Interpreting in the U.S. #10 – Profiles of American Interpreters (Part 1 of 2)

For my very last article, I would like to introduce you to some of the Japanese Conference Interpreters working in the U.S. I chose two from New York and two from D.C. All are dear colleagues and consummate professionals with interesting backgrounds to boot.

Céline Browning

How did you learn Japanese to the point that you could work as an interpreter?

Mainly, I learned Japanese by growing up there and attending a local kindergarten from the start. But even since I was brought home from the hospital as a child, we had household help that were Japanese, so I was always hearing and speaking Japanese even before I moved to Japan. Then I came up through the regular, obligatory Japanese school system.

My mother moved us to Japan so we could go to Japanese school. I left Japan for about 4 years, then I came back for university at International Christian University. There, I took a course called Conference Interpreting. That kind of got me into the idea that interpreting was maybe something I could do. But I didn’t pursue it for another 6 years.

How did you learn how interpretation techniques and theory?

To be honest, I never learned much theory in a proper academic setting. I missed the theory class at ICU. But as a child, I always had to interpret for my mother. Then, at MIIS we had Professor Masaomi Kondo who taught us interpreting theory. He wanted to teach us the three widely recognized interpreting theories. I don’t think I ever really use just one theory though. I mostly go by a kind of natural instinct, which might not be the best thing (laughs).

What about techniques like note taking?

Somehow the Japanese course was the only one that didn’t teach a certain specific method of note taking. The European languages teach note taking methods that are very grammar specific because that works for them. And the Chinese course also had some similar things, so I pick and choose from each of those and have my own system.

Do you remember the first time you interpreted?

Professionally? (laughs) I recall that my mother took me to events where she was asked to speak and she would pull me on stage to interpret for her. So, I was very young. Probably the most important interpreting experience was at the funeral of my piano teacher. It was really last minute, on the spot. I was probably 16 or 17. Oh, and I had to interpret my own parent-teacher conferences for my mother.

Professionally, it was the summer of 2014 for a semiconductor conference which was very terrifying.

I wasn’t as prepared as I had hoped. Baptism by fire, I suppose.

Why did you decide to stay in the US instead of working in Japan?

Frankly, I felt like I had lived in Japan long enough and needed to experience other styles of life and society. I always run into the…I guess you would call it a block…in that I am a foreigner and when they see me coming into a meeting, they all get nervous. I’m not a fan of that initial reaction. Maybe it’s a hangover from growing up there and always being discriminated against. I felt that the environment in the US was a little more free – you could make it what you want to. In Japan, you have to belong to a certain organization, they rank you, and that determines how much you get paid. It’s all very systematic. I didn’t feel there was a lot of room for personal growth. I had also spent so much time outside of the US, I thought it might be nice to spend time technically in my home country.

How do you maintain your Japanese in the US?

I actually prefer reading in Japanese than in English. Every time I study for an assignment, I read in Japanese first because it makes more sense. English just takes longer to read. I also maintain some contact with friends in Japan. But in terms of professional Japanese, there isn’t much outside of going to work. When I am at work, I try to listen to my partner and notice any words that I didn’t know or words that might be popular in Japan. So, I try to learn as much from my partner as possible. Other than that, I read Japanese news and listen to their podcasts or radio stations

Was there anything you had to do to get your English to a professional level?

Not really. My mother is a professor. She is very strict about how one speaks. Also, going to high school in the US, you tend to learn more professional or academic writing, which also helps your speaking. In that sense, I think my professional writing may be better in English than in Japanese. Going to college in Japan, they didn’t teach you how to write. Keigo is mostly OJT. As much as English may be my second language, there are still things I do better in English than in Japanese.

What are some of the struggles you face working as a Japanese interpreter but not looking Japanese?

I find that being female and young comes across as somewhat shocking to older Japanese clients. Once I start speaking, the lack of accent seems to put them at ease. But I sometimes wonder if it would be easier for me to just say “I learned Japanese in college for 5 years and this is just how I speak.” Or is it easier to tell a Japanese person, “It’s my first language.” My mother chose not to learn Japanese while she was in Japan because she felt that people are more comfortable if you don’t try to get too close to their culture. A lot of the things from my childhood influence my workspace. I may be too colored by that and maybe I should just say “This is me, deal with it.”

