Uhh, Can You Describe the Weirdness, Sir? (Longish)

So here I am, doing my job, standing in front of a whiteboard asking questions posed through a translator about undocumented things I might or might not know something about when out comes this piece of international brilliance that takes three fucking hours. I am not sure if I’m pitting the customer, the translator, the system, or even myself, but something was terribly terribly wrong.

(loosely retold with most repeated parts skipped to avoid boredom)

(also it might seem confusing because a) It’s confusing b) I had to remove names and specific terms to avoid getting fired)

Customer (Engineering Manager): <About 10 minutes of monotone Japanese>

Translator: They have a concern.

Me (trying to look worried): What is < >-san’s concern?

T: <About two minutes of groveling Japanese>

C: <About five minutes of monotone Japanese>

T: nods turns to me They want to know how to do more with feature X when
interfacing with device A.

Me (trying to look understading): Ah, I see! Would < >-san like a better explanation of how to use feature X?

T: <About two minutes of groveling Japanese>

C & T: <Monotone ten minute discussion in Japanese with some numbered boxes getting drawn and erased on the white board>

T: < >-san understands how to use feature X. They want to know how to do more with feature X with interfacing with device like device A.

Me ( :confused: ): Like device A? Is < >-san anticipating a change in device A specifications? And what do you mean by “do more with”?

C & T: <More discussion and whiteboard stuff>

T: < >-san does not anticipate a change in device A specifications. However, when device A specifications were sent in by the manufacturer they were non-standard and unexpected. You even called it “weird” device A. < >-san requests information on how to use feature X with a more “weird” device B.

Me: Ah. What are the differences between device A and device B
T (Strangely already possessing this information): No no no, you do not understand! < >-san proposes a hypothetical device B that is more, as you say, “weird” and non-standard than device A. They are worried about interoperability. There is no actual device B, but they would like to know how to use your feature X with such a device if it is ever created.

Me: :eek: Can < >-san give an example of some non-standard or “weird” specifications that we could expect from such a device B that they want to use with our feature X?

C & T: <Twenty minutes of discussion and whiteboard stuff, resulting in two drawings>

T: < >-san cannot provide a specific example because device B does not really exist, but what if device B was like this or like this points at drawings

At this point I look at the drawings and kind of start to get the picture as to what they’re asking. Note that it has been roughly an hour and a half since we started on this question. Device A outputs data. It’s predecessors outputted data in the right order, but Device A decided to output data in a strange fixed pattern (a linear function of one variable) to avoid interference. We had to change Feature X to reorder the data and added ability to customize what the reordering function coefficient is. Their description of Device B was two examples of a non-linear polynomial reordering.

Me: Ah. Well if such a device B is built and < >-san chooses to work with it, we can modify feature X interface to allow for a custom polynomial reordering function. This will create additional parameters to define the polynomial.

C & T (Drawing, etc.)

T: What if device B is even “more weird?”

C (draws something non-polynomial. smiles. sits down)

Me: :eek: :confused: Like that? (point at the non-polynomial drawing)

C (In english): No, in general.

Me (Thinking: AHA, you bastard! You speak English. I knew it!): Well in general we cannot promise to support abstract real time reordering so anything more weird than device A will have to be considered when and if it is ever encountered.

C & T (Lively discussion in Japanese, CEM has a smug look, yeah he showed me! :rolleyes: )

T: < >-san understands your strategy for supporting the examples given. They are concerned about interoperability since flexibility has to be added on later on and is not built into the system from the get-go. I do not know enough about the subject to understand if they are happy about this understanding, but this issue is for now closed.

Me: …

And people ask me why I don’t try to learn Japanese. Among many reasons, one of the key ones is that using an interpreter significantly buffers my homicidal drive. Sometimes I want to smack my co-workers for using terms like “weird device” or “garbage customer section” around Japanese customers. They become fixed proper nouns and then I have to sit there writing a document entitled “Garbage Customer Section: Handling and Best Practices”. Any attempts to rename things or refer to them using other terms results in confusion that can eat days if not weeks of engineering time (I kid you not).

I need a drink.

Good night.

Heh, sounds like a scene from the movie “Lost in Translation”

Director: Rants for 3 minutes

Translator: More manly.

Fire your translator. He’s not supposed to tell you what they said. He’s supposed to say what they said.

“Comment allez-vous?”

**Right: ** “How are you?”

**Wrong: ** “She wants to know how you are.”

Is it your translator or their translator?

Some translators get very upset when you call them translators. They want to be called interpreters. It suggests they have a bigger role. Personally, I think it’s bullshit. I don’t want to hear their interpretation of what was said, I just want to undersand what was said. The more interpreting they do, they worse they do their job.

