START YOUR ENGINES
What happens when you have trained for years to be a conference interpreter, but the job that falls in your lap is all about technical translation? In a word, panic!!
And what was that job? It was at a company that makes steppers and scanners – huge machines that print microscopic circuit patterns onto IC chips with incredible precision. After months at sea interpreting for atomic bomb survivors, I suddenly found myself translating documents about a process called photolithography. It was early 2009.
The translation department at the company had six translators and two editors. Many of the documents to be translated from Japanese into English were instruction manuals for the aforementioned steppers and scanners. There were several different models of machines, each with hundreds of different procedures that had to be followed in order to start it up, troubleshoot it, and perform maintenance work on it. And it was an endless stream of translation. There were so many new documents to be translated along with constant revisions to previous versions. And as you might have guessed, the company used Trados to manage all the translations and terminology for consistency.
How did I end up there? I received a call one day from Margie Wong, my Senpai from MIIS (Monterey Institute of International Studies), saying that she was going on maternity leave. Margie was awesome, training me on the translation tools, telling me about the company culture, and introducing me to key people. Although the company’s products and their use seemed like a gigantic, complicated jigsaw puzzle at first, the more I learned, the more it all started to make sense. Putting the puzzle pieces together was satisfying, and so was the compensation.
You see, after a total of 4.5 years with no pay having been in the Peace Corps, and then going to grad school, followed by volunteering as an interpreter, the salary as a technical translator in Silicon Valley was more than attractive. The fact that money was being deposited into my account on a regular basis alone was amazing. At the end of five months of working there, the company generously offered me a translator position as an employee with full benefits. For most people in my position, it would have been a no brainer to accept this lucrative offer. I mean, the economy was still recovering from the 2008 recession. My boyfriend at the time certainly thought I should take it. But I really wanted to give interpreting a go. I didn’t feel that this office job, which kept me sitting in front of a computer all day scrutinizing technical documents, was the right fit for me.
AND SHE’S OFF
To rewind a bit, soon after I graduated from MIIS I had gone to Washington, DC to take interpreting exams in the Office of Language Services at the US Department of State (DOS). Six months later, toward the end of the voyage on the Peace Boat, I was notified that I had passed all three exams (consecutive, simultaneous, and conference levels). And after going through a lot of paperwork and the interview process for the background check, I was finally ready to receive assignments.
A short time after my contract with the photolithography company ended, I had the opportunity to go to Washington, DC to attend a workshop for new interpreters in the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) at DOS. The IVLP is a DOS program, in which young and promising professionals from countries around the world are invited to come to the US for three weeks of professional exchange. Japanese guests often come in small groups of 1-10 people and the topics of their visits vary widely. Some examples of the topics I interpreted for included: the jury system, military realignment issues, space exploration, refugee resettlement policy, and managing infectious diseases.
The program always starts in Washington, DC, with an official welcome from the DOS and an opportunity for the guests to learn about federalism in the United States. Following that, we spend about a week going to various appointments in the DC area. After DC, the IVLP group travels to three or more cities in the US to continue learning about the topic at the state and city levels. Two interpreters are normally assigned to the group, and we interpret every appointment simultaneously, making sure that the visitors are safe throughout the tour and ensuring that all of their questions are answered.
If the group has three visitors or fewer, then only one interpreter is assigned to the group and has to interpret 100% of every meeting by themselves. I found this to be fun albeit a lot more work. You see, a driver and a car are not assigned either. So when I led small groups, I had to navigate the public transportation systems in large cities such as DC, New York, Portland, and Chicago. In other cities that are more spread out, such as Los Angeles, Dallas, Honolulu and in more rural places, I was tasked with driving the group around in a rental car. Since there were three or four appointments each day, time management was crucial. To arrive at the next appointment on time, I not only had to interpret the entire meeting, I also had to ensure that the meeting ended on time. In addition, I had to know which exit to take at the subway station, be comfortable at city driving and parking, and quickly figure out which restaurant to choose for lunch and dinner each day with the group. It was an incredible opportunity to train many different muscles at once.
In one or two of the cities we visited, there was always a home hospitality component where a local family hosted visitors for a dinner. The homes varied in size and shape as much as the people inside. The visitors always enjoyed the opportunity to enter someone’s home and be welcomed in a casual and unpretentious way regardless of the views and opinions of the family.
There is also a small budget allocated for a cultural experience of the visitor’s choice, which could be spent on going to a concert, an amusement park or a sporting event. The IVLP group that was learning about the jury system visited an execution facility in Texas followed by their cultural choice: a half-day at the “happiest place on earth” aka Disneyland in Los Angeles. That was definitely one of my most unusual weeks as an interpreter explaining how to administer lethal injection followed the very next day by delving into the story of Snow White. Oddly related.
And of course, there was a lot of prep to do each night for the three or four appointments to be interpreted the following day. While these three week tours were completely exhausting, working as an IVLP interpreter was an intense learning experience in which I enjoyed meals with the Japanese guests doing a quick debriefing at the end of the day, hearing about what they do in Japan, and their perspectives on how different things are in the US. I also served as an American ambassador to the visitors, informing them about American culture, another key role of the interpreter in this program.