So, I do feel timid going into a job where people can see me. With remote simul or interpreting in a booth , it is much easier because they can’t just judge you by your looks.

How do you try to brand yourself as an interpreter?

Not well enough, according to my husband (laughs). This is something I want to focus on in the coming year. My work mostly comes from the ATA directory. So, I think I am going to make a website and start making an interpreting related social media feed or articles of some kind.

What was the most difficult assignment in your career, and how did you overcome it?

I would say something with the State Department. I had a military meeting and clients often don’t give you any information beforehand because the content could be classified and they don’t know what clearance you have. So, I went into a meeting and it was much more technical than I expected. I was trying to wrap my head around the technical aspect and then figure out the appropriate verbiage to use.

I focused a lot on what my partner was saying and tried to learn on the spot.

A lot of the time, I get paired with a State Department staff interpreter. They have experience with similar types of meetings, so they are great to learn from.

What advice do you have for aspiring interpreters?

Don’t sell yourself short. Be confident. Read. Listen to a lot of interpreters and what they do. We are in kind of an interpreting frenzy right now, where people are starting to see more of what interpreters do. So, one resource is to listen to Marie Kondo speeches and all her different interpreters. She often talks about similar content but each interpreter says it differently.

Also, the Japan Press Club. We used that quite a bit at MIIS for training.

Lastly, maintain your practice. Do some consec or shadowing everyday. I used to listen to the same NHK news program in Japanese, English, and Chinese or French. That way you get the same content in multiple languages so you can make note of how to say specific words in each language.

I think it’s a good year for aspiring interpreters because we are getting noticed. Whether it’s ‘should we divulge information’ or ‘interpreting can be as fun as being on a Netflix show’ – We are starting to project a more exciting image to the world than just being a parrot.


Stacy Smith

How did you learn Japanese to the point that you could work as an interpreter?

My initial contact with Japanese was in high school, growing up in the suburbs of New York City. I think I was pretty lucky in that respect, because not many public high schools on the East Coast had Japanese at that time. I started taking it in my junior year when I was 16. I had a wonderful sensei who did a lot of cultural activities in the classroom. So, we not only learned hiragana, katakana and kanji, but also made 年賀状 for お正月 and did 豆まき for 節分. Then when I got to college, I took Japanese for two years before going abroad to Kyoto. I had studied for two years in high school and two years in college, but classroom Japanese has limitations. It blew my mind being over there in Kyoto with all the temples and shrines. It really embodied how I’d pictured Japan being.  It took about six months before I was able to understand everything around me and on tv. Since my stay was only for eight months, it was really only in the last two months that I could understand everything that was going on.  I remember going to Kiyomizudera with my mother who was visiting, and being thrilled that I could all of a sudden understand everyone’s conversations.

I came back to the US, graduated college and went into the JET Program as a CIR in Kumamoto. At that point, I didn’t know that I wanted to be an interpreter. I was just coming out of college and untrained in interpreting, but I got a lot of exposure to it through my job in the International Exchange Section of City Hall.  I would even sometimes have to interpret for the mayor of our city, one especially nerve-wracking time at an international water conference being held in Kumamoto!

It was truly baptism by fire.

Looking back on it now, it’s ludicrous that I was in that position. I did what they asked me to do, but I’m sure it was not the best quality interpretation. I was 23 at the time and I didn’t take it as seriously as I would today. But it was great to have that experience, even though I hadn’t settled on interpreting as a career yet.

After three years in Kumamoto, I moved to Aichi and worked as a translator/interpreter at a subsidiary of Toyota. That was my first time working for a Japanese company, and for an international company it was surprisingly conservative. It didn’t match the work setting I was looking for and made me feel like an office environment might not be for me.  One of the best things about being a freelancer is doing different things everyday.

I came back to the US and thought about maybe going into journalism, since I also love to write. I ended up working as a writer for two years at the New York bureau of Nikkei Business magazine, where I was reporting and writing in Japanese. At the time, I was debating between going to Monterey for Interpreting and Translation or going to journalism school. But the future of journalism didn’t seem as promising as interpreting, so I ended up going to Japan to be a volunteer interpreter on Peace Boat in 2007. This is a cruise ship that sails around the world for up to three months. On my voyage, there were about 1000 Japanese guests on board and we stopped at 23 different countries. At each port, speakers got on and off board and guests on the ship would give lectures and workshops which we would interpret for. There were also other teams teaching English and Spanish.

