Interpreting in the U.S. #11 – Profiles of American Interpreters (Part 2 of 2)

Jim Patrick

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

I’ll let you know when I get there. (laughs) The short answer is lots of study; both in America and in Japan. Also, a lot of time working in Japan and for Japanese companies in the States.

I did 2 years of Japanese in high school. I also did 2 years of Latin, which isn’t related to Japanese, but gave me a lot of translation practice. In undergrad, I was an English major with a Japanese minor. Probably the biggest impact was study abroad in Kyoto and Kanazawa my junior year of college for about 8 months. That accelerated my Japanese learning. You can study language from a textbook but it was kind of hard to learn Japanese without going there in the late 90s. It was really challenging to get to use the language in real life.

When I graduated undergrad, I joined the JET programme as a CIR and worked in Japanese government offices for 5 years. The first 3 years, I was in Toyohashi in Aichi, working in city hall. I was pretty much separated from all the English teachers. Then I had another 2 years working at the prefectural office in Nagoya. While I was on the JET program, I studied a lot for things like the Japanese Language Proficiency Test and the Kanji Kentei. I also ended up doing a lot of interpretation work, especially for the 2005 World Expo. After that, I went to MIIS and worked for Honda R&D.

How did you learn how interpretation techniques and theory?

On the JET program I got a lot of OJT, or just the opportunity to learn by doing. In city hall, people would say “You speak English and Japanese. You can interpret for the mayor.” To which I responded, “I think there is a little more to it than that…” But the first year, I got a lot of translation experience working for a Japanese government office. I slowly got to interpret more for the mayor. Then when I got to the prefectural office, I did a lot more.

In terms of theory, I had 2 years at MIIS. They do a lot more practical training, but theory as well. It’s also a good opportunity to learn from working interpreters.

Do you remember the first time you interpreted?

It would have been early in the JET program in Toyohashi Hall. They had a sister city relationship with Toledo, Ohio. Government representatives or university professors would come to Toyohashi and I would interpret for them when they met the mayor.

It was scary but fun.

I remember towards the end of my time on JET, Aichi was holding the Children’s World Summit on the Environment, which was hosted by the UN environmental program. I ended up interpreting a lot of discussions beforehand between the UN and the prefectural government. That was my first real business negotiation interpreting experience. I really enjoyed it.

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

I lived in Japan for almost 6 years between JET and study abroad. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after JET. I was a little homesick. But mostly, I wanted my next career move to be deliberate. I didn’t want to just live in Japan on autopilot. I suppose part of me wanted to try being an adult in America. I had done study abroad for most of my junior year. I was back in the US for less than a year when I turned around to go back for JET. I wanted to see what it was like to work in the US. But coming back to America led to grad school, then Honda, then freelance. So, I’m happy now living freelance. I get to go back often for work trips. But I wouldn’t mind going back to work or teach there. Working there as a professional interpreter is something that I would like to experience.

How do you maintain your Japanese in the US?

It’s hard, especially being freelance. Immediately coming back from Japan, I was in grad school and then in-house. So, even when there wasn’t a Japanese office environment, there was a lot of interpreting.

So now that I am on my own, I try to watch a lot of news in both languages, but especially Japanese. When I was on the JET program, I got in the habit of recording the 7:00 Japanese news every day and watching it when I got home. It was VHS back then. I would rewind it multiple times and play it back.

Now, I can get Japanese tv on the internet, so I can watch an hour of Japanese tv while I am on the treadmill in the morning. I definitely try to stay up on current trends and current topics. I also have a subscription to the Nikkei. I am not as religious about reading that as I am about watching the news. I try to read the newspaper as much as I can.

I also try to practice shadowing, sight translation, and simul, with varying degrees of success. When I first moved to DC, I had some colleagues who would get together and practice. Now most of them have moved to other places. But I find myself pretty busy trying to prepare for assignments. I will do background research into the topic, find related documents to sight translate, or find previous speeches by the same speaker to practice interpreting. After the assignment is finished, I try to put together vocab lists and critique what went well and what didn’t in a PDCA type of cycle. Sometimes, your first job in a field doesn’t go very well. All you can do is make sure that you are continuing to get familiar with the field, so that you can do better next time.

