JACI Interpreter Interview #3: Fri McWilliams

This interview of JACI-certified member Fri McWilliams took place in June 2017.

– Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I was born in Yamaguchi, but soon moved to Hiroshima where my parents still live. My mother is Japanese and my father is Canadian. He was born in Tokyo to missionary parents who came to Japan in 1916. My parents are both bilingual and always spoke English at home, although they never set any language rules for my brother and me.

– Where were you educated?

The first term of first grade was at a Japanese school, then I transferred into second grade at Hiroshima International School. I moved by myself to Vancouver for high school, after which I worked full-time as a manager at McDonald’s while taking night and weekend classes in HR management. My second job was an HR admin position at a company I despised, and at my friend’s suggestion I decided to go to Tianjin, China, to teach English for one year. That turned into six years, during which time I studied Chinese at university and started interpreting.

In my teens I almost completely forgot how to speak Japanese… There had been little to no exposure to Japanese since moving to Canada, and by the time I was twenty my listening and reading was fine but I couldn’t express myself at all. I applied to be a flight attendant and failed the Japanese exam! What a blow. A part-time job waitressing in a pseudo-Japanese restaurant where I practiced on bewildered Japanese tourists helped a bit in regaining the language.

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

Although I started interpreting in China and really enjoyed it, I didn’t really pursue it until I moved back to Japan. As an in-house interpreter I got to really understand my company from every angle – the industry, internal regulations, HR practices, relationship with shareholders. It was a telecom-related company and in my years there (2008-2013), there was so much disruption in the industry brought on by the advent of smartphones. The landscape was rapidly changing, and I got to see some of the biggest players in the industry fight to be the ones to create the rules. All of this got me really excited about a career in interpreting.

– What was your first job like?

An agency in Tianjin contacted me for a 2-day assignment with a mobile phone manufacturer which was expecting visitors from a Japanese carrier. Due to the confidential nature of the assignment, they refused to provide any details other than the client name. They did, however, give me a list of Japanese names for which they wanted me reassign Chinese characters to, so they could pronounce them right. For example, Tanaka (田中) would be pronounced “tianzhong” in Chinese, so I might use 他那卡 (tanaka) instead.

The morning was horrible. The conference room was packed with about 15 from the Japanese delegation and 20 from the Chinese/Malay/American side. There were no microphones, and everything was consecutive so everyone heard the interpreters. My partner was a Chinese-Japanese interpreter, and she did everything Chinese-based while I did everything English-based. It took almost an hour for the introductions and words of welcome, and the reason for the meeting was still a mystery to us. The Japanese delegation was shooting evil looks at us and our obvious lack of understanding regarding the proceedings. Things improved drastically after we learned that we were there to talk about batteries, and I really enjoyed myself in the afternoon and the following day, especially being given plenty of opportunities to practice my Chinese as well.

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

I worked as a freelance interpreter and translator in China while attending university. My jobs came from ads in the local expat magazine and Japanese Association publication, as well as personal introductions. However, there wasn’t enough work to support myself solely with interpreting, and I was still teaching English both privately and at various institutions and businesses.

I decided to move back to Japan in 2008, after 17 years away. My first job was as a bilingual assistant with a newly established Japan office of an American company. I had the best bosses who let me know that they valued my contributions, and they helped turn the assistant position into a full-time interpreting position. This was the first time working in an American company and I was shocked at how different things were in the US and Canada. After four years there, there was much less interpreting required in the company so I decided to go freelance, and the chairman offered me a deal I couldn’t refuse – to help out with the establishment of another company, whenever I had time. He gave me the means to support myself financially as I built up my freelance career. As the number of my outside jobs increased the company grew and they needed me less, so it was perfect for both parties.

That first year, though, was very stressful. I didn’t know how to be a freelance interpreter. The only organization I found at the time was JAT (Japan Association of Translators) which was full of translators and had very few interpreters. I was registered with one agency, I’m not sure how they found me. Online searches for other agencies were overwhelming – there were so many and they all looked the same to me! I couldn’t tell which ones would suit me, so I stayed away from all of them. All of my clients were direct, which meant I worked alone. I had never, ever, worked with a partner. I had no peers, no one to ask for advice, didn’t know my market value.

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

When I was starting out in China, I really needed to brush up on my basic Japanese. The local Japanese Association and their gatherings provided an environment to speak Japanese. My Japanese friend whose daughter I was tutoring helped me as well. At her recommendation I copied an article a day from Tensei Jingo (天声人語), and read out loud from Japanese Newsweek.

As soon as I moved to Japan I got a language partner. I helped with her application to a UK law school, and she taught me the ABCs of Japanese business etiquette – how to answer the phone, exchange business cards, write emails.

In my first in-house job I was part of the IT team which had a pretty decent budget for training, and my boss agreed to pay for half of my interpreting school fees until completion.

– What did you do to build your career?

Surprisingly to some, I’ve received a few jobs through LinkedIn. Some inquiries come through JAT and the Japanese Association of Conference Interpreters (JACI). I volunteer for some charities that I believe in, and they have been great in gaining exposure to potential clients.

One year after going freelance in Japan and feeling that my career just wasn’t taking off, I joined a Big 4 tax firm on a one-year contract. There was a desire to have something I could say I was good at. Truth be told demand for tax-related work isn’t that high, but it’s still good to have something specific to mention when asked about my fields of expertise.

