JACI Interpreter Interview #2: Derek Wessman

This interview of JACI-certified member Derek Wessman took place in February 2017.

– Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I was born in San Diego, California, and grew up in Utah and Washington State. My high school offered Japanese classes, so I took it for three years and learned the basics.

– Where were you educated?

My latest education was at the Temple University Japan campus, but I left school with a few semesters left to start my company. I intended to go back, but no one ever asked me about a degree after that, so the idea is dormant. If I go back now I pay a high opportunity cost for missed work, and more importantly, I lose the cache of being in the fashionable college-dropout fraternity.

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

I realized after a few years of translation with only occasional interpreting that (1) I enjoy interpreting much more, (2) people appreciate my interpreting more, (3) interpreting does not allow me to procrastinate, and (4) good interpreters are in great demand. I had almost always come away from interpreting jobs feeling great and wanting to do more of it, and that seemed like a solid sign that it was a job for me. But I have never considered interpreting to be the only job for me.

– Tell me what your first job was like.

I had been in Japan about six months, and was feeling somewhat fluent. There were no simultaneous Panaguide interpreters for an all-day E to J meeting in my organization, so I gave it a try. Afterward I thought I had done terribly, but the audience (politely?) told me I did great. It was unpaid volunteer work. But that was my introduction to the extreme emotions of interpreting–that we usually feel either great or terrible after a job, and rarely anywhere in between. The irrational confidence from that first experience has carried me ever since.

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

After that first volunteer experience, I spent another 18 months in Japan interpreting maybe once a month, but always in that in-house, comparatively low-pressure environment. I returned to the States and worked as a Las Vegas tour guide and occasional interpreter for Japanese tourists, and then worked at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City as a guide and interpreter. That got me interested in Japanese politics and began to consider studying them in Japan.

I wanted to attend a Japanese university, but there were several months to wait before I could apply. I decided to volunteer at a politician’s office, and looked up the name and office location of the local (Hachioji) member of the House of Representatives, who turned out to be Koichi Hagiuda. I visited the office without an introduction or appointment, and once they confirmed I was too short to be in the CIA, they let me volunteer. Two months later Mr. Hagiuda hired me as a privately paid secretary (私設秘書). I worked for him for a few years instead of enrolling in university, while also building a freelance translation clientele, mostly with agencies.

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

I would listen to taped speeches in English and try to simultaneously interpret them into Japanese. That was a good way to find holes in my vocabulary and skills. I also talked to myself a lot in Japanese back when I first arrived. When I heard a phrase that seemed useful, I’d say it over and over and get my mouth muscles used to saying it so that it would come out effortlessly later. Listening to good interpreters has always been great, and I still learn something from all my partners, at every job.

More than anything, though, embarrassment was and remains the greatest teacher. When I mess up, it hurts and is hard to forget.

– What did you do to build your career?

I used the blueprint I’d previously applied to freelance translation: Take every job possible and focus on bringing value to the client. After incorporating, I fairly quickly found a niche in medical device-related interpreting due to a friend randomly needing someone to interpret on short notice, and through subsequent work at industry association gatherings I was exposed to numerous companies that liked my work enough to contact and use me later. Other than that, word of mouth or introductions have accounted for over 90% of my work. Being a corporation, despite the burdensome paperwork and complexity, has been the key to having almost exclusively direct clients.

– Have you worked as an in-house before? Why are you freelancing now? What are the pros and cons?

A few years ago I took a job managing a small translation and interpreting department for about a year. I enjoyed the relationships with coworkers, and there was plenty of satisfying work to do, but I hated the commute and office politics. When I was freelance and operating as a new company, the main negative was certainly the fluctuation in work volume. But as long as there is steady volume and great clients, I will probably never go back to a large organization.

If someone wants to get a lot of steady experience in a short time, and with perhaps less high-pressure situations in which to learn, I see a lot of value for that person in being in-house. My early experiences inside an organization gave me risk-free situations and yet very long hours to learn how to interpret. That was a huge value.

– Any memorable episodes on the job?

The most memorable and influential job was when I was assigned to interpret during the Winter Olympic Games for meetings between the mayors of sister cities Salt Lake and Matsumoto, Japan. I came into the job with some experience but very intimidated. The defining moment of that experience was when the mayor of Salt Lake City joked in the conversation that he’d like to switch jobs with the Matsumoto mayor. It wasn’t an amazing joke, but I got it across with perfect timing, and both delegations had a great simultaneous laugh. All my imposter complex faded away and I caught a glimpse of how good interpreting can bring value to relationships and events.