I was assigned to about 10 of these long programs during my first few years after going freelance, and it was such a valuable learning experience. However, they say you really learn your subject by teaching someone else how to do it. Well, I never thought I would teach, but then I got a chance to try it.
ROUNDING THE TURN
A little more than three years after graduating from MIIS, I was asked to return to the school to teach simultaneous interpretation as an adjunct professor. The inquiry came rather suddenly, and while I wasn’t sure whether I had enough experience to teach, I had to answer quickly because the semester was about to start the following week. I was asked to teach two classes, and the classes were scheduled back-to-back so that I would only have to make the commute once a week — about a 90-minute drive each way. While that seems like a long drive, it turns out that commuting was the least of my worries. I didn’t have any teaching experience. As an office manager I had given information sessions or new-hire training in the past, but I had never officially taught anything as complicated as simultaneous interpretation. In my opinion, simul is something that you have to practice a lot and learn through muscle memory, and I felt that it was not something I could explain very well.
I had thought that creating a syllabus and actually teaching the classes would be the most difficult part of the job. It turns out, however, that a more difficult challenge was finding suitable audio sources. I inherited the class from the professor who taught me, and she generously gave me all of the audio sources she had used in her classes on cassette tapes, which is what I used when I was a student there. The simul lab at MIIS had recently undergone a digital transformation. Meaning – no more cassette tapes. So, I had to start over, scouring the web each week for an appropriate speech. I found that the number of Japanese speeches available on the internet is a lot fewer than English speeches. Of course, I could have found a transcript of a speech and read it aloud myself, but that is not the same as a “live” speech with unique speaking speeds, habits, and other peculiarities. So finding speeches took more time than I expected. And then there was grading to do each week. I found that in order to give meaningful feedback to help a student improve their interpreting, I needed to listen to the recording carefully, analyze it against the original speech, and give it a tremendous amount of thought and reflection.
Another unexpected factor was exam days. As students, we all complained about these exams because we had to prepare to take so many over the course of a few days. But, as a student, you could leave after each exam, which only lasted about 10-15 minutes. Meanwhile, a professor has to sit and listen to each and every student. In addition, important exams such as the year-end final exam are proctored by multiple professors, so you have to sit through the exams not only for your own classes but for other professors’ classes, too. There were multiple days of sitting through exams of nervous students, all day long. Being a professor was much more labor-intensive than I had ever known, and I certainly gained a huge amount of respect for all of my professors at MIIS.
And then there were the schedule conflicts. Because many professors are also working professionals, the institute is flexible about rescheduling classes when there is a conflict with an assignment. For a professor of translation or even consecutive interpretation, rescheduling and finding a room to teach in was not that difficult. But as a professor of simultaneous interpretation who needed to use a simul lab for the class, it was often impossible to find the lab available if I needed to change the teaching day. Keep in mind, I was still starting out my career and had been mostly depending on the three-week long IVLP assignments from the DOS for my income. I had to decline those long assignments since I couldn’t miss three weeks of class in a row, even though I only taught once a week. The number of assignments that I had to turn down was eventually too many, and unfortunately, I could not continue teaching after only one semester. While my teaching career was very short, I will always be grateful for all the other professors there who helped me get started, the students I encountered, and the appreciation I gained for the time and labor invested by all the professors.
THE CHECKERED FLAG
After I stopped teaching, I was assigned to a few more IVLPs, and I also started getting work from pharmaceutical companies. In particular, there was a Japanese pharma company that was jointly developing a product with a local start up, and they often needed to have meetings to keep the project on track. The content of the meetings varied widely, including chemical, mechanical, clinical trials, regulatory, human resources, manufacturing, compliance, and audit. This job also required visiting the companies that were making the automation machinery to manufacture the drug. That meant traveling throughout the US, and occasionally to Stuttgart, Germany.
There are numerous components of the drug manufacturing process, and when one part is delayed, such as 1) the clinical trial doesn’t produce the expected result, 2) some parts for the device aren’t available, or 3) the automation on the machine does not yield the expected throughput, the effect of that delay trickles down through every other part of the process. Working on this project, I became quite accustomed to things not going according to plan, which was about to come in handy.
Because despite all of these experiences, nothing prepared me for what was about to come. My boyfriend had become my husband, and I was pregnant with triplets. Life was about to change a lot.
Kayo Shiraishi Wood
Since completing her Master’s degree in Conference Interpretation at Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey (MIIS) in 2008, Kayo has been a freelance interpreter working in the areas including government, information technology, pharmaceutical, and depositions. Residing in Mountain View, California, USA, Kayo is a contract interpreter for the U.S. Department of State, and has worked for many federal agencies including the White House. Kayo was First Lady Melania Trump’s interpreter when she and President Trump visited Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako of Japan in May 2019.