Don’t Paint Cows with Zebra Stripes

Translating in real time is a skill that many would love to have, yet most of my clients tend to approach this in the worst possible way. The people I’ve met who are capable of translating with ease use vastly different approaches. I shall try to differentiate them here. 

The basic method I employ with clients who are not capable in their English skills is this:

  1. Write in L1
  2. Check word-for -word
  3. Apply taught English grammatical structures
  4. Alter for nuance

Those who try translating Step One into Step Two usually need a dictionary, which is necessary, of course. Building vocabulary is like assembling the bricks and mortar, steel and wood, to build  a house. These materials can be used to build a great variety of structures. 

Step Three, however, is a vastly different process.

Grammatical structure must be separated and qualified on its own terms, the understanding of which each person must nurture themselves. Japanese and English grammar, even at a basic level, are often conflicting. There is, for example, no past participle in Japanese, and the present progressive does not always convey the same temporary meaning that English does. 

Step Three must preferably be done not from a transposition of the Japanese, but be based on the client’s English knowledge base. Trying to base sentence translation efforts on Japanese grammatical patters, even for simple sentences, usually causes great confusion and hours of lost productivity. 

Choosing the most suitable English grammatical structure at this step reinforces the client’s internalised English, allowing for authentic skills development. Although drills may implant the function of grammar, such as the difference in usage of simple past and present perfect, application requires more than rote memory. 

And here is where the cows come into this process. Moo!

While transposing words is necessary for meaning, doing same with grammar is extremely error-laden. The nuance of the present simple sometimes corresponds with same in Japanese, but sometimes corresponds with Japanese present continuous. But! If the learner adheres to the unalterable English nuance+ grammar, their accuracy shall greatly improve. 

At other times, although a given sentence may resemble or even be accurate grammatically, it just isn’t practicable. A case in point:

Last Thursday, my reason to cancel was that I had to go to a sudden meeting. 


English has different grammar to Japanese, much like a cow and a zebra have different bone structures. Even when English words are layered onto Japanese grammar, the effect is much the same as painting zebra stripes onto a cow: but we actually need the zebra. 

The fulcrum of fluency in using a language is…. yes: to use that language. The decision must be consciously made to invest one’s identity, one’s sense, and one’s trust, in the target language so it may become useful. This is the nature of skills development: the ability to use knowledge practicably. 

Step Four is where we unleash both cow and zebra into their respective ecosystems, recognising they each belong separate, and that while painting them in each other’s image, it’s merely for amusement. 

Suitable phrase application is a significant step away from simple words, complex grammar, and etherial nuance. This requires an advanced awareness of and the ability to recognise how a pattern is suitable, in what contexts, and for what consequences. 

A common error is ‘thank-you for your cooperation’ at the end of well-mannered and contentious staff emails, which conveys a commanding, condescending finality. Of course, Japanese staff are trying to translate from L1, which actually conveys humility and deep gratitude. Yet… how to English??

Always the best source of standard phrases is the original source! Best to search online for ‘how to end an email’, and to imagine how that phrase feels, and who uses it with whom. Good luck with that, though, as it is rare for either to be shown through western business practices. 

And this is the vital point of Step Four: what are the differences in business culture for each country?

Opening my clients’ minds to the variety of cultures is something I enjoy, although some dislike it, and some even deny there are differences. Unbelievable, but true. Yet communicating with others effectively necessitates this awareness, and each person’s ability to accept another’s differences is vital. 

For the sake of clarity:

  1. The intended expression in L1, used for reference
  2. L2 vocabulary extent and extension
  3. Detach learner from L1 and move into L2; confirm prior learning and current skill
  4. Stimulate awareness of communication styles, intention, and consequence

Each of these Steps are bound together with positive reinforcement, connective comments, personal application, and culturally sensitive jokes. The outcome is not a native use of English – I have no idea what that actually means – but the client’s ability to communicate more effectively than before. 

And on a final point: please do not paint zebra stripes on cows. ’Tis cruel!