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Maeda inquiry illustrates challenge of translating baseball’s nuances

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Something might have gotten lost in translation after Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Kenta Maeda was asked by his manager Dave Roberts to demonstrate his warm-up routine in the team clubhouse. Newspaper articles described Maeda’s arm-waving motions as a “dance” but, unless he has added some choreography since leaving the Hiroshima Carp last year, I would not call it that.

He does not move his legs and feet, and I tried to find a dance similar to what Maeda does before throwing practice pitches, but there does not seem to be any. It isn’t the watusi or the mashed potatoes. Not the Macarena or the twist.

Furthermore, one article quoted Maeda describing how he felt doing it as saying he was “ashamed” to perform the action in front of his teammates. I was not there, but my hunch is Maeda said he was “hazukashii,” a word in Japanese that can mean “ashamed,” “embarrassed” or “shy” in English.

There was nothing to be ashamed of, so the interpreter perhaps should have use “embarrassed” or, more appropriately, “shy.”

Being an interpreter requires the skills not only to translate word-for-word but also choosing the most meaningful definition, when there are two or more terms in the opposite language, and understanding the nuances.

There is an infamous tale of a team interpreter in Japanese baseball several years ago who had to translate a conversation between a Japanese player and an American coach who had just observed the player take batting practice. The coach wanted the hitter to move his hands down closer to the handle of his bat and instructed the interpreter to pass along his advice.

“Tell him not to choke up so much on his bat,” said the coach.

The interpreter, not familiar with the meaning of “choke up,” said in Japanese what translates to English as, “Coach said not to breathe on your bat.”

Another misunderstanding occurred in the late 1990s when the Kintetsu Buffaloes had an American knuckleball pitcher by the name of Rob Mattson. One day Mattson threw a complete game 6-2 victory and appeared with his interpreter on the post-game hero interview.

All was going well until the TV interviewer asked how Mattson rated his own performance that day, expecting an answer in a percentage somewhere between zero and 100. The interpreter became flustered, apparently realizing it was going to be difficult to convey the meaning of the question to the pitcher—especially under the pressure of live television and in front of the fans listening over the stadium PA.

After thinking for a moment, the interpreter turned to Mattson and blurted, “Today what points your pitching?” Mattson looked back and said, “Huh?”

Had the interpreter been more skillful and experienced, he could have relaxed and asked the question that would have easily been understood. “On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate your pitching today?”

To be sure, interpreting is not the easiest job in baseball, and there are no doubt several more humorous stories of mistranslations. To all the interpreters in the majors and Japanese baseball, the message is, “Gambatte kudasai.”

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What’s new at the Japanese ballparks this year?

At Tokyo Dome, they have removed the “Ralph Bryant” speaker which had hung from the roof over center field since the Big Egg was opened in 1988. It was in 1990 in a game against the Nippon Ham Fighters when Kintetsu Buffaloes American slugger Ralph Bryant hit a ball off the speaker. The epic clout remains one of the most memorable home runs in the 28-year history of the stadium.

The ball Bryant hit caromed off the speaker and landed on the field in right-center, but the umpires signaled home run and, it was said, judging by the trajectory of the ball, it would have gone over the scoreboard and completely out of the park if there were no roof.

“Bryant’s speaker” has been replaced by a new amplifier under the center field scoreboard and to the right of the backscreen batter’s eye.

Tokyo Dome has also removed the lights suspended from the ceiling and installed new LED lighting in the outfield, making visibility much brighter.

At Seibu Prince Dome, a new artificial turf has been laid down, with the turf colored brown in places where infield dirt would be in the old major league style on a natural grass field. In addition, the home park of the Saitama Seibu Lions in Tokorozawa will now have protective netting in front of the Field View seats off first and third base.

The change reflects the recent efforts by teams in the majors and Japan to prevent fans from being injured by foul balls or bats flying into the stands.

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Friends & Fans: The 2016 (40th anniversary) edition of my Japan Pro Baseball Fan Handbook & Media Guide is now available. It is the complete English-language guide to Japanese baseball and includes league and team directories, team rosters, league schedules, profiles of the foreign players, statistics from past seasons, directions to the stadiums, ticket prices and much more, packed into 128 pages.

The quickest way to get your copy in Japan is to order directly from me. Please send ¥1,500 in cash, or Japanese postal check “kawase,” along with your name and address, to: Wayne Graczyk, 1-12-18 Kichijoji Higashi-cho, Musashino-shi, Tokyo-to 180-0002. Fans outside Japan can order through the JapanBall.com website. Yoroshiku.

Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com