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‘Hybrids’ thrive in Japan, Aussie says

Bicultural approach, family support keys to success for translation service director Gumley

by Minoru Matsutani

Robert Gumley, general manager of Elanex Japan KK, a translation service, has learned that Japan is an easy country for foreigners to live in — if they choose to be bicultural.

“I would say, ‘Don’t try to become Japanese.’ One good thing about Japan is that you do not have to be Japanese. You are allowed to be a hybrid,” said the 57-year-old Australian, who has lived in Japan for more than 25 years.

“In Australia, I am pressured to be an Aussie. Even my family say I speak with a strange accent. There is pressure to conform to being an Australian. Here, you can take what you like from Japan, and they love you for being Japanese, but you can also retain the best of your own culture. I call this being a hybrid or bicultural.”

Gumley said he doesn’t remember any particular hardships being a foreigner in Japan. That may be partly because his marriage to a Japanese woman has been very successful. He has had a supportive wife, landed a good job as a consultant for the Australian Tourist Commission, now Tourism Australia, and later worked in the Australian Embassy for seven years.

Having first set foot in Japan in 1974 as a tourist, Gumley moved back and forth between Tokyo and Australia for a few years, teaching English while in Tokyo. He then worked as a language teacher in a travel industry college in Tokyo from 1977 to 1983, during which time he met and married his wife, Miwako.

Gumley recalls an interesting story about his in-laws. After he and Miwako decided to get married, she spoke to her mother, whose response was, “Well, don’t tell your father. Leave that to me.” After several weeks during which her mother had not found a chance to bring up the subject, Miwako spoke to her father directly. His response was, “Well, don’t tell your mother. Leave that to me.”

After that there were no problems at all, Gumley said. “All my in-laws are really wonderful.”

From 1985 to 1987, he returned to Australia for an MBA, taking his then 4-year-old son with him, while his wife worked in Japan to financially support the family. Gumley recognizes that it is rare in Japan for a woman to finance her husband’s education, and is suitably grateful.

Until he and his son went to Australia, the boy spoke only Japanese despite Gumley’s efforts to get him to use English.

But two years in Australia helped him develop a “bilingual brain,” Gumley said. When they returned to Japan, his son attended St. Mary’s International School in Setagaya Ward, Tokyo.

Japanese public elementary schools are “excellent because teachers are like substitute parents. They take care of the children as though they were their own. But from junior high school, students have to learn to be independent, I believe, whereas Japanese schools don’t encourage young adults to become independent,” Gumley said.

Returning to Australia to study marked a turning point for Gumley. After receiving his MBA, he got a job as senior market consultant for the Australian Tourist Commission in Tokyo. His main responsibility was to raise the number of Japanese tourists visiting Australia.

“It was very exciting time to be in Japan because it was the height of the bubble economy,” he said.

“The number of Japanese tourists to Australia soared, up 10-fold, from 60,000 in 1985 to 600,000 in 1992. There were two main drivers of this growth. Pop star Hiromi Go got married in Australia and attracted a lot of publicity, and then a TV commercial featuring a frilled neck lizard, an Australian reptile, became extremely popular. The resulting publicity could not have been purchased,” he said.

In 1995, Gumley became the director of the Australia-Japan Foundation and the cultural adviser to Australian ambassador to Japan. In that post, Gumley collaboration with Japan’s ministry of education to create and distribute a video and study guide about Australia for all junior high schools in Japan. To encourage use of the materials, Gumley organized a “Discover Australia” essay competition, with the prize being a trip to Australia for the winning essayists and their teachers.

“We expected to receive 3,000 or 4,000 essays. But we actually received almost 50,000,” he said.

“It was very interesting because the Pacific War between Australia and Japan was covered in the materials and many students’ essays expressed surprise that Japan and Australia had been at war.

“One winning essay was written by a young lady who actually watched the video with her grandmother.

“After the section about the war, the grandmother told her about the Australian prisoners held in Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture, where she lived. She was just a young girl then, of course. The essay was about how the experience helped the young writer understand her grandmother’s life better. It was a very beautiful essay,” Gumley said.

“Through my work, I have tried to repay Japan a little. It is a wonderful country. Then we really wanted to teach the Japanese about Australia also.”

He led a team to create an English-Japanese Web site for the Australian Embassy in Tokyo — the first Web site of any Australian embassy abroad. After leaving the embassy job in 1996, he served for six years as representative of the state government of South Australia, successfully promoting Australian wines in Japan.

In 2002, Gumley’s career veered in a very different direction. He joined Elanex Inc., which his close friend had just founded in San Francisco, and launched its Japan unit, Elanex Japan KK.

Elanex is a translation service but is unique in that it has developed a technology for improving the efficiency of the translation process. Simply put, its translation assistance software stores completed translations from each of its clients in a database and then compares new requests to the archive. The software then searches for matching language in the database and reuses as much of the previously translated material as possible.

“Of course, all of our translations are done by the best human translators in their field. Our technology simply increases their productivity. As the clients’ database of completed translations has grown over time, they have begun to see significant time and cost savings as there is less to translate, but also higher quality because of the consistency that also develops,” he said.

“There is a real revolution occurring in the translation management process, but sad to say it has not really been taken up by Japan yet. We are hoping to change that. Translation is becoming so important in the modern world, it is essential that it be done by professionals to be accurate and suit its purpose.”

Elanex uses only native speakers of the target language as translators. While he is aware that many Japanese tend to think Japanese people are more suited to the job of translating documents from Japanese into another language, Gumley is adamant that this is not so.

“There are many nonnative Japanese speakers who understand Japanese extremely well and do a superb job of translating. I am in awe of them,” he said.