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

The most difficult thing is managing the effects of stress from interpreting in high-stakes situations. During the actual work there is no problem with performance, but after jobs and across the long haul, I am starting to either experience–or maybe just recognize for the first time–that there are physiological effects from the stress. Air traffic controllers are famously stressed, and while we may not be at that level, there is a lot of stress in interpreting. I’m working on healthy ways to relieve or manage that stress in order to make a heavy interpreting schedule sustainable. (I’d love to hear what everyone is doing, other than pounding beers!)

The most satisfying thing is, as always, seeing people communicate well and get important work done through my interpretation. Working in the medical device business, I see how new technologies and products get developed, built, and approved so patients can prevent or heal illnesses. Clients also often express their gratitude for the value we provide, and that is immensely satisfying. I have received remarks from customers that our interpreting has brought their business or internal communications to a new level of effectiveness–that feels so great.

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

I currently travel 50% more than I want to. While visiting various parts of Japan and the occasional new country is nice, being home more is a goal of mine. I estimate that I average two weeks a month on the road, with some stretches of a month or more. When I interpret inspections of medical device or pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities, they tend to be in rural areas, so that can be interesting and afford chances to climb the occasional mountain on the way there or home.
I have worked in Korea, Vietnam, China, the United States, Sweden, Belgium, and France. Those have all been great experiences.

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

I have been lucky to work with almost all great people. To me flexibility is nice–I don’t mind going an extra 15 minutes and it’s great when a partner is willing to do the same, even if I rarely ask. I appreciate the industry norms of precise timing and division of labor in the booth, but I wasn’t trained in that environment or convinced of the absolute necessity for that, so I’m very open to whatever makes the work go well.
I really appreciate when my partner has a sense of humor. When we can commiserate about mistakes or laugh at the craziness that sometimes happens in meetings, it makes the work a lot more enjoyable.

A person I don’t want to work with is the opposite–rigid, more concerned with minuscule details and their own preferred practices than getting the job done and bringing value to the client. To be honest, I think that a very small percentage of veteran interpreters are susceptible to this. When I occasionally see or hear about a so-called “大御所” interpreter treating other interpreters–or even worse, clients–badly, or otherwise making the work harder or less productive, I find it off-putting. I’d rather use a positive beginner any day. However, I have been lucky enough to work with almost entirely great people.

– You run your own agency as well. What type of interpreter do you try to hire? What traits do you look for?

I’ve said before that attitude is the number one, two, and three thing I look for in interpreters when I am evaluating who to work with. Even amid the stress, someone with a sense of humor and understanding of what the client truly needs brings a big value.

I love when interpreters are eager to get the materials beforehand and study, as that clearly leads to better work. I also greatly appreciate when interpreters understand that clients sometimes can’t or won’t give much info in advance, but they come at it positively and do their best anyway.

With or without materials, we are ultimately not readers or narrators or translators–our job is to understand what is being said and meant in one language and render that as best we can into another language, and with little or no time to think. That means it will rarely be perfect, but it also makes it incredibly fun–when I do get it close to perfect, I feel great, and regardless of the outcome, I feel great when I have done my best. But this job is not for the faint of heart.

– How do you deal with customer complaints?

First, I scream internally, or out loud if possible. Nothing feels worse than failing to bring customers the value they expected. After that I try to set aside defensiveness or other negative emotions or bias; I try to find out the facts, then identify the root causes and try to eliminate them so the problem doesn’t happen again. Luckily, we receive a good deal more praise than complaints. And when an interpreter has performed badly, which is very rare with our partners, I try to relay the info directly and calmly. I know I have previously come up short in my work, but those experiences have helped me, so other interpreters similarly deserve direct feedback.

Sometimes feedback might be unfair from the interpreter perspective, but ultimately the customer perspective of how their expectations were or weren’t met is the most important. From that viewpoint, it is really important to manage expectations with customers and have good communication, especially in advance of a job.

When a customer is unhappy, it’s neither a matter of blaming an interpreter nor of ignoring a customer’s feelings. It’s much more important that everyone comes away ready to do better the next time, and when an interpreter feels like they’ve been thrown under the bus, they are unlikely to want to work again with the customer or the agent.

– Any advice to aspiring interpreters out there?

I would say to approach every job with a desire to make the meeting or conference or negotiation–whatever it is–successful for the client. That could mean a very rigid, direct translation, or it could mean that you obtain the client’s permission to cut through flowery nonsense and just get the important points across. Every job requires some level of tailoring to meet situational needs.

The other piece of advice is to take a long-term view. When a job is tough and fatigue and emotions start to appear, it is important to first get the job done and next make sure the client knows what you need in order to do a good job. Clients appreciate a bit of flexibility and honesty about the job, and more than anything they appreciate a positive, effective person serving their needs.

Lastly, get rid of any imposter syndrome. Everyone is imperfect, and there is no special set of criteria for being able to consider yourself a useful interpreter. The value you bring to the interaction is what matters. For me, “irrational confidence” has been the way to get the experiences that lead to justified confidence.