– You’ve been an in-house before, and now you’re freelancing. Why? What are the pros and cons?

I’m a social person. I love having colleagues, people to have lunch with. People to share joys and tribulations with. I’ve always been very active in extracurricular activities, and still belong to the LGBTA organization and futsal team from my two previous jobs in Japan.

Paid holidays, I definitely miss paid holidays! Now there are no paid holidays, but I do get to take as much time off as I like (within reason). The regular hours were nice too. I enjoy taking classes – since moving back to Japan I’ve taken French, Chinese, yoga and boxing classes – but now the schedule makes it difficult to commit to any regular class.

I do love the variety of work I get as a freelancer, and the really amazing people I work both with and for. I’ve been fortunate that both of the companies I worked in-house with kept me on afterwards as a freelancer, so it’s possible to drop in and say hi from time to time.

– Any memorable episodes on the job?

Well, business is still very much a male-dominated world, and I’m often the only woman at a meeting. I was at a dinner meeting in the US with four gentlemen from the same group – the CEO and COO of the US parent company and chairman and CEO from the Japan subsidiary. The meeting started even before we got seated, so I never had a chance to talk to the waiter. He was very attentive, and as I was the only woman came to take my order first, ask me how my meal was and whatnot. He couldn’t take the hint that I wanted to be left alone. Finally, when he came to ask me about the dessert I just lost it. I was listening intently to a piece of conversation, and with the interruption my mind went blank. Just white. Silence at the table. I might have cursed. Fortunately, I was on very good terms with this client, and after a beat they all just laughed, relishing my despair. This would never happen in a restaurant in Japan, since wait staff are quick to recognize certain roles and kindly ignore “background” people like interpreters.

The second day of the Tokyo International Bar Show I told the seminar instructor, a noted cocktail expert, that I always got nervous before going on stage and interpreting to an audience through a microphone. He went and got me a shot of Irish whisky to take the edge off. Sunday at 10am.

I was at my boss’s meeting with a vendor and was told explicitly to maintain my boss’s tone during the meeting, which was expected to become confrontational. The vendor was making excuses for every piece of data my boss presented. At one point, the vendor started speaking without waiting for the interpretation, so I asked if he had understood and didn’t need interpreting. He immediately shut up. My boss was very, very pleased.

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

Sometimes, time management and balancing my personal life with my work can be difficult. Materials often come up last minute, and if there is a Monday assignment this usually means I need to prepare on the weekend. My partner and I only get to see each other on weekends, so this can put a strain on things.

The most satisfying part is that I get to hear so many great minds, and look into the inner workings of so many companies and industries. I get to see what the cars of the future look like years before they are built. Or how companies can get involved to influence future legislation. The shady side of politics and business. IoT. The surprising distribution channels that companies employ. Where industry leaders get information from, how they think. How tax havens work. New types of cigarettes and e-cigarettes. How the Internet is disrupting traditional industries like TV and telecommunications. How Olympics sponsors are preparing for Tokyo 2020. I just love hearing all of these great things happening all around the world, and that in some way I can take part.

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

It’s important for me to go to Canada at least every 18 months, and I try to experience one new country every year, as well as spend some time in my mountain cabin. Last year I went to six countries for four days to three weeks. This year it looks like it will be six countries again – the shortest trip was China for three days in March and longest was Canada for 19 days this summer. I’ve been to Korea, the US, Mexico, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, India, the Philippines, Australia, Morocco, Iran, the Netherlands, France, the UK and Monaco. My new countries this year (fingers crossed) will be Argentina and Switzerland.

As for work, unfortunately there’s been very little travel – about one international trip and two to three domestic trips a year, although the domestic side is increasing. I would welcome more!

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

I haven’t really had any bad experiences. It’s nice to work with an interpreter that obviously has a “we’re in it together” mentality. Some people just come and go with barely a greeting. Freelance interpreting can be a pretty lonely profession.

I also really appreciate it when my partner corrects me – they don’t have to, but they’re paying attention to what I say and helping me improve. We all have different backgrounds, and I’m very honored when someone takes the time to share some of their experience and expertise with me. There are so many instances where looking up words in a dictionary or online just isn’t enough, you need the experience.

– You exercise a lot. Do you think it helps your performance as an interpreter?

The running definitely helps. I let my mind wander, and it really allows me to put things in perspective. This is especially true when I’m super busy and my mind is inundated with logistics, prep materials, and that pesky admin work that you just have to keep up on. Also, I’ve always felt that interpreting is like a marathon. It’s not a dash, you need to pace yourself, and focus for a long time – it can be extremely physically demanding.

– Any advice to aspiring interpreters out there?

Don’t struggle alone. I did for a long time, and honestly it didn’t get me anywhere. My career really took off after meeting others in similar circumstances – interpreters and freelancers in different professions – and picking up various tricks and attitudes.

Get out of your comfort zone – if you are offered any opportunity (within reason) to interpret, take it. The only way to improve is through practice. There were so many students at my interpreting school who had never interpreted for work, even though they showed their competency in class. Some were given opportunities at their existing jobs which they never took. Make sure you have a trusted partner with you that can take over if you really need it, don’t be afraid to lean on that person, and jump in!