Holy mackerel — a fish story


If you live in Japan long enough, various shipwrecks of odd jobs will float your way. For example, a short while ago I was asked to do some translation work regarding . . . fish.

Which is funny enough. But the bigger joke is my translation ability. After residing here almost forever, one would think I would have a whale of talent in that regard. Yet, in the growing ocean of translators, I swim with the minnows.

Therefore, I usually decline such work. Yet, this time the request came from a good friend of a good friend. Japan is a fishnet of harmony and one thing I have learned in living here almost forever is that one does not knot things up. When the “friend dominoes” fall and you are the last in line, you must topple too. Or they might not fall at all when the next task — perhaps a plum — is also set in motion. Not to mention that dominoes can fall both ways.

Yet, as all sizes of translators know, translation is often a wrestling match between precision and communication. The dictionary-perfect word can fit in the smoothest sentence like a fishbone, ruining the entire communicative meal.

But most Japanese like precision. Almost as much as they like fish.

And me? I hate fish.

I hate their fishy little mouths and their fishy little eyes, especially when they stare up at me from my dinner plate. The only place I can truly tolerate them is in the aquarium at my dentist’s office. And there only because he has crappy magazines.

So I was anti-fish before the text even arrived.

Yet it proved not so difficult. After a brief synopsis of Japan’s coastal fishing industry, it yawned into a long list of the different fish species that inhabit Japanese waters. Most of my work of twisting one language into another was spent flipping through a dictionary.

But the translation soon came back, with a note. I had translated “mackerel” and “horse mackerel” together as just “mackerel.” “Why?” the note asked. “They are two separate fish.”

“Why, yes, they are,” I wrote back. “Yet, the repetition of the words made the sentence clumsy. A mackerel is, after all, a mackerel and I doubt any reader will care about the difference, especially in a rather tedious list of fish.”

My friend’s friend wrote back promptly. “A mackerel is, indeed, a mackerel. But it is not a horse mackerel. That is a separate fish. We will be misleading readers if we translate them as identical.”

So I Googled “mackerel” and studied their images. Then I Googled “horse mackerel” and did the same. Try it. And you will see what I saw.

A pair of mackerel. I don’t know . . . Maybe one fish had more scales than the other. Or maybe the second had a horsier grin. But a person could pass those two fish on the street and swear they were twins.

“Mackerel — and horse mackerel — are found in Japan’s coastal waters, not on the street,” my friend’s friend responded. “Besides, people who know fish might never confuse the two. It might be like mixing up chickens and ducks. Who would do that?”

My counter argument was that nobody knows fish. At least not well enough to care. I could make up a name — blueblouse groper — and it would wiggle past most readers unhooked. As for chickens and ducks, “farm fowl” was good enough for me.

“The sea is full of mackerel,” I continued. “There are king mackerel and Spanish mackerel and Pacific mackerel and bullet mackerel. There are scads of varieties. But no one cares, do they? One mackerel is as good as the next and one less mackerel makes my sentence that less fishy and that more smooth.”

“But,” the friend of the friend wrote back. “You are then saying Japanese coastal waters have one less fish variety than reality. That is not fair to the industry.”

I was about to confess my innermost feelings for the coastal fishing industry, when the friend that linked us wrote me first:

“Don’t be a butthead gaijin. Translate it like he wants.”

“Butthead gaijin,” I know, is a species of foreigner that soon ends up out of work. And I suddenly remembered that people who pay paychecks, even puny ones, are always right. It just goes to show you can live here almost forever and still get out of step.

So I wrote the second friend saying, “Heavens! I would never want to tarnish the coastal fishing industry!” And I pried the term “horse mackerel” into the list of fish.

Only to have him write again.

“You translated “sea bream” and “red Pacific sea bream” as one and the same.

Oops. I had hoped that one too would wiggle past unhooked.

Butthead gaijin can be tricky that way. Even when only minnows.