Staff Interview

July 2010

Staff Interview: Masanori Itoh

Masanori Itoh, translation project manager, is a master of languages who speaks several languages including English, Chinese and Korean. Among the projects that he has been involved in are many that leverage his language skills, including the production of a manual in 16 languages.

How does a 16 language translation project proceed? And why is Masanori so skilled in many languages?

In this issue, we ask Masanori Itoh of the Translation/Localization Group for the inside story on Chinese, multiple-language and other translation projects.

Years as a Student Immersed in English; Familiar with Local Conditions in Four Chinese Cities through Overseas Assignments

− Can you tell us about your work at Arc Communications?

As a translation project manager ("PM"), I am responsible for all processes related to translation. It beings with talking with the client and finding out their needs, assigning project members - such as translators and reviewers - and ensuring that the delivery schedule and quality standards are met, and it ends with creating the invoice to be sent to the client.
In terms of projects, I am often in charge of overseas clients and multi-language translations, with Chinese translation projects in particular frequently being assigned to me.

− Many people seem to think of you as the 'go to' person for things related to China.

Yes, that's true. In my previous work, I was assigned to work overseas in China and spent a total of seven years living in four Chinese cities, including Beijing. When I was an undergrad, however, I was an English-language major. Almost all of my professors were native English speakers who gave us a lot of homework to do. It was a time of my life when I was put through the mill as far as my English proficiency was concerned. I then went on to graduate school where I majored in linguistics and carried out research in what is known as 'universal grammar.'

Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Taiwan - A Different Chinese Dialect Encountered with Every New Overseas Posting

− Where was your first overseas assignment after joining a company?

My first overseas assignment was Beijing, China. This was back in 1995. I had just been thinking that I wanted to learn Chinese, so I had great expectations for this posting.

In Beijing, I did independent study to learn Putonghua (standard Mandarin), the official language of China. The local people used to laugh at me at first saying, "No. That's not right. That sounds funny." You may think it strange, because I don't think Japanese people laugh at the linguistic mistakes made by a foreigner. In China, they don't hesitate to laugh at a mistake or look at you with knitted brows and say, "Huh?" It worked well though in terms of my learning Mandarin because I always knew if I had made a mistake and how I should correct it.

I started feeling like I was making progress in my Mandarin around my third year in Beijing. It was interesting because my speaking ability was dramatically better and smoother than in my first and second years there. I'd have words pop into my head without much effort. And then, I was transferred to Shanghai.

China is a vast country and a multiethnic nation with many different languages spoken within. A Shanghai dialect of Mandarin or Shanghainese is spoken in Shanghai. It's an extremely localized dialect that is spoken only in Shanghai. The local people speak to foreigners like us in standard Mandarin (Putonghua), but they speak to each other in Shanghainese, so I found myself back - for the first time in a while - in an environment where I couldn't understand what the people around me were saying. I never did have a chance to become very proficient in Shanghainese since standard Mandarin is used in newspapers and on television.

My next assignment was in Hong Kong where Cantonese is spoken.
I was in Hong Kong in 1998, shortly after its reversion to China. Again, the standard Mandarin (Putonghua) that I had learned to speak in Beijing was of no use to me, so I started independent study of Cantonese. (Laughs) There was a lot of opportunity for me to use English instead because it is understood much more widely than in other Chinese cities. By the way, you would be surprised by how much standard Mandarin (Putonghua) is now understood today in Hong Kong.

My last assignment was in Taiwan.
The lingua franca in Taiwan is almost the same as the standard Mandarin (Putonghua) spoken in mainland China. However, there are differences in the vocabulary and pronunciation. The common Chinese spoken in Taiwan is called Guoyu, not Putonghua (the official language of mainland China). For example, in Beijing, a taxi is called 出租汽車 (chū zū qì chē), while in Hong Kong it is 的士 (dek si), which is the English loanword for 'taxi,' that is used. In Taiwan, they are called 計程車 (ji cheng che).

− So your seven years in China were a time in which you got firsthand knowledge of the diversity of the Chinese language?

Yes, it was a pleasant surprise each time to find that I had to learn a new language every time I was transferred; and this was despite the fact that they were all relocations within China! (Laughs)

It Is Not Just a Difference between Simplified and Traditional Chinese

− What kind of differences are there in written Chinese?

There are both simplified and traditional Chinese versions of the Arc Communications website. In Japanese, 'Tokyo' is written 東京, while in simplified Chinese, which is used in areas like Beijing, Tokyo is written 东京. Tokyo in traditional Chinese, used in Taiwan and Hong Kong, is written 東京.

