Posted by: patenttranslator | March 7, 2010

Japanese Technical Translation a Quarter of a Century Ago

Japanese Technical Translation a Quarter of a Century Ago

by Steve Vitek

If you’re going to San Francisco, you’re gonna need some dictionaries and a few good friends.

This article was published first by Translation Journal, and it is also republished on my website at

Almost a quarter of a century ago, I returned from Tokyo to San Francisco, looking for a job. I had been living in San Francisco from 1982 to 1985, then moved in 1985 with my new wife to Tokyo (the US immigration laws required her to wait for an immigrant visa in her home country). Although I could have stayed in Japan longer as I had a job there as an in-house translator for a small Japanese import company, I realized that Japan would never really feel like home to me the way California did to this immigrant from Central Europe. It was not very hard to find a job in San Francisco right away, as long as I did not mind a low pay. I worked for a few months for another Japanese import company, this time in South San Francisco, then a few months for a Japanese travel agency, but I was bored and really unhappy with my work. I needed something that would be more challenging and that would at the same time pay more money.

Compared to the situation 25 years ago, some things have changed for better, some for worse, and some remain the same.

It was at this point that I met Donald Philippi. As fate would have it, he also lived in the Richmond district of San Francisco, not far from Golden Gate Park, only a few blocks away. Don (who preferred to be called Slava because he somehow remembered that in his previous incarnation he was a Russian named Slava Ranko, which is why he learned Russian, or so he said), was one of the first pioneers of technical translation from Japanese to English. When he lived in Japan in the sixties and seventies studying Japanese and Ainu languages (Ainu is the name of the original inhabitants of Japan who are now virtually extinct), he figured out early on that it is much easier to make a living translating technical manuals and specifications from Japanese to English for companies such as Hitachi and Fujitsu, than, say, compiling an Ainu-English dictionary. Technical Japanese was at that time translated into English almost exclusively by native Japanese speakers who had a technical background but no linguistic background and whose fluency in English was often not very good. After his return from Japan to US in the early seventies, Don (or Slava) set up his shop in a house he bought with money obtained from his translating work in Japan and wisely invested in the purchase of a small house in Tokyo. Upon his return to California, Don bought a house on 10th Avenue in San Francisco where he turned 4 bedrooms on second floor into a single room which served as a translator’s office and started cranking out technical translation from Japanese again, what else, on an IBM typewriter. More information about Don’s life, including his obituary and 3 interviews conducted with him in this period by Fred Schodt, is available on Fred Shodt’s website here: In 1983 Don started publishing his newsletter called Technical Japanese Translation, which was mailed to people who were interested in the subject and somehow ended up on his mailing list. In its second year of publishing (1984), Don described the newsletter as follows: “This is the only newsletter published anywhere in the world by and for our far-flung and obscure community of Japanese technical translators. It is a completely grassroots endeavor with no subsidies or support except that given by its readers. It is now going into its second year and has more than 150 readers on three continents”. In fact, it was not unlike an early version of publications such as the Translation Journal, with emphasis on Japanese technical translation, before the age of Internet.

I did not know Don at that time, and I did not find out about the newsletter until a few years later when the newsletter was no longer in existence. But thanks to the magic of the Internet, an archived form of the newsletter lives on, this time on the following URL of the website of Waseda University: It is interesting to read about the different topics discussed in the issues of Technical Japanese Translation over a period of about 2 years some 25 years ago. The topics discussed by technical translators back then and now have not really changed that much: technology (which now means mostly computers and Internet, but back in the prehistoric eighties meant mostly extremely expensive, stand-alone Japanese word processors—basically typewriters with a tiny LCD display plus a printer, new books published about Japan in English and about America in Japanese, the viability of machine translation and the perceived threat that MT could become one day to human translators if it ever could work (the conclusion in Technical Japanese Translation back then was that it would never really work; today most people think it will). Also, various databases available to translators, such as databases of chemicals, plants and species and other scientific and technical databases in existence some 15 years before there was Google, or rates for various types of technical translation paid back then by agencies and direct customers in US, England, Japan, and Australia (they did not really go up that much, taking into account inflation, they probably went down in some cases), as well as new words in Japanese, the apparent “threat” to US technology represented by Japanese technology and many other subjects.

