JACI Interpreter Interview #1: Tom Eskildsen

This interview of JACI-certified member Tom Eskildsen took place in February 2017.

– Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I was born in Tokyo to Lutheran missionaries from the US. I grew up in Shizuoka and Nagoya and have mostly lived in Tokyo since my college days.

– Where were you educated?

I first went to a Japanese kindergarten run by one of the Lutheran churches in Shizuoka City. After that I went to a small elementary school run by my father’s mission in Shizuoka. One of the unmarried women missionaries taught us up to sixth grade. The school never had more than about a dozen students and in the end there were only 5 children in the school. My father was next transferred to Nagoya so I went to Nagoya International School (NIS) until I graduated from high school. I next spent a year at Pasadena City College but did not feel comfortable in the US so I transferred to International Christian University where I majored in linguistics and teaching of Japanese as a second language.

– What made you decide to pursue a career as an interpreter?

I always wanted to be self-employed as I did not think I could last long working for a company. I started out as a translator while I was living in the US but did not find it suitable to my temperament as I could never stop proofreading until the very last minute. I gave up translation and took a job working for an environmental group in Tokyo, where I was occasionally asked to interpret for guest speakers from rainforest countries.

– Have you given up translation completely? Do you think translation benefits/benefited you as an interpreter?

I try to avoid translation work as it is not my core competency, but I will do it if necessary for important clients or if there is an urgent need. I still struggle with proofreading and never feel fully satisfied with my translations. My eyesight is declining so that also makes this work more difficult for me.

The experience of working as a translator for three and a half years was extremely valuable for my interpreting career. I learned how to parse and reconstruct sentences grammatically. I suppose everyone learns this in English class in Japan but I had never had a chance to study it in school. It is especially helpful when doing sight translation of speeches etc., at conferences.

– Tell us what your first job was like.

I had had various opportunities to interpret for NGO activists or environmentalists when I was working for some local NGOs in Japan. I also was involved in Tibetan Buddhism and was asked to interpret for various Buddhist teachers passing through Japan. At the time, I was living like a backpacker in a gaijin house in Kyoto. One of my buddies from NIS was working for a Japanese company introducing desktop publishing solutions to Japan. The interpreter that they had hired for a press conference became ill suddenly, and in desperation my friend asked if I could substitute. They seemed to like my work so I started to get interpreting work from that company from time to time. I believe my initial pay was 40,000 yen for a half day.

– How did you prepare for your first job? Were you nervous? Do you remember anything specific about that job? What was going through your head?

This first IT-related interpreting job came up all of a sudden so I did not have any time to prepare for it. I was of course very nervous but I tried to calm my mind using a simple meditation technique, observing the incoming and outgoing breath. I don’t remember much except that there was a fancy stage with bright lighting and journalists with cameras. My friend encouraged me a lot so that helped me to calm down. Some of the technical concepts were familiar as my friend, a Macintosh evangelist, loved to tell  us about them.

– Tell us about your career path after that first job.

I moved back to Tokyo in 1996 and worked part time at another NGO while doing some interpreting work on the side. Around that time, I accidentally met with an old friend from schooldays, James MicDonnell, who was working full time as an interpreter. He invited me to do some simultaneous interpreting with him for some events of Cisco Systems. He also introduced me to KYT. Around that time, Mr. Yoshio Hida of Hutech Corporation was interviewing interpreters to assist him in interpreting for Nokia at 3G standardization meetings at ARIB and TTC. It was very intense work, mostly Panaguide whispering of technical discussions, but this experience helped me to build a foundation as an interpreter specializing in information technology and I am forever indebted to Mr. Hida for giving me this opportunity. Next, I was scouted by Mr. Teruaki Miyata of Comfort Inc. to work on contract with the R&D Planning Department of NTT DoCoMo. I did not want to lose my clientele so Mr. Miyata kindly made arrangements so that I and another interpreter would take turns working full time for DoCoMo for one and a half months and freelance for the next 1.5 months. It gave me the opportunity to visit Europe and the US for meetings of 3GPP and other mobile-related standardization bodies. Once the first stage of 3G standardization work and commercialization was completed, there was less need for interpreters so the contract ended. I was very fortunate to get many opportunities to interpret in the IT field after that, especially from KYT but also from Hutech, Comfort and other agencies. KYT in particular gave me many opportunities to expand my scope to other areas of IT technology such as cyber security, virtualization, storage and fixed-line telecommunications, and more recently, to investor relations and medical device-related work. I am deeply indebted to all the senior interpreters and agencies that have given me opportunities to work in this field for more than twenty years now.

– What did you do to hone your skills when you were starting out?