Due to secretive nature of this all this translator is actually our sales and engineering manager from our office in Japan. Directly translating what I said to Japanese won’t work because there’s no polite way to do it. Directly translating what they said to English won’t work because there’s no way to do it that makes any sort of sense. Japanese language is a cardinally different form of thinking.

I have a co-worker who used to work with a tech company that did business with the Japanese. They would have meetings, and discuss things with his company in English, and then have discussions amoung themselves in Japanese. My co-worker’s boss offered to pay him to take Japanese lessons to help the whole thing along. During a meeting, the Japanese business men started discussing amoung themselves in Japanese, and my co-worker’s boss leaned over and said ‘Start earning that extra pay’. So he started giving a rough transation, with much guesswork, of what was being talked about. At one point, one of the Japanese businessmen noticed this, and and told the others. They stopped talking in Japanese, and demanded that my co-worker be removed from the meeting. He was, and heard later that the Japanese company nearly pulled out of the deal, and also demanded that he be fired.


No. There may be cultural standards important to fully understanding what they’re saying, but Japanese people don’t have a “cardinally different” way of thinking just because they speak Japanese.

Of course they do. Differences in first language are related fundamental differences in thinking. A language is a set of symbols and labels shared by a group, and it’s much more than simply knowing the cultural context.

I’m fluently bilingual in Russian and English and there are numerous concepts that have a simple term in one language and need extensive elaboration in the other. A lot of them have to do with cultural context, but the differences in language shape the differences in thinking and approach to problem-solving as well. The difference between French and English has much less influence than between English and Russian. The difference between English and Russian has much less influence than between English and Japanese.

I am not claiming cause and effect here. In the extreme, each individual thinks in a different way from any other individual. However, similarity between individuals (age, generation, social class or caste, culture, first language, second language, etc.) will at least partially correlate to similarity in cognition.
As for interpretation versus translation, the entire concept of emotionless communication is entirely foreign to English speakers. We do not even have words to express it. Japanese, apparently, has a way of expressing the following thoughts:

A) “I accept and understand your answer to my question. I have judged it, and feel strongly about it, however, my acceptance of your answer as sufficient does not carry endorsement that it made me happy or sad.”

B) “I accept and understand your answer to my question. I have judged it, and do not feel strongly about it.”

C) “I accept and understand your answer to my question. I will judge it later, and right now it’s just information.”

D) “I accept and understand your answer to my question. I have judged it, and I love it.”

E) “I accept and understand your answer to my question. I have judged it, and I hate it.”

All of those would be directly translated as “Thank you. That is sufficient.” Throw in the choice of formality levels and politeness modifiers and a few sentences carry important meaning you will not gather from direct (albeit correct) translation.

If anybody still has any doubts, here is a direct example from two languages I know fluently.

This is a sentence I overheard in English a few weeks ago.
“I hope in the next project we can keep the marketing nerds from modifying our specifications”

It’s an amazing challenge to translate this to Russian. The concept of marketing is well established, but the concept of “nerd” does not exist. The connotation it carries – the marketing-specific detachment from realities of the project is inexplicable. The closest thing you can do is translate “nerds” as “idiots” and replacing specifications with “technical specifications” if context allows.

(Edit: Apparently I’m out of touch. Russian imported both the words nerd (нерд)
and geek (гик). Checking around the Russian internet seems that the concept still eludes most people entirely.)

Bollocks. That’s not differences between ways of thinking, that’s differences between ways of expressing. English didn’t have a word for “taking pleasure in another’s misfortune” until schadenfreude was appropriated, but that doesn’t mean the concept is completely foreign to us English speakers.

Understanding a concept and expressing a concept are two very different things.

Is it your contention, then, that Russian people have a difficult time even grasping the concept of a nerd until they’ve been given sufficient exposure to the English word? It is conceivable to me that the nerd concept is foreign to Russian culture; it is inconceivable to me that the reason is linguistic. Surely Russians are capable of thinking “socially inept, overly academic person” whether or not they have a single word for it.

The weird focus on single words (or word counts more generally) in appeals to Sapir-Whorfism is always odd to me; English speakers were well aware of schadenfreude well before they imported a German word for it.

Hooray for simulposting.

Even if they were the same, I have yet to see a concept expressible in one natural language but not in another. Returning to schadenfreude, no doubt English speakers described the concept frequently before exposure to the German word; they just happened to say things like “joy in the misery of others”. They didn’t wrap it all up in one word, sure, but who cares? It’s hardly as though they were straining themselves.

