprehensible English. (Ok, so that isn’t really much fun- why is it that lawyers in any language feel the need to write so that nobody else can understand them?) Other days, I’m working on academic articles on any of a variety of fields. I often have to do background research in the field to make sure I’m familiar with the jargon and the specific topic and I almost always learn something new and intriguing. But translation gives me the time to do that research and learn the topic in depth. Interpretation- especially spot interpretation- is a whole other challenge, since there’s no time to research or look up a word I don’t know. Context is my only friend.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

In elementary school, I remember a significant portion of my class answered that they wanted to be firefighters. Well, I’ve never rushed into a burning building, and the only fire I’ve ever extinguished was a direct result of my own cooking attempts, but a few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to work with the fire department during a training exercise. The international student dorm at school had scheduled a fire drill, and I was asked to attend, “just in case I had to explain what was going on.” The drill went smoothly, without any input from me, but it turns out the fire department wanted to hold fire extinguisher practice with the students, as well. So I got to stand up in front of the group and help explain how to use the building’s fire extinguishers, up to the point of shouting “fire” (“kaji da!”) to start the practice drills. I was a little nervous standing in front of a group with no preparation as to what I would be talking about, but after I got going, I forgot all that and was just happy to know that I was doing a little good.

Translating unique cultural concepts.

A Hi no Youjin lantern

There’s no better way to remind people to be mindful of their fires than with a paper lantern.

One of the terms that came up during the Q&A that followed was 火の用心 “hi no youjin.” A direct translation, “precautions against fire,” does not get the proper message across, without a little cultural background. So despite the lead firefighter’s evident confusion when my translation lasted significantly longer than his four-syllable phrase, I went ahead and expanded a little bit.

Even now, in my neighborhood, you can occasionally hear a man walking around knocking woodblocks together and calling out “hi no youjin.” (Up until recently, I thought he was trying to sell something.) In traditional Japanese villages, houses were constructed out of wood and clustered closely together. Even if the construction materials have changed, the clustering remains consistent today- my back yard is smaller than my living room. The danger of a fire spreading from one house to another is much higher than in other countries where I’ve lived. So, “hi no youjin” reflects the understanding that the entire community relies on each person’s attention.

Focus on Prevention

A Hi no Youjin patrol in kyoto

A “Hi no Youjin” patrol in Kyoto.

During the Q&A the presenter from the fire department explained that their duties included everything from prevention and community education to integrated response to fires. The “hi no youjin” spirit was evident to me in their preparation that day’s drill and training. I can’t imagine the fire department in any of the towns where I lived in America dedicating a truck, crew, and dozen and a half extinguishers to an afternoon of training for a dormitory, community group, or apartment building. Maybe it happens, but for me, and for a lot of the students I talked to, this was a unique experience. Although I was already a fairly proficient fire extinguisher operator, thanks to past experiences, I learned a lot from the presentation (including a handful of new words!) and I was really thankful that my role as an interpreter gave me the opportunity to help out with an event like this!

Learn Something, Do Some Good

Translation isn’t always this exciting, but it’s the days that I get to do something meaningful that make it the best job in the world. Even when I’m working in silence at my desk, the constant challenge of grasping the meaning and subtleties of a phrase in one language then creating the same effect in the other is the kind of puzzle that keeps me excited and proud of my work. Besides (and this is not an obligatory statement, at all), I have the best boss.

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