Saturday, April 29, 2006

Mystery memo

On Wednesday one of the Japanese teachers approached me in the teachers' room.

"I have a question about English," he said. "It's just a quick one, won't take long. Do you have time?"

"Of course," I said. "What's is it?"

"I'm wondering how to translate this into English," he said, showing me a memo we'd all received a few days ago.

I stared at the memo. It looked vaguely familiar.

I remembered we'd got a bunch of stuff in our mailboxes, and rather than struggle through them I'd taken my usual easy way out by asking the lovely secretary, and chucking away the ones that weren't important. I seemed to remember that this was one of the 'not important' bits of paper. But I couldn't understand anything on the memo, and felt stupid.

"Which one is that?" I asked, staring at it and struggling to understand even a few words that might give me a clue.

The teacher stared at it, too. "It's about ... it's about ... Well, that's the problem. I don't know how to say it in English."

"How about in Japanese?" I asked. "What's the main topic of the memo?"

He hesitated, looking embarrassed.

"Well, actually, I don't know that, either," he said, finally. "That's why I was asking you. I thought maybe you could make it clearer by putting it in English."

What a sneaky man! He didn't want to admit that he couldn't understand a memo written in his own language, so he asked me to translate it into English so that I would feel stupid instead!

"That must have been one of the ones I threw away," I told him. "Let's ask some of the other teachers."

He really didn't want to, but I insisted. By now I was curious and didn't care whether his feelings would be hurt.

We both stopped feeling stupid when it turned out that nobody understood the memo, including the secretary. Her response to it was to laugh and say,

"Don't worry about it."

Nobody could even begin to explain the TOPIC of the memo, in ANY language.

We decided that if the memo turned out to be important, our lack of response would inspire somebody to write another, clearer memo, and if it wasn't, it didn't really matter.

But now I really want a copy, so The Man can have a go at translating it. I'll have to see if I can get one from another teacher next week. This is the problem, not having adequate Japanese - gems drop in my lap and I don't even notice. That memo must have been a positive MARVEL of obfuscatory prose.


Cheryl said...


Wonderful. Who was it from? How did your sneaky Japanese friend feel once it was clear nobody else understood it either?

Robert said...

But that's the meaning of memo: completely useless wasxte of time and paper that no one will understand.

Badaunt said...

Cheryl: I don't know who it was from. I should know, but I don't. The main office? The language department? I'll have to see if I can find out.

Robert: PARTICULARLY academic memos. The Man explained it to me. He said that in business, if you send an obscure memo, someone will want to know what it means and give you hell when it doesn't make sense. In academia, there is a meeting, someone says, "We should send out a memo about this," and whoever he (usually) says it to drafts a memo, based on last year's memo from a similar meeting, with a couple of changes. The changes make it slightly incomprehensible, but nobody wants to risk insulting the writer, so nobody says anything. Next year the same thing happens, the memo gets changed again, and it becomes even more incomprehensible. And so on, until you end up with a memo that makes no sense at all - but still nobody wants to say anything, because it might embarrass somebody and cause 'bad feeling.'. The language is polite, the forms have been followed, so it must be all right.

And since it's academia and nobody is going to lose MONEY, and there are no CUSTOMERS involved, nothing gets done about it. The readers of the memo puzzle over it, give up, and throw it out. As I did.

I am going to try to get a copy of it tomorrow. Maybe The Man can then give me a clue as to what it's about.

Badaunt said...

Cheryl: (Forgot to answer your other question) I suspect the teacher who asked me had wondered whether he had forgotten Japanese - he studied in the US, and speaks very good English (which made his original question a little odd to me) and I think he'd been worried that he'd been away too long and forgotten how to read the nuances of polite Japanese. Discovering that the other teachers had as much trouble with the memo made him laugh a lot, in a relieved sort of way. He looked really happy.