The End of a Newsletter

Towards the end of 1984, Don published and mailed out the last issue of Technical Japanese Translation. It must have been a lot of work putting the newsletter together—a lot of fun too, I am sure, but I can’t even begin to imagine how hard one person would have to work to keep publishing this material back in the prehistoric times before the Internet. Partly as a result of the newsletter, translators who lived in the San Francisco Bay Area become aware of each other and soon after the demise of the Technical Japanese Translation, Don started holding meetings in his house on issues of interest to translators, mostly dealing with technical translation from Japanese, but not always. Because Don was a well known personality not only in the Bay Area but also in Japan and other countries, he was able to attract interesting people who would serve as the “main speaker” on a whole range of subjects. Some of them came from East Coast, Pacific Northwest, Southern California, Australia, Japan, England … these are only the few that I can remember. In some respects, the meetings were similar to regular meetings of NCTA (Northern California Translators Association) which were at that time also held in San Francisco. Agency representatives would come to give out business cards and collect information and publishers of dictionaries would come to promote their new products. One of the owners of Inter Press Japan Corporation came from Japan. He was so happy to see so many prospective buyers of his dictionaries gathered in one place – Don’s den for translators, filled with books, dictionaries, records, tapes and CDs. Don promptly bought all his dictionaries, including his “Sanjugomango Daijiten”. This is a large technical Japanese-English dictionary with 350,000 technical terms, a major improvement in 1990 over an earlier version from 1986 which had only 250,000 technical terms. I bought the large dictionary myself as soon as I saved up 800 dollars. I still remember the cost because it was so expensive. But before the advent of Internet, we could not have survived without these dictionaries. The meetings were a continuation of the newsletter, except that instead of reading, translators did a lot of listening and talking to each other. We found out who was working in what field and on what project, which dictionaries were the best ones, and then inevitably then spent a lot of money on dictionaries in the Kinokuniya Bookstore in San Francisco’s Japan Town. People would bring some wine and food and after the speech and discussion, the socializing part would go on for hours in Don’s study and downstairs in the kitchen. And a community of freelance translators was born in San Francisco Bay Area—all of a sudden we saw how many people are out there in the area, some around the corner, some not too far from us, who did not get a steady paycheck like everybody else and yet somehow managed to pay their bills. Back in mid eighties and early nineties, the term “freelance translator” was not as common as today. Work was seen basically as something that you commute to, not as something that you do. It was difficult to convince people who drove to work or took the morning bus to get to their offices in downtown that we were as serious about our work as everybody else, or probably more so. Back in those days it was very difficult for a freelance worker to qualify for a mortgage, for example. And when I told people that that I work at home on my computer translating patents from Japanese, German and French to English, more often than not the result would be an incredulous stare. It was reassuring to be able to socialize with people who were able to make a living without any guarantees of employment from their employer.

The End of an Era

The community of translators who used to congregate in Don’s house several times a year is no longer there. After Don passed away in 1993, we sprinkled his ashes in Marin County near Point Reyes in the green hills overlooking Pacific Ocean and facing Japan. We tried to continue the tradition and met several times afterwards, but it was clear to us that Don’s untimely death was the end of an era and that there was not much we could do about it. Some people moved to other states, some to Japan. I moved in the summer of 2001 to Virginia where the living was …. well, not really easy as the song goes, but definitely easier on your wallet than in high-priced California. I wonder how Don would have reacted to the political developments in the years since his death. Let’s see, he was an anarchist when he was young, a Republican-leaning conservative (Ayn Rand was one of his idols) in his middle age … my guess is that he would possibly be a liberal in his seventies and eighties. A better guess might be that he would be disgusted by it all and work instead on his research of Norito (ancient Japanese ritual prayers) and shamanism, another interest of his that he loved to discuss while guttural songs of Mongolian nomads were played on his record player. I do know that he would really enjoy the advantages of instant access to news and information through Internet. He used to subscribe to Nippon Keizai Shinbun and other Japanese publications, as well as to Pravda because he did not want to forget his Russian. He had a lot of fun reading articles from Pravda to me in his kitchen. He would probably be spending many hours online these days, reading Japanese and Russian newspapers and watching online TV in Japanese and Russian.

I myself only found out about the archived version of the Technical Japanese Translation newsletter by accident when I was googling some obscure technical term. I bookmarked the URL and when I have nothing to do (which may occur to translators more in these uncertain times than we would like to), I sometime read or reread an old issue of the newsletter. It tends to put things into perspective. Compared to the situation more than 25 years ago, some things have changed for better, some for worse, and some remain the same. I hope that some of the readers of the this blog will enjoy reading the issues of an old newsletter published in San Francisco a distant quarter of a century ago.



  1. […] Japanese Technical Translation a Quarter of a Century Ago March 2010 […]


  2. […] Back then in mid eighties, San Francisco was full of really weird translators, Japanese translators in particular, and every couple of months, a meeting of unusual people, mostly translators, was held at the house of one of them who came to epitomize the quintessential weird translator to me. I wrote about these meetings in this post. […]


  3. […] history buffs may want to compare Jim Shipp’s reminiscences to my article about the history of Japanese-English translation in the eighties and nineties which I originally wrote for Translation […]


  4. […] Phillipi, a well known Japanese translator and early pioneer of technical translation from Japanese whom I met in San Francisco in 1986 and whose example I later tried to follow by becoming an independent translator […]


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