USA Freelancing without a Parachute #5 – Interpreting Word for Word

Antipasto (Before the Meal)

For me, part of the allure of becoming an interpreter was the opportunity to help bridge the gap. It is very fulfilling to be able to give two people or groups of people the opportunity to speak to one another in their native languages. I imagine that a lot of interpreters enjoy navigating the twists and turns involved in cleverly reproducing a speaker’s idioms and unique perspective for a counterpart who often has completely different cultural norms and expressions. Working to convey the message, rather than simply translating word for word, is creatively stimulating. Well, in my neck of the woods – the Silicon Valley – there are two industries that seem to take great pride on the word for word approach: technology and law.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love the gadgets and the gizmos. And the places where I get to interpret are often incredible feats of engineering that take my breath away. I frequently get swag. The views in those high rises and buildings that are works-of-art are a sight to behold. And of course, hanging out with my fellow interpreters at the conferences is wonderful. Yet, it can literally be feast or famine. Let’s start with the feast.

Il Primo (First Course)

“Incredible! There is a Washlet bidet in the bathroom!” was my first impression upon going to an executive briefing center (EBC) at a large information technology (IT) firm. In Japan, Washlets are commonplace in homes, offices, and even in public places, but here in the USA, most people do not even imagine that such an amenity exists. This EBC even had a cappuccino machine that prints logos and photos on the foam. At this particular company, all three meals are provided to the employees free of charge, and they are known for offering many perks, such as nap pods, a bowling alley, or allowing employees to take subsidized music classes on the company campus during work hours. Another company has one of their EBCs located on the 60th floor of the tallest building in San Francisco, where on a clear day, you can walk around and see four or five bridges coming into San Francisco from various directions. It’s beautiful and also distracting to have a meeting in a conference room with such an astonishing view.

San Francisco on a brilliantly clear, fogless day. A rare occurrence. Photo credit

At another IT company that provides the Wi-Fi network for Levi’s Stadium (with a capacity of 68,500 people according to Wikipedia), the executive briefing presentation often ended with a visit to the stadium and an explanation to clients about the hurdles involved in creating a system that provides Wi-Fi for all the spectators. Apparently, the highest Wi-Fi traffic during a football game occurs on the decks and not in the seats, because fans are congregating/eating/taking photos more than they are watching the game.

 It’s definitely fun to go to the EBCs of various IT companies to see the luxurious amenities and the latest technologies. Annual conferences for these IT companies are fun for the interpreters. Of course, there are many sessions to prepare for, and sometimes the daily, endless walk to the various rooms of the conference venue, while wearing professional attire with not the most comfortable shoes, can be tiring. If the conference is in San Francisco, then one session could be in the EBC of the company followed by the next one at an exhibition hall at the convention center half a mile away. You may have to walk back and forth several times since the streets are full with extra traffic from conference attendees. And a taxi would certainly not get you anywhere fast. If the conference is in Las Vegas, then you may have to speed-walk 20 minutes from your hotel room to the large conference site even if it’s in the same hotel resort. But it’s a rare and welcome opportunity to meet and catch up with many other interpreter colleagues when the schedule permits.

If companies have such a generous budget for amenities and conferences, you would think that they would prioritize getting excellent interpretation for their meetings with prospective clients from Japan and elsewhere. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Some IT companies always ask for simultaneous interpretation and hire two interpreters. Yet other companies ask for one interpreter and have everything consecutively interpreted. All. Day. Long.  IT meetings tend to be peppered with a series of product names, platforms, and technologies—too many and too fast to note down and remember.  I always feel relieved when a meeting is to be interpreted simultaneously so I don’t have to do it all alone.

Either an IT employee is taking a nap, or is being eaten by a Pac-Man. Photo credit

Il Secondo con Contorno (Second Course with side dishes)

Another type of consecutive work that is really challenging is being the lead interpreter for depositions. In my opinion, consecutive work is just as taxing as simultaneous work. However, agencies in the USA hire only one interpreter for most consecutive work, including depositions. There is normally one lead interpreter and one check interpreter. The lead interpreter not only has to interpret 100% of the proceeding by him/herself, but has the added pressure of having every word be transcribed by the court reporter, being challenged by the check interpreter on the accuracy of the interpretation, and sometimes must deal with counsels who have so much at stake and put on a “yelling match show” in order to intimidate the witness.

Being a check interpreter, on the other hand, is a lot better deal, in my opinion. You get to interpret during several days of “depo prep” before the deposition day. Here the defense counsel prepares the Japanese witness on what will likely be asked and goes through many scenarios and mock questions.  Even if the witness speaks with an unfamiliar accent or has some peculiar expressions, you have time to learn those and get used to them. And on the day of the deposition, you just sit there looking cool, observing the lead interpreter who is working at full capacity having to make sense of everything s/he is hearing for the first time that day. That is because in order to guarantee neutrality of the lead interpreter, no background document is given to him/her beforehand other than the complaint. The “checking” part can be tricky depending on the skill of the lead interpreter, as you wonder what, how, how much, and when to interject. You don’t want to be completely quiet and risk appearing to not be doing the work, and yet you don’t want to be so picky that the battle between the interpreters is taking up too much of the valuable time on record. For this reason I have known colleagues who prefer being the lead interpreter even though the mental load is a lot higher.