Oh, and vacation in Japan as much as possible. (laughs)

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

Yeah, I am very clearly not Japanese. I am a fairly average looking white guy. (laughs) It’s not that bad though. In Washington DC, there is a lot of E>J. That’s okay when I know the topic well. But when it is a new topic, it is tough to know what sounds most natural in Japanese. That’s why it is important to develop fluency in new fields.

I do feel like I have some freedom by living in the US.

I can act as Japanese as I want to. When you are working in Japan as a foreigner who speaks Japanese, you are part of a system. You have to adapt to the Japanese way of doing things. But in America, the expectations are different. I feel that the expectations are different here. In general, I am polite and considerate. So, once I start talking to clients or coworkers, we get along just fine. Yet, I can still conduct my business in an American way. There are also benefits to being and NSE. I work with lawyers and journalists a lot. They like clean English output that they can use. For example, in a deposition, the transcript is in English. Journalists also are looking for a good quote. They want to be able to use your English.

So, you never get look of shock when you walk in the room and start speaking?

Not really. I sometimes get mistaken for the client, like for a lawyer or something. Someone says, “Where’s the interpreter?” and I just go, “Yep, that’s me.” But in general, establishing rapport with the client is important in any interpreting job. That lets them trust that you can convey the message well. I do find that it is helpful to explain myself a little bit beforehand; to say that I did live in Japan and I have worked as an interpreter before. The fact that I worked at Honda for a while helps. It can be good to kind of humble brag so that they know that you do have experience and know what you are doing. So a lot of it is made better by being polite and professional with your clients. It is a huge leap of faith that they have to take. They need to trust that you are faithfully rendering what you are saying, but they can’t know for sure.

On the flip side, when an American client sees you speaking Japanese, they are immediately impressed.

I get Americans saying “Oh, you’re such a great interpreter.” and I just think, “How would you know?”

How do you try to brand yourself as an interpreter?

I don’t do a lot of marketing per se. This may be a generational thing. Many of the senior conference interpreters I work with don’t believe in marketing. They think that it should all be word-of-mouth and your work should speak for itself. And I am lucky that I have a lot of senpai from the JET program, MIIS, and Honda. A lot of my freelance work now is through direct clients. Some came from connections at Honda, while others are from just word-of-mouth or referrals from other interpreters.

It’s something I struggle with. The generation younger than me is used to social media. They put everything out there. So, I don’t really try to aggressively market myself. I use LinkedIn, so my information is out there. Then, I do a lot of networking. I network in the industries I work in, just getting your name out there as a Japanese interpreter. And then networking with other interpreters, because I think some of the best work comes from colleagues. So, I am very active in the American Translators Association. I was administrator of the Japanese Language Division for a while. I’ve spoken at their conference a couple times too. I try to stay active in alumni networks for JET and MIIS.

I feel like if you do good work and try to contribute back to the profession, it will come back around to you. But I don’t market as in cold-call or direct marketing. I don’t even have a website.

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

It was probably my second week working in-house at Honda R&D.

My white uniform is still slightly starched and crisp, and I am still learning the names of people and departments, what everyone does in the organization, and all of the corporate and technical jargon. I am really nervous because it is probably one of the first meetings I am asked to interpret, but the other interpreter assures me that everyone is nice and understanding. So, I get to the meeting, and I realize it is the material research department. Which sounds frighteningly technical and scientific to me, but I am assured that it is a weekly department meeting, mostly management topics, a good place for the new guy to start. And everyone is nice, and it is mostly administrative stuff. Right up until an engineer visiting from Japan starts a PowerPoint presentation on the chemistry of carbon nanotubes, which I have not seen before and the details of which are not covered in my nascent glossary of automotive terms.

Suffice it to say the meeting took a difficult and demoralized detour after that. But, with the help of the other interpreter and the kind understanding of the meeting participants for the new guy, the meeting eventually ends, and the world and my employment do not. It isn’t pretty, but I survive.