So you are saying all concepts exist either in the human genetic makeup or are built into the universe and language is semi-developed semi-discovered way of expressing them? IMO that sounds pretty ridiculous. The only thing that’s even remotely universal is concrete nouns. Everything else is individual-specific divisions of the space of abstract thoughts that tends to either develop similarly or wind up functionally similar in individuals sharing a similar environment.

My contention is that it’s not a naturally occuring group. If you took a solid majority of people an average American would describe as “definitely a nerd” in Russia, those people are not really conceptually connected in a well-defined manner. My mother still doesn’t understand the term and she’s been living in the US for over ten years now.

Social ineptness would almost inevitably include what in the US is called “type A personality” and various other types of jerks. If you specify “An introverted, anti-social individual pre-occupied with academic subjects” you are excluding a huge number of nerds pre-occupied with nerdy subjects that would not be considered academic in Russia. If you generalize to “An introverted, anti-social individual pre-occupied with some number of subjects” you’re including alcoholic bums. After all that you also have to somehow figure out how the term can be used in a mildly offensive manner rather than a descriptor like “genius”.

Without a good familiarity with American anti-intellectualism it’s very hard. I know it’s difficult to imagine that division lines that you and I see so clearly to be almost invisible to others (unless when you were 12 you tried explaining your grandma what’s cool and what’s not). A friend of mine in Russia wrote a short story set in the US about a card player who has unnatural talent towards Magic The Gathering. This kid submerges into the world of underground MTG tournaments with big stakes, women, fast cars, drugs and broken kneecaps. In the story MTG is played alongside of Poker, and after prolonged discussion I could not explain to him that given the puzzle of

Pick the one that doesn’t belong
A) Cock fighting
B) Poker
C) Magic the Gathering
D) Dice

the majority of people would pick C. What is it about MTG? Is it because it’s new? Deals with magic? Commercial? I contend that a significant part of the reason C is the answer is because of the linguistic bridge built across the words such as “geek” and “nerd” and “dork” and the mental images they conjure up.

I picked “A”.

“Lost in Translation” rant.

Groman, what you’re defending is the called the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. While there are still some that defend the hypothesis in the form you’re expresssing, this strong form has been widely discredited both philosophically and experimentally.

There’s no doubt that our language plays some role in the way we think about the world. But it is also quite clear that a difference in language does not result in a fundamentally different way of seeing the world. Believing that puts one in the same category as What the Bleep do We Know fans.

I’ve watched that movie twice. First time before I’ve ever been to Japan and the second time when I’ve spent months working in Tokyo on several separate visits.

First time I discounted it as a sort-of funny sort-of romantic over the top story.

Second time that movie touched me deeply – it’s spot on. The only thing missing from the movie is the occasional white Japanophile who thinks he’s suddenly bonding with the Japanese culture on a different level by referring to himself as “gaijin” as if it’s a rank and if he works really hard he’ll get promoted and regarded as an equal.

Anyways, I don’t get how that’s a rant, what’s the rant about?

I specifically avoided mentioning the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, and I am not advocating it. What I am advocating is that linguistics influences thought patterns (this is not generally disputed) and it creates differences that are proportional to the linguistic similarity between the languages. For example American English and British English influence thought in more similar ways to each other than say American English and Innuit.

That is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, whether you like it or not. But whatever you call it, there simply isn’t the same disparity in thought process as their is in grammatical structure between English-speaking Americans and Japanese-speaking Japanese. All you’ve demonstrated so far in this thread is a frequent inability to express cultural concepts with a limited vocabulary.

But it’s absurd to argue there’s no disparity. It’s also absurd to argue that the difference in scientific and technical approaches is not reflected in the specific jargon in a particular language. Sure, the general concepts of any discipline are the same, but approaches are different and that’s reflected in the effective ability to be “translatable”.

To me, the claim that members of different cultures think in truly fundamentally different ways, that their very cognitive space is different, to the extent that concepts which are easy for one human’s brain to grasp are difficult for another’s*, is an extraordinary claim and requires extraordinary evidence, even before you toss in the even more extraordinary aspect that these core differences are caused by the mere language in which they speak, but, of course, your mileage may vary.
*: I mean, beyond the level of trivial, not-really-relevant stuff like “British people are already familiar with parliamentary government, while Mexicans may need the concept explained to them at least once” or “Americans are familiar with the concept of the camera while the tribal people of wherever may need the concept explained to them at least once”, which doesn’t really illustrate anything about fundamental cognitive differences or modes of perception or manners of thought or what have you, just about the fact that some people have seen certain things that others haven’t.

That explains everything!

Sneaky bastards.