I did interpreting on JET, but I didn’t really consider myself an interpreter yet.

I thought that because I am not a native Japanese speaker, I will never be good enough. No matter how much I do, I will never become native.

Then another non-native Japanese interpreter on the program assured me that if I’m listening to English I could likely understand 99.9% of what was being said and be able to format that into Japanese that sufficiently conveyed that message, even if it wasn’t perfect Japanese. He said that as long as you are able to do that, you will get by in interpreting. I took his words to heart, and Peace Boat gave me the confidence to feel like I could do this as a career.

I chose not to settle in Japan because there was no in-house job that fit what I was looking for. I tried to search for a couple months, but ultimately came back to the States in early 2008 and told myself, “I’ll give interpreting a go.” In the beginning I had a lot more translation work, and was hoping to transition to interpreting over time.

How did you learn about interpretation techniques and theory?

I never went to grad school or had formal training; all of my training has been on the job. I certainly practice shadowing and those kind of techniques, but I don’t have much of a background in the technical aspects.

Do you remember the first time you interpreted?

First ever? Probably on the JET program. As a CIR, you do a lot with the sister city relationship like translating letters to the mayor of your sister city or interpreting for delegations from that city that come over. It’s pretty softball stuff. San Antonio is the sister city of Kumamoto. All the CIRs before me had been from San Antonio, so I’m not entirely sure how I got placed there. I had to learn a whole lot about San Antonio very quickly, to the point where I had to be able to wax rhapsodic about the Riverwalk and the Alamo, despite never having visited those places. One of my first times interpreting was taking a grassroots delegation from San Antonio sightseeing throughout Kumamoto City.

The big water conference I mentioned earlier happened during my last year on JET. I don’t know why they couldn’t find anyone but me to interpret, but I ended up having to interpret for the mayor. It’s crazy now to think about all of the preparation that goes into interpreting that I didn’t do at the time. That was definitely my most intimidating early job.

Why did you decide to stay in the US instead of working in Japan?

I didn’t know a lot about working as a freelancer in Japan. I felt that my best option if I were there would be to work in-house, but nothing really matched my interests. At the time, Jim (see below) was in his second year at Monterey and recommended applying to the State Department. When I first started freelancing, the State Department jobs kept me away sometimes half of the year because they can be up to several weeks per assignment. They involve consecutive and simultaneous interpreting for the International Visitor Leadership Program that the State Department carries out. It’s a kind of grassroots study program, not diplomatic. So, in addition to interpreting at meetings throughout the day, you sometimes also have to interpret at cultural activities like baseball games or hosted dinners on nights or weekends. That was thanks to Jim and other colleagues in the US, where there were plentiful interesting private and public sector interpreting opportunities.

How do you maintain your Japanese in the US?

FCI has news at 7 am every morning so I watch that when I wake up, and sometimes do some shadowing. Later I’ll often read articles in the Japanese press to get more details about certain issues. The first half of the show is general business and politics, but the second half features sports, entertainment, local events in New York City or the US, or deep dives into current Japanese trends. It covers a diverse range of topics that help me stay up-to-date on the cultural references that can come up while interpreting.

I read Nikkei online, and there are also many free papers in Japanese here in New York. I do some cultural interpreting like film festivals, so those free newspapers are good for entertainment news. There’s also a monthly magazine called Chopsticks that I write for. I do restaurant reviews where I get to sample dishes and interview chefs and managers. I always leave my card so they can contact me for interpreting or other needs. It’s a fun side job that’s also a great way to make connections with the Japanese community here.

I make sure to Skype with friends in Japan and join 飲み会 with local Japanese and Japanophile friends. More official networking is obviously very important. New York has many Japan-related organizations such as Japan Society and Asia Society, as well as groups like Japanese Americans and Japanese in America and Nichibei Exchange, which both host monthly speakers around a specific theme. Columbia University also hosts periodic lectures about Japanese economic, political and social issues, so there is no shortage of ways to network with the Japanese community here.