The experience helped crystalize the importance of a lot of best practices for me. Talking with the speakers and requesting documents beforehand. Focusing on the main message. Relying on your colleagues. Being humble and professional. Practicing self-compassion. Reviewing and doing better next time.

You can’t always control how things are going to turn out in our line of work, and you have to accept that and still try to do your best.

What advice do you have for aspiring interpreters?

If you are aspiring to be an interpreter, immerse yourself in the language but also think about communication. Translation and interpretation are about facilitating communication. I guess I would say it is a lot of fun. It’s a chance to talk with interesting people about interesting things. If you can motivate yourself and you find new, challenging subjects interesting, it’s a very stimulating and rewarding career.

It’s an opportunity to constantly learn.

Lastly, when things don’t go well, when you haven’t been given the best opportunity to succeed, it doesn’t make any sense to get frustrated. Just be professional, be humble, don’t let your ego get in the way. The important thing is not you but the communication. So be humble and do your best.


Robert Klein

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

I was fortunate to be exposed to the language quite young, as a high-school exchange-student. In 1970 when I’d just turned 15, there were few places to study Japanese in NYC, so my parents sent me to Berlitz at Rockefeller Center where an elderly former geisha, who always came for my lessons dressed in elegant kimono, not only introduced me to the language, but also to Japanese cinema and food. I took to the language right away and remember surprising her by memorizing both kana syllabaries in a single night.

There is no one point when one is ready to interpret, since mastering Japanese really is a lifelong challenge. A wonderful teacher once compared it to “scooping out the sea with a basket.” I was surprised, however, that a year of undergraduate classical Chinese at Princeton University genuinely helped boost my literacy in Japanese, just as Latin and classical Greek are helpful for students of English. I never do feel that my knowledge is sufficient, and my home office is littered with vocabulary lists.

When living in Japan in the 1990s, I spent several years running a communications consultancy, which involved interpreting for clients as part of the service offering. I found myself enjoying interpreting most of all, and after returning to my home town of NYC in 2000 in a management position at a European stockbroker, soon took the decision to devote myself to freelance interpreting. I have not looked back.

How did you learn about interpretation techniques and theory?

I just started doing it, really. I engaged in what the acronym-loving Japanese call OJT, on-the-job training. In Tokyo while working in investor relations, I did enroll in a several-month interpreter training course at Simul Academy, which was my first exposure to simultaneous interpreting but the assignments I undertook in Tokyo in the 80s and 90s were consecutive.

Interpreting in NYC in the 2000s, I have found colleagues to be invaluable sources of professional guidance. One friend suggested there would be more work if I also offered simul and kindly gave me a refresher course in the techniques. She then secured me my first simul assignment as her partner at a lecture at Japan Society. The subject was architecture and it was mostly from J into E. I studied hard and, on the day, it flowed smoothly and naturally. That initial positive experience gave me the confidence to pursue simul, in addition to consecutive work. Apparently, it’s unusual to begin doing simul in your 50s, but I’m living proof that it is possible.

Do you remember the first time you interpreted?

It must have been when my family came to Japan to fetch me after my exchange year, but the first time that I was paid would have been in the early 1980s in NY. It was via an agency called Rennert, whose client was a charming South African, Adel Rootstein, who designed display mannequins for department stores.

My interest in the interpreting profession was sparked during an elementary school class trip to the UN, when we were shown into the interpreter booths. To this day, I appreciate the variety it offers—from a Japanese manufacturer of sausage casings to heads-of-state, and anything in between. It is never routine.

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

I met my spouse, who is not Japanese, in Tokyo in 1997. We returned to NY for his MBA program, but now he has a great job here and our apartment is a short stroll from my elderly parents. So, there are practical and family reasons, though a move back is certainly a future possibility.

How do you maintain your Japanese in the US?

The more work I do, the smoother my performance. If I haven’t interpreted in a while, it might take me a bit to get back into the swim. Before assignments, I always read relevant material in Japanese—essential also for preparing glossaries.

