Connection and Disconnect in Translation

My sensei, which means teacher or mentor in Japanese, has known me since I was four years old. While he understands English, he always writes to me in Japanese, in his exceptional calligraphy, difficult for me to read because it is a style I am not familiar with. When I was younger I delayed returning his letters because I was insecure and shy about my language ability. As I grew older I found it even harder to express myself and my ideas because I was not in full control of the language. This motivated me to develop my Japanese language skills when I entered college and began my linguistic transition.


In the winter of 2012, my sensei and I went to Tokyo Station, after the completion of its 5-year renovation to restore it to pre-World War II condition. Going with my sensei held deep meaning for me, because I have always admired the rich history of the station, with its mix of Western architecture and Japanese railway design. With its red brick and circular dome, the building itself symbolized my cultural and linguistic experience  learning English and Japanese. It was the West and the East, two opposing forces that would normally clash, coming together to create something unique and beautiful.

Although I grew up bilingual in America, and did not have the Japanese background the rest of my family had, our miscommunications were dismissed as cultural difference, and I felt my family often did not try to understand my ideas or me as an individual. “You’re American, you wouldn’t understand,” they would say, to end any conversation in which I struggled to follow or simply expressed disagreement. My elders would treat me as something foreign, despite the blood relation, and I wanted them to know who I was as a person, and to make a connection with me. Through my efforts to translate the complex thoughts I was having in English into Japanese, I came to understand that translation is not perfect. I realized that you cannot fully capture the meaning of a thought in the language in which it was not thought, and that oftentimes in instant translation, the challenge is to get as close as you can.

At the same time, I discovered aspects of my personality that could only be expressed in Japanese, and that words and concepts exist in the two languages that do not have equivalents in the other. I connected better with my family, but not in the way I originally thought I would. I know that there will always be a part of me that is foreign to them, as well as to others who identify solely as Japanese. And yet, I feel closer to them now, in a way that differs from the closeness I have with English speakers.

This combination of connection and disconnect is what fascinates me about translation. My racial and cultural background demanded linguistic and geographical transitions from a young age, but this personal linguistic transition lead me to realize my love for translation, a significant part of my identity. My hope is that through translation I can recreate the harmony of the Tokyo Station building that I visited with my sensei, and to act as a bridge between two cultures and languages.


gilligan_2016-04-05-author-imageVictoria Gilligan is a student of government and language, and is fascinated by the interplay between the two studies. Her academic interests include translation in all forms, but her projects have focused on the exploration of linguistic identity by biracial or bicultural people. Her nonacademic interests include rock climbing and all things outdoors. She is a 2016 expected graduate with a double major in Government and East Asian Languages and Literatures, and a Translation Studies Concentration.

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