What are some of the struggles you face working as a Japanese interpreter but not looking Japanese?

Because I’m not Japanese, I am handled differently than my Japanese colleagues. One thing that frustrates me is that some Japanese clients will want to interview me over the phone. They can look at my resume and homepage and understand my level of work.

Despite my experience, when I do the interview they inevitably say, 「あ、ほっとしました」.       It’s pretty ridiculous.

That being said, it’s relatively painless and quick so I do it to please the client.  When I speak to Japanese colleagues afterwards, they never have the same kind of interview, so it’s a bit discriminatory. I’ve been interpreting for over a decade, so you can assume that I’m able to speak Japanese. What’s more, speaking Japanese and interpreting are such different skills. What does talking on the phone to me for five minutes tell you about me as an interpreter? Yes, I can speak Japanese well, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I’ll be a great interpreter. So, I get that often, whereas my Japanese colleagues don’t.

On the flip side, there are also situations where it is definitely an advantage to be a native English speaker. There is a lot of demand for depositions and other legal work. I have heard that a lot of legal clients prefer a native English speaking interpreter because the interpretation is going on the record in English. A lot of native Japanese interpreters won’t do depositions for that reason. Also, attorneys have told me that they prefer an English native speaker.

On the whole, I have a healthy mix of Japanese and non-Japanese clients, so I don’t think being non-native is an obstacle. Also, there is always the matter of compatibility. You may be a great interpreter, but a client may prefer someone else because they are more compatible personality-wise. If you truly have the skills, don’t worry about the rest.

How do you try to brand yourself as an interpreter?

To be honest, this is not something I try to consciously do.  Due to the fact that I am not specialized and am able to cover a variety of fields, I believe that it’s more strategic to not pigeonhole myself into a particular “brand.”  Though of course regardless of the field, my hope is that all my clients see me as an impeccable interpreter!

What was the most difficult assignment in your career, and how did you overcome it?

I do work in the New York State court system, and while civil and criminal cases tend to be straightforward, family court cases can be extremely harrowing. Divorce and child support are pretty routine, but recently I had a custody case spanning over a year between two parties who both lobbied horrible allegations against each other regarding neglect and sexual abuse. It wasn’t clear who was telling the truth, but what was evident was that their young child was caught in the crosshairs of their bitter battle. Although intense business negotiations or acrimonious attorneys at a deposition can certainly be stressful for the interpreter, this type of job is the kind that you take home with you at night. When working in family court, I need to make sure I feel comfortable not only linguistically but also in terms of handling the emotional toll such cases can take.

What advice do you have for aspiring interpreters?

Hang in there!  It is normal for things to start slow and it will likely take several years to build your career.  When you are first starting out, don’t hesitate to take low-paying or volunteer work to build your skills and make a name for yourself.  Of course, it’s important to know your value, so once you are established as an interpreter make sure to charge what you are worth.

Your network of fellow interpreters is very important, particularly if you plan on working in simultaneous mode.  It’s good to have a list handy of colleagues who you can refer work to when you aren’t available, as well as partners you enjoy working with in the booth.

Finally, make sure to take advantage of the many professional organizations that can enhance your career. First is the American Translators Association, as well as its local chapters such as the New York Circle of Translators. If you specialize in a certain field or are just looking to get jobs in that field, it helps to join industry-specific organizations like the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters & Translators. 頑張ってください!

*Part 2 will be released next moth.


Allyson Larimer

Allyson Larimer is a freelance conference interpreter based in the U.S. She worked for two Honda suppliers for 7 years doing in-house translation and interpretation before branching out on her own in 2017. She is dedicated to promoting training opportunities for translators and interpreters in the Midwestern states of the U.S. She founded and chairs the Midwest Activities Committee for JAT. Allyson holds a BA in International Studies with an East Asian focus and an MA in TESOL. Her Japanese language study began at age 16 when she was dreaming of becoming an animator. While that dream faded, she continued to study the language throughout her post graduate schooling. She did a short home-stay in Okinawa during high school and 2 half-year study abroad trips in college and graduate school (both in Aichi). Despite having a TESOL degree and Japanese proficiency, she did not end up working in Japan. During the economic downturn, she found an opportunity working for a U.S. based Japanese company and has continued down the interpreting path ever since.