I think many Japanese people are already aware that the 'kanji' (Chinese characters) used in Japan are different from those used today in China. As mentioned, there are two kinds of written Chinese - simplified and traditional - and there are also regional variations in the expressions used, as in the case I mentioned for the Chinese word for taxi. Understanding these differences and variations are very important when undertaking a Chinese translation project.

I have heard that when undertaking translations from Japanese to simplified and traditional Chinese, there are translation agencies (not Arc Communications), which first translate the Japanese text into one of the two written Chinese forms and then use software to automatically convert the translated text into the other type of written Chinese. The problem is, like with other machine translations, this results in some very obviously strange sentences or even words that are not used. A native Chinese speaker would spot the strangeness of the translation as soon as they saw it. My point is that translations into simplified and traditional Chinese should be treated as translations into different languages, not as different writing systems.

Another example is whether one should ask ethnic Korean translators in China to do translations into Korean for South Korea. (Korean is one of the ethnic groups of mainland China.) I don't know what the reason was - whether it was because the costs were lower or because they thought the translator should be able to do the job since s/he understood Korean. However, I am told that the resulting translation was absolutely unusable because the ethnic Korean translator in China didn't know the living Korean language of South Korea.

The translation was supposed to be used in a poster that would be seen by many people. The poster had both Chinese and Korean written on it. I heard that they had to redo the posters at great cost. This kind of story is a nightmare for people like us at Arc Communications who are involved in translations.

When choosing a translation agency, especially for translations into multiple languages, it is very important that you make the familiarity the company has with local circumstances and its ability to ensure good quality control important criteria to use in your selection.

Arc Communications Has a Good Track Record in Translations into Various Languages Including Scandinavian, Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian Languages

− Tell us about multiple-language translation projects. What languages do Arc Communications have experience in?

Other than Chinese, we have also handled translations into Korean, Thai, Indonesian, Vietnamese, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian, Polish, Russian, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish and Arabic.
Oh, there is a similar example in the case of Spanish and Portuguese. There are differences in how the two languages are used depending on whether it is for Europe or South America. That is why it is very important that we find out from our clients the country or region that the translation is intended for. It is the same as in the previously mentioned example using Chinese. If we don't know what country the translation is for, we may have a high quality translation for one region that cannot be used in another.

− Isn't it difficult to find a translator for languages that are not spoken so widely around the world?

In multiple-language translations from Japanese to European languages, we often use English as the 'hub' language in carrying out the translations. This means that the Japanese is first translated into English, and translated from English into various languages. One of the reasons for doing this is that there is a limit to the number of translators who can make a high quality translation directly from Japanese into a European language. It is easier to find translators who do excellent translations from English.
When using English as a 'hub' language, we often use overseas partner vendors and translators. That was what we did for the 16-language translation project.

− Can you be more specific about how the translations are carried out?

Considering the time difference with overseas translators, our communications are basically carried out by email and the correspondence is in English. When the person in charge at the client is not a native English speaker, I am extra careful to make sure that there are no misunderstandings in the detailed instructions that may be made toward revisions.
As for the content, there is a need to ensure that there is no variation in quality between vendors. Each company has an area that they are especially good at - desktop publishing, for example - and what I have to ensure as the PM is to manage the quality so that any variation in quality is ultimately compensated for by us.
Finding high-quality overseas vendors is also an important job of a PM. I do business with vendors around the world already, but I would like to keep on searching for outstanding local translation agencies and translators.

− Thank you very much! I think we are going to look at the Chinese we see around us in a different light from now.

Postscript from the Interviewer

Masanori has a nice voice that leaves an impression on those who speak to him. In fact, I have always thought that he should become a professional speaker, whether it be as an announcer, MC or other such work. I realized, when I found out that his area of expertise was linguistics, that he was already a professional (or should I say 'professor') in spoken languages. It makes a lot of sense. I heard when he was a student, this voice of his once caught the attention of a program director at Japan's public broadcast network. If you want to know what he sounds like, do ask for Masanori Itoh when you call to make an inquiry with Arc Communications!


Masanori Itoh
Joined Arc Communications Inc. in 2007 as project manager (PM) of translation and localization projects. Researched linguistics during graduate school. Stationed overseas while working at a language school before joining Arc Communications.
"I feel most comfortable when I am surrounded by many different languages."

My favorite movie

The Poseidon Adventure (1972, USA), directed by Ronald Neame
It's a masterpiece. I've seen the 1972 version and the remake version of 2005. I think it's a really good movie that contains lots of dramatic subplots within.