Course 5 Final Project: Translations, tsunami, and sanma

In COETAIL, I’ve written and talked about the lack of space, time, and support in the compulsory curriculum for integrating technology for improved education. Rab Paterson accurately described tertiary education in Japan as “The Land That Time Forgot.” So, the solution for Course 5 which was somewhat forced upon me, was to just go outside the curriculum. Yes, I asked students to study during their precious vacation.

This had a few benefits:

  • We know students slip back over long breaks, so doing a project over vacation is good educationally.
  • Most students were motivated to work hard. After all, they chose to do this. I will never teach these students again and they already received their grades from last year.
  • We couldn’t meet physically, which created a realistic situation for technology use.
  • We could work on pretty much whatever schedule we liked.
  • I could do it while I was away in Lombok on a vacation of my own.
The view from my "office" as I worked on my project with my students. "Picking fishes @ Kuta beach, Lombok" by Tanti Ruwani CC BY 2.0

The view from my “office” as I worked on my project with my students. “Picking fishes @ Kuta beach, Lombok” by Tanti Ruwani CC BY 2.0

What to do?
I had cast around for a few other ideas, but then the perfect project fell right in my lap. Last November I had attended a conference at Gakushuin University organized by the Learner Development SIG of JALT. Part of that weekend was their Tohoku Outreach project. And, there I met Mr Musashi and his daughter Runa from Rikuzentakata who are working very hard to revitalize their ravaged community. For context, Rikuzentakata was one of the most devastated towns in the March 11 Tsunami with very high loss of life. This town and neighboring Kesennuma were the sites of some of the most horrifying videos of 3.11.

According to the Musashis and many others, the community no longer needs the kind of volunteers that helped so much in the immediate aftermath. They need to maintain their connections with Japan and build new ones outside. Disaster tourism brought many visitors, but little actual benefit to the community. People rode in on buses, saw the miracle pine, and left. Rikuzentakata gained little financially. They are working to setup a new restaurant, train English-speaking guides, and improve understanding about their town.

The LD-SIG was planning a second study and support tour of Kesennuma and Rikuzentakata for the first week of March this year and as part of that, they had a large translation project to work on during February. Perfect! February is school break and this was a project I could involve my students in.

The Project
Kesen Junior High School in Rikuzentakata was incredibly vulnerable to the tsunami, but all of the students survived because of good leadership and a practiced evacuation plan. Students from nearby elementary schools also survived. On 11 March 2012, the students at Kesen JHS all wrote personal essay reflecting on their year after the disaster. These were self-published as book for community members.

Tohoku pics-Mar-8_ Rikuzentakata - 077

Ruins of Kesen Junior High School, 8 March 2014. Ted O’Neill CC BY 3.0

Several members of the LD-SIG planned to work together to get all of the essays translated into English. I joined in and recruited some of my former students. We had hundreds of essays to translate, so it was a big job. I sent out an email to some of my students asking them to volunteer as translators. Six students responded and we were ready to go.

Summary of the Project

What were your goals for your lesson/project (Standards)?
Demonstrate independent mastery of technology tools.
Teach peers how to use these tools/assist them in reaching mastery.
Work on language strategies for translation.
Understand content, voice, genre issues in translation.
Learn about the community of Rikuzentakata and the experience of tsunami survivors.

What tools did you use? Why did you choose this/these tools for this/these task(s)?
The LD-SIG used: to share PDFs of the original handwritten essays.
Google Sheets to track essays, translators, and status.
Email list for communication and questions.

With my students, I used:
Email to organize, send updates, and answer questions.
Google Drive to share scanned PDFs of reproductions of handwritten essays.
Google Docs for transcribing the the essays into text files.
Google Docs for the actual translation
Google Sheets to manage translators, checkers, and status.
Google Docs for open question and comment documents.
Google Forms to collect learner feedback.

How did you go about introducing your lesson/project?

Here is the text of the email I sent out. That was all I did to introduce the project. Once students were on board, I sent short emails with instructions about privacy issues, deadlines, reminders, etc. I also asked each student to sign up to be an editor for one of their peers translations. In the end, everyone just worked on everyone else’s which was much better, but starting off with at least one person responsible for feedback was good.

Dear Students,

I know. School is almost over. Maybe you have some exams and reports to finish but you are looking forward to a nice break.

But, I have a volunteer project that some of you might like to join. This is not for TMDU. It is not for extra points. It is just something good to do.

I am a member of the 全国言語教育学会 and we have a smaller group called 学習者ディベロプメント研究部会.