For me, I still prefer being the check interpreter. I enjoy interpreting during the prep session when the witness and the counsel are interacting in a friendly manner and learning about all of the background information on the case. Everything changes on the deposition day, however, when the smiles are wiped off of people’s faces, and the interactions are curt and calculated. Sometimes the same question gets asked in twenty different ways, which I imagine is strategic on the counsel’s part, but it can get tedious for the interpreter.

Formaggio e Frutta (Cheese and Fruit)

I also have a few war stories from being the lead interpreter. One of these was a patent infringement case regarding a material that is used in manufacturing automobiles. During this particular deposition, which lasted several days, there were three witnesses to be deposed from one of the defendant companies.  Some of those witnesses only had a half-day of deposition, which is relatively short for a witness who came all the way from Japan. But their company took this deposition very seriously, and hired one interpreter per witness to go through the preparation process and then serve as the check interpreter during the actual deposition. I, on the other hand, received the inquiry to be the lead interpreter only a few days before the deposition, and had told the agency that I was available to travel for the deposition. But for a reason that was never communicated to me, the assignment was not confirmed until about two hours before I would have to leave my house for the airport, in order to travel and arrive in time for the deposition the following day. Upon receiving confirmation, I had to quickly secure my flight ticket, hurriedly pack my bag and leave, and I did not receive the complaint for this deposition until after I got off the airplane. Did I mention that this deposition was of a very highly technical nature? Looking back, I should have told the agency early on that I could not take such a technical assignment at the last minute.

In the morning I was a lot less prepared than I wanted to be for this difficult deposition. Although I was relieved that the counsel on the plaintiff side was soft-spoken and not intimidating, the responses from the expert witnesses from Japan were often over my head because I had not received any background information, nor had the time to research the topic sufficiently. And, because I was the only lead interpreter, I naturally started to get tired after a few hours of interpreting completely new, highly technical information. As you can imagine, I was getting checked and corrected a lot more than I would have liked. And, when one witness was finished and the next witness came on, I was completely exhausted, but the check interpreter was replaced with someone who was fresh and equipped with a thick binder full of background information, ready to check me and humble me.

At another deposition for an antitrust case, my professor from graduate school was my check interpreter. You can imagine how nerve-wracking that was for me. She told me in the beginning that, as the check interpreter, she is there to help the lead interpreter through the deposition process. She was definitely cooperative and not adversarial. For example, she helped the court reporter with spelling of Japanese words so that I didn’t have to go through the trouble of spelling them out each time. I really appreciated her supportive stance as the check interpreter and I have adopted the same philosophy ever since.  

Dolce (Sweet)

Unlike deposition interpreting whose format is pretty consistent, court interpreting can come in different shapes and sizes. There is interpreting for the grand jury, where 20 or so grand jurors decide if the defendant should be criminally charged and be tried in a trial. The only people allowed in the room are the defendant, prosecutor, grand jurors, court reporter, and one interpreter, if needed. Not even the defense counsel is allowed in the room. There are some limitations such as no electronics are allowed inside (even my electronic dictionary), but in the grand jury room that I’m familiar with, there is a seat with a microphone at the front where the interpreter can sit, next to the defendant. It is a relatively relaxed atmosphere as the prosecutor speaks and asks questions clearly in a simple and concise manner so that the grand jurors, who are laypeople, can easily understand the subject matter. Having no check interpreter also adds to the relaxed atmosphere.

Jury trials are quite different. I have not had the opportunity to interpret at a trial but heard the following account from a Senpai. The interpreting situation is not consistent due to the whims of the court, judge, or counsels. Sometimes there is a check interpreter. Sometimes there is not. In a recent antitrust case that lasted a few weeks, my Senpai and another interpreter worked as a team and there was no check interpreter. Throughout her court interpreting experience, the common thread seems to be the fact that no one has the forethought to think about the needs of the interpreter. In her case, there was a time when she was not even given a chair to sit, and she had to stand outside of the witness stand, and reach up to the witness’ mic when she interpreted. So in the recent antitrust case she took the time to inquire about the working environment. She made a request for everything that she and her partner would need in order to perform their best during the long trial including: being seated at a desk where they can hear the witness well, having a microphone for the interpreter, access to Live Notes, and the ability to use a device in the courtroom to access the online dictionary. After some correspondence, making a trip to the courtroom on a separate day, and advocating for what they would need in order to provide good interpretation, they were granted all of those things.

Caffe (Coffee)

My Senpai’s recent trial interpretation ended abruptly a few days before its scheduled conclusion, as all courts were shut down due to the pandemic. After a few months into this pandemic, I have been involved in one deposition case and have heard of a few others that were done remotely. The amount of legal interpreting assignments seems to be a lot less than pre-pandemic, but I hope we will see more opportunities and that the options will increase, given all of the technologies that are now available.

Naturally, the landscape and paradigms are in flux due to the new norms of 2020. I feel certain that the nature of interpreting will look quite different, based on what we have seen so far. However, I believe it is up to our entire community to make sure we establish best practices that are beneficial for everyone. Because we all want to keep bridging the gap whether it is feast or famine.

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.