When I was involved in 3G standardization work, I read the draft specifications and tried really hard to get a conceptual grasp of the technology, even though I had no technical background.  I always tried to understand the subject matter well enough to be able to follow the discussions and develop a mental picture of what was being discussed. I was fortunate enough to get many opportunities to hone my skills on the job, so I never went to interpreting school, though I think I should have. It is a lame excuse, but I was also very busy as an activist working on issues of the forests and indigenous peoples’ rights, so I could not find the time for it.

– What did you do to build your career?

Mainly I tried to do a good job each time so the client would want me back again. And some of my senior interpreters were very kind to introduce me to agencies or recommend me for jobs. Earning the trust of agencies and colleagues means everything in this business and I certainly tried to do so.

– How do you know that you’ve done a “good job”? Do you have defined criteria? What do you do when you make a mistake?

It is very hard to know whether or not one has done well in the midst of the work. Getting repeat work is the sign that it was good enough, and stoppage may mean it was not up to par. Customers can change their opinion after just one mediocre performance. To avoid regret, it is best to leave no stone unturned in preparing for each job. Life is full of ups and downs. One needs the humility and perseverance to pick up the pieces and move on if one loses a client. If I realize a mistake in my translation, I try to find a chance to admit it and explain what the correct meaning was.  

– What are the rewards of working in-house? Why are you freelancing now? What are the pros and cons?

My experience working partly in-house for NTT DoCoMo was tremendously rewarding as I was able to learn so much about the technology and also travel many places around the world. But it did not last. Anyway, I was very fortunate to be able to continue doing freelance interpreting work that made the most of that in-house experience. The pros of in-house work are the stability of income and the chance to gain in-depth knowledge in a particular industry or technology. The cons are that in-house work is generally rather poorly compensated and one cannot expand into new fields.

– Any memorable episodes on the job?

I cannot forget the time that I lost my balance inside an interpreting booth and nearly destroyed the booth. Somehow the staff were able to tape it back together so we could finish the session!  I must always remember that I am like an elephant in a china shop!

Another time in the coldest winter season I was about to be late for an interpreting job due to train trouble. I ran so hard from the station to the venue that I was drenched in sweat but I did make it in the nick of time.

I also had the bizarre experience of being trapped for several days in Anchorage and Seattle at the time of the 9/11 attacks.

– What is the most difficult thing about your job? What’s the most satisfying thing?

The most difficult thing is the instability and seasonality of the work. And preparing one after another for conferences on unfamiliar subjects can be grueling in peak season. The most satisfying thing is to be able to learn something new every day.

– Do you travel a lot? How often & how long? Which countries have you visited?

I am fortunate to have been able to travel to most Western European countries for my interpreting work. My volunteer work has taken me all over Asia almost countless times, especially to Malaysia, Bangladesh and Thailand. On the average I travel overseas perhaps 6-7 times a year. I was in Africa once to attend the Johannesburg Summit. I once interpreted for a meditation retreat in Vladivostok, Russia and was surprised to hear gunshots when our ferry arrived in the port. It was also very interesting to interpret for a permaculture (sustainable alternative agriculture) conference in Vietnam and for a conference in Bangladesh on organic rice farming using ducks to control weeds and pests. I also interpreted for a group of Japanese Buddhist monks on pilgrimage in India with a courtesy visit to Mother Theresa’s home in Calcutta. And I took journalists to the deep jungles of Borneo to document illegal logging. There were many amazing experiences. It is a great blessing.

– What type of interpreter, in your opinion, is easy to work with in the booth?

As long as we can follow the common sense practices that are taught at interpreting school, it should be no problem. Since I am big and rather clumsy I try to avoid doing things that would be annoying or distracting for my partner in the booth. But I suppose my clumsiness may be a bit irritating to some of my colleagues. I thank them for their patience.

– Any advice to aspiring interpreters out there?

Please don’t follow my example. Put in the money and time to learn the theory and get practice at interpreting school, and see if you have a natural talent for interpreting or not. If it feels like the right thing for you, probably it is good to start out with in-house work and just get lots and lots of hours of interpreting experience. And if you are financially stable or do not require much money, try to find a suitable timing to go freelance.

Also, there are many non-profit organizations working for refugees, immigrants, exchange students, peace studies, cultural exchange etc., in Japan, or for various good causes overseas, so why not sign up as a volunteer interpreter and translator?  That was a wonderful way for me to get started and it has made my life much richer. At least you will make new friends.

FYI, I volunteer for Jumma Net, a Japanese NGO working for the Jumma indigenous peoples in Bangladesh, and Sarawak Campaign Committee (SCC), which is a member of Plantation Watch, an NGO platform on the issues of oil palm and tree monoculture plantations in the tropics.   I am also involved in Julay Ladakh, which conducts study tours and environmental education in the western Himalayas, and the Japan Network of Engaged Buddists (JNEB) which is building an international “eco-temple network.”