The 学習者ディベロプメント研究部会 is helping young people in Rikuzentakata to share their stories with the world. In 2012, many junior high school students wrote essays in Japanese titled 「震災のあったこの一年をふり返って」.

They were published in Japanese as a kind of “bunshu”. We want to help them publish these stories in English so everyone in the world can know these stories.

Each essay is about 1,200字 (about 300-400 words in English). If you want to help translate them into English, that would be great. You can work with a friend or with me. I will help you make the translation excellent. It won’t be so hard. I can read most of these essays in Japanese, but I’m too slow.

Students at Gakushuin, Chuo, and other universities are helping. If you want more information, click below.…RM/viewform

Or, send me email

Thank you,


How did the students react? Include actual samples of student reflection

Several volunteered and the project was very valuable to them. Here are a few initial comments:

A-san: I always wish people in Tohoku well and I want to do whatever helps them.

K-san: I thought this translation would be a valuable experience for me to learn 3.11 and to help this project share the essay and the story of 3.11. In addition to this, I wanted to improve my English skills through the translation.

O-san: I didn’t have time or courage to go to Tohoku by myself, but still I would be happy to help the Tohoku people. If my skills would be any help, I thought that was great.

M-san (From a town in Fukushima): Ofcource I want to help, my home town and people who have been hurted by the earthquake. I wiil do my best, so please tell me what can I do for the peope and project.

Outcome? Did you meet your goals?
Yes, and even more than I expected. Here is the breakdown for each.

Demonstrate independent mastery of technology tools.
I had used Google Drive and Docs with three of the six students in class last year. One student (K-san) used them intensively in a writing and presentation class. Three used them less frequently and for less demanding tasks. Two had never used them (A-san and O-san).

Teach peers how to use these tools/assist them in reaching mastery.
Just sending out email and getting everyone signed up for Drive/Docs was easy. Distributing files was simple. Actually doing the project required more. The newbie students used email, LINE, voice calls, and face-to-face communication to get help from the more experienced and techie learners and friends outside the project. They also just looked stuff up online and I sent out a few emails to help. Everyone got up to speed quickly. I think this was an excellent experience on both sides. The trainers learned that they could assist others in using these tools to get something done that they had only used in class before. The Trainees learned that these tools were useful and they could get help learning them.

Learner comments:

A-san: I liked it because I can choose the time to do work. I could do it even in the early morning, late at night, anytime my concentration was good condition!

K-san: I think Google Drive is good and powerful tool for school especially for writing, because many people can work at the same time in same files. We can easily help each other and also we can read others’. The only difficulty is learning how to use this system, but once you can use it there are no more obstacles, I think. “It was as if I was doing my homework (joking). O-san: Since I have never used the system, I had mechanical problems at first, but friends told me how to do it and I gradually got used to it.”

Work on language strategies for translation.
We had some very long discussions about translating certain words such and 悲しい that were difficult.

A-san: “Easy words are not easy for translator. Sometimes there is no English to discribe the same feeling or meaning of Japanese, so I can give up! I had better to think another way to express author’s feeling.”

Understand content, voice, genre issues in translation.
Yes, learners discussed and commented about translating slang, trying to communicate in the style of a 12 or 13 year old, and negotiated standard translations of some terms. They moved from word-by-word dictionary look up type translation to more creative, but still faithful translation.

K-san: Writing should be well organized. Translating should not change the meaning. Both are difficult.

O:sanThe little difference of nuance between the languages were difficult. It was quiet challenging when I couldn’t easily (and “directly”) translate, but I enjoyed it!

Learn about the community of Rikuzentakata and the experience of tsunami survivors.

A-san: Children seem to enjoy the situation by helping each other. The most hopeful thing for human being is children’s pure (innocent) hearts, I thought.

It is true that the earthquake broke lives of many people and made them sad, but it is not anyone’s fault. We should blame no one. All we should do is to keep helping each other and doing whatever small things we can do.

K-san: Surprising and unexpected events happened there at that time. During my translation, I hardly understood the meaning of Japanese sentences which were about sanma brought by tsunami. I could not believe that the tsunami brought sanma until the others found the news about this.

Most of the students realized the value of their family or friends, and also was grateful for the kind help from all over the country. I think these feelings are important for all the people, but it is hard to notice. Thus, I was impressed that these students became strong and humane after the earthquake.

O-san: Even a year have passed after the earthquake (when the students wrote the stories), they didn’t forget about their experience at all! It must have been so influential for them.

The importance of “appreciation to everyday life”

Evidence of learning? 

