If you want to know the deep dark mysteries of Japanese bunka and all of the intrinsic intrigue of the Orient, just look to a piece of tōsuto.
No… I’m just joking. But I do have another toast story to tell.
When I worked as a honyakusha in Tokyo I had a myriad of small jobs to do, some more interesting than others and some more fukuzatsu than others. There were the instructions for building a bridge in Malaysia. That was a terribly mismatched ask. What do I know or understand about engineering? I had no business working on that translation. Then there was the hon I translated called Dead Speak of War which was a book of wartime photos of… you guessed it… dead bodies. I was to translate the captions. They were pretty simple captions like “Dead man under a tree” etc. But they said they weren’t going to give me the photos… just the text. This was a huge problem because the Japanese language has no plurals. I needed the shashin so I could know if it was one body or more. It may have been “Dead men under a tree” for all I knew. Atama ga itai!
In comparison, the job for Nikko Hotels seemed relatively kantan. I was to translate memos between the head office in Tokyo and the newly opened branch of Nikko Hotel in New York City that was owned by Japan Airlines. Memos… how hard could that be? And indeed it was one of my easier jobs until…. tōsuto.
A translator is supposed to be invisible. The translator’s job is to faithfully transmit the contents of a document just as it is. Now, a literary translator has some latitude. They can even use footnotes… judiciously of course. But a business translator has no business doing any interpreting of the content. The facts, ma’am just the facts. And this is how I got caught squirming in the Great Toast Debate.
It started with a complaint. Japanese kankōkyaku in New York City said that the toast at the hotel was burnt. Consistently, burnt. Headquarters sent a memo ordering the kitchen staff in New York to stop burning the toast. New York replied that the toast most certainly wasn’t burnt. But monku kept coming from the Japanese tourists. The toast was burnt on BOTH sides, they claimed. Headquarters sent yet another request to the kitchen staff. New York was annoyed. And, adamant that the toast was properly toasted. (And delicious.) They were not receiving a single complaint from any American patrons of the hotel. They rested their case.
Tokyo was not happy. They demanded to know exactly how the toast was being toasted and why they were toasting it so it was crisp on BOTH sides. New York was baffled. Because… because…. IT IS TOAST!
The thing is, I could have solved this in a second. The New York staff had no idea what Japanese expectations of toast were. And Tokyo had no idea what American expectations of toast were. (And there was no Google around back then.) But I was a young translator and did not think I had any options. I tentatively wrote a note of explanation and included it with one of my translations. There was no response.
So, I’m finding it amusing that Americans are now discovering Japanese “milk bread” and the joys of Japanese toast.
I will now spare you a Toast – Part 3 about how my American (a New Yorker) mother learned that she could order toast in Japan easily by putting an “o” at the end of the word—and then proceeded to put “o’s” at the end of every English word any time she felt a need to communicate while in Japan….
- bunka – 文化 culture
- tōsuto – トースト toast
- honyakusha – 翻訳者 translator
- fukuzatsu – 複雑 complicated, complex
- hon – 本 book
- shashin – 写真 photograph
- Atama ga itai! – 頭が痛い Literally, “my head hurts.” Also used for “What a headache!”
- kantan – 簡単 simple
- kankōkyaku – 観光客 tourist
- monku – 文句 complaint