I should probably be reading more in Japanese for leisure, but don’t find it relaxing. I do try to spend time with Japanese friends, or at least chatting with them by phone or Skype. I also recently subscribed to an online service that provides access to the full array of CATV channels in Japan, which keeps me abreast of, for example, topical vocabulary for major news stories.

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

Very occasionally still, there is the insular Japanese whose jaw drops, “he speaks Japanese!” surprised that you can actually perform the role for which you were hired. Then there are clients who dumb down their Japanese because they can’t imagine a non-native, even a professional interpreter, might actually have an adult vocabulary.

More insidious are clients that won’t consider you, because they are simply more comfortable with a native Japanese. You never find out about it – unless a colleague asks you about an inquiry that you didn’t receive but should have.

Fortunately, the flip-side exists too: assignments where a native English-speaker is favored over a non-native. These include courtroom trials where the witness is Japanese and must appear sympathetic in front an American jury. Lawyers may consider a non-Japanese interpreter more strategic, though you’ll never get one to admit it.

Trickier than not looking Japanese, is to be wearing a wedding band but married to a spouse of the same-sex, as one is regularly queried, “Is your wife Japanese?”

Recent evolution in social attitudes are heartening, but Japan remains a deeply conservative bastion of conformity. For years, I took the expedient of skirting the subject with a stock reply, “alas I wasn’t blessed with a wife from Japan,” but it never felt good to be evasive, especially when I really liked the client. I now believe that when asked directly, I have a responsibility to respond, but always do so in a matter-of-fact way. I may reply to, “is your wife Japanese?” with “no, my husband is originally from Mexico” and flash a smile. I’ve been encouraged that people are usually fine with that and it’s far less stressful just to be who you are. Even buttoned-down financial types nowadays seem to take it in stride. It also builds trust, because clients see you as a truthful person.

How do you try to brand yourself as an interpreter?

I’ve never thought much about branding myself and don’t spend time on social media, though I do have a LinkedIn profile. I hail originally from the financial sector but consider myself to be a generalist handling an array of financial, corporate, media, legal and government work. Since I am an ATA member, my details are also in the directory. New assignments generally arrive via word-of-mouth referrals from people who either know my work or from interpreting agencies I’ve dealt with for many years.

I visit Japan regularly and try to drop in on clients. I also cultivate relationships with professionals at financial institutions and law firms who can direct corporate business to me.

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

I had a local assignment last year to support a visiting Japanese plastic surgeon, working with a group of mostly Australian surgery instructors at a seminar to demonstrate deep facelift techniques on cadavers. I got the assignment via a Japanese colleague, who demurred when she learned his interpreter had fainted the previous year at the same event.

I was intrigued but steeled myself as I’d never actually seen a corpse. I arrived quite early to the venue and was asked to gown up, before being admitted to a highly air-conditioned basement room whose floor had been lined with plastic sheeting. Aside from a distinctive sickly-sweet smell, I immediately noticed rows of work tables covered with white sheets. At either end, hidden by the sheets, were unmistakable lumps about the size of small watermelons. It was then I surmised that just the essential body part had been provided for the days exercise—severed heads.

Over the course of the day, faces were dissected, anatomical structures explained, and surgical techniques demonstrated. I discovered the subject matter to be sufficiently fascinating that I could master my squeamishness and ignore the slightly saccharine smell of decaying flesh that permeated the room. I was also flattered to be mistaken for an instructor by the senior surgeon.

All the business attire I’d worn beneath the surgical gown went right to the dry-cleaners because of the smell. It was weeks, however, before I stopped having flashbacks of the severed heads, triggered by memory of the scent lodged somewhere deep in my sinuses. The experience definitely altered my thinking on mortality, and the surgeon is now a valued friend.

What advice do you have for aspiring interpreters?

Don’t be afraid to jump into deep water before you can swim, because that’s how you learn.

It can be terrifying, but there’s no feeling so wonderful as when you’ve internalized the material, get into the zone and feel like you could just keep doing it forever.

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.