Here is one learning experience that adds detail to all of the other comments.


sanma email

Email notification of one comment exchange in Google Docs comments for translation improvement.

We did some looking and found the answer.
5・6 ひとまず終了した陸前高田市「腐乱海産物回収」作業現場の今後
2011年5月06日 20時13分



In fact the tsunami had destroyed a frozen fish processing plant and washed 800 tons of sanma and other fish up into the hills and around the town. It wasn’t until May 2011 that the fish were cleared away by volunteers. Until then the stench and possible health dangers were serious problems.

The puzzle of the nonsensical translation led this learner to discover facts none of us had known about the experience of the survivors in Rikuzentakata. Everyone was just amazed at the image of hillsides 15-18 meters above sea level littered with fish, and that that was all the children had to eat immediately after the disaster.

What would you do differently next time? What did you learn? 
We did everything in text: email, documents, and comments. This was mainly because everyone was on such different and unpredicatble schedules. As one learner commented above, this was great for effective use of time when she was ready to work. However, the lack of voice and visual contact seemed a bit isolating, especially for such emotional content. Google Hangouts to discuss and live edit would be ideal if we could work synchronously.

How do/did you plan to share this with your colleagues?

  1. Several of the teachers in the project are collaborating on writing an article for the Tokyo Chapter of JALT’s newsletter.
  2. Five members of the Tohoku Outreach group ( I was one) went to the area and wrote up a report for the LD-SIG. This is about 8,000 words and illustrated with photos and videos we took on the trip. It’s not yet ready for publication though.
  3. We applied to do a presentation about this project at the JALT2014 International Conference in Tsukuba this November. If accepted, we will also invite the students to join in the presentation. Three of my students want to do this.
  4. Finally, we are still working with the local school teachers and parents in Rikuzentakata, but we hope they will give permission for the anonymized essays to be published online in Japanese and English. We plan to start with a PDF and may go to ebook formats later. We still need permission for this.

What was your greatest learning in this course?
I learned a lot about Tohoku. As a teacher I had two realizations.

One, the technology for supporting this kind fo work is just getting easier and easier. I used to use an LMS quite heavily, but at this point just plugging in the tools you need is practical. Also, it was possible to do this “on the fly” with a small group. We did not have a big plan, but worked it out as we went along. This was just fine.

Two, as an EFL instructor, I tend to use Japanese very infrequently in class. I’ve had students in the past who didn’t even realize I could speak Japanese (often to hilarious results). I’ve been using the learners L1 in class a bit more often lately and am still working out some of the best ways to do this, but sharing my language learning failures and successes with learners was important.

I also translated one of the stories. That meant trying to decipher 12 year old boy pencil scratching and type it up and then understand it. One of my students had a wonderful time going through and correcting all of my misreadings at the transcription stage. She also said my Japanese was “not bad” but she didn’t say it was good either. I think giving her the chance to be “the teacher with the red pen” was great for all of us. I have to figure out a way to do this in my already overloaded regular classes.

Did this implementation meet the definition of Redefinition?
Although the task of translation itself was not new, we’ve looked at redefinition in the sense of possibility.

“Redefintion: Computer technology allows for new tasks that were previously inconceivable.”

I knew that some of my learners were motivated to study outside the regular school structure. Continuous learning during school breaks is ideal. I never could have done this project during the school term because of time pressures and departmental requirements for course content and goals.

So, translation is nothing new. Peer feedback is not new. But having the time and environment to do it in was new and would not have been possible without these communication technologies. And, this showed in how the learners themselves changed in their understanding of how to learn.

“Thank you for inviting. It was a really nice experience. Pointing out and making it better by online discussion was effective, I think. I would be glad to help if there is another project like this!”

“Coworkers in this project were so kind and clever. Some of them were like a high school teacher. Even when I had terrible understanding, they explained patiently. So I could ask questions without hesitation.”

Next steps

Pending permission from the school and parents which should come through soon, publishing the dual language book will be a great result. Also, through doing this and visiting the area, we may work on additional dual language publication of other survivors’ stories.


Final slides at Slideshare.



2 thoughts on “Course 5 Final Project: Translations, tsunami, and sanma

  1. Kim Cofino

    Congratulations! This is such a fantastic example of what can be done in such an authentic and meaningful way. I am so glad you ended up choosing this project, it was really fascinating to hear about it this weekend!

    1. Ted O'Neill Post author

      Five of us have written up about an 8,000 word article. It’s mostly narrative, learner voices, and reflection so very accessible. It will be illustrated with more images too. I’ll be sure to post when it’s online.


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