It was pure white. The kind of white that seemed inconceivable for a human face. On it, there were swirls of red in every direction. As the Kabuki actor Nakamura Hashigo continued to refine his makeup, I was dazzled not only by his precision but also by his dedication to the craft. Using his fingertips, Nakamura smudged the precise, red lines he had just drawn on his face, blurring them. He told the assembled, virtual audience of over 300 people that it was important to see the fingerprints and smudges along the lines. You see, he was portraying a rough character that represents strength and passion using a type of makeup called Kumadori. A brave hero, if you will. And I was the lucky one who got to interpret for Nakamura as he transformed himself in front of us.
This is the state of things now. We now live in a world where virtual interpreting has become commonplace, where a Kabuki actor in Japan can make a presentation from his office in Tokyo for an audience of hundreds of people around the world. And on the screen, I can have my own little box, with a computer-generated background of galaxies and constellations, as if I am floating high above all the action.
Virtual interpreting has its advantages, for sure. You never have to leave the comfort of your own home. I hear that many remote interpreting assignments in Japan are now carried out from a hub, where the interpreters gather at the client’s office or the agency and call into the virtual conference. In the United States, where our cities are geographically more spread out than in Japan, using such a hub is a lot less common, although I have heard of a few instances.
Assignments are usually far shorter and more direct than they were before the pandemic. Groups of Japanese business people previously travelled to the San Francisco Bay Area (where I live) for three days to a week of all-day meetings and facility tours. Now people often meet only one to two hours at a time virtually, focusing on very few topics at a time.
The disadvantages are many, of course; technology being the nefarious foe that it can be. Oftentimes, something does not work properly. It could be someone’s microphone. Or their video feed, or the Internet. Something might stop working all of a sudden, when everything worked just fine during the sound check. If any one of these things goes down, for the speaker or the audience, or heaven forbid for the interpreter, everything falls apart quickly. And, not being physically together means that you often miss a lot of the nuance that you would have picked up on if you had been in the same room.
With physical meetings not possible during the pandemic and with the resulting changes in our professional and personal environments, many webinars are now being held on various topics. I think this is one of the fortunate outcomes of the pandemic. We have the advantage now, of being able to acquire a tremendous amount of knowledge from the comfort of our own homes. JACI’s Summer Forum is an incredibly remarkable example of that. Of course, there were already many YouTube channels offering lectures on various topics, which you could watch on demand, but now we have live virtual webinars that allow the audience to ask questions, making participating a lot more interesting and interactive.
From the interpreter’s point of view, the virtual arrangement poses new challenges. First is multi-tasking. Interpreters have always had to cope with sub-optimal working conditions even before the pandemic, such as the humming noise of a projector, the room temperature being too hot or cold, difficulty hearing the speaker from across a large conference room, or a speaker who continues speaking without pausing for the interpreter. The controls for some of these conditions are now in the interpreter’s hands, such as adjusting the room temperature or increasing the volume of a quiet speaker. It may even be easier to force a pause on a long-winded speaker by starting to interpret before they have finished. But one significant new challenge is the amount of multi-tasking now required during virtual interpreting. In addition to paying attention to the speaker’s speech, there are sometimes chat windows to keep track of with the event organizer or with your partner. And there is a mute button to keep yourself muted or unmuted, which must always be in the correct position. And, depending on how the conference or the interpretation is set up, you may have to juggle more than one virtual conference. The second or third virtual conference may be needed to hear your partner or provide interpretation to those who need it. It definitely takes a few mistakes and failures to really learn the lessons necessary to be able to stay atop the crazy wave that one must ride.
Another challenge is Internet speed. Insufficient bandwidth for the speaker or the interpreter significantly impacts the sound and video quality, and can suddenly make it impossible to decipher what was said. In the worst case, the connection may drop entirely and the interpreter can be dropped from the call. In our household, not only are my husband and I reliant on the Internet for working remotely, but we also have three children currently doing remote learning from home using Zoom on three separate devices. To make this work, we have had to significantly upgrade our bandwidth.
And then there is the noise issue. With three energetic children who are always home and a husband who teaches French horn lessons too, my house is always filled with lovely sounds that unfortunately are not conducive to remote interpreting. At the start of the pandemic when I expected to stay as busy as before “just in remote mode,” I seriously considered building a soundproof booth in a closet. Instead, I worked out an arrangement with my father-in-law to borrow his office when I have work during the time my husband is teaching. We have all learned to be flexible in many aspects of our lives during the pandemic, and I realize how fortunate I am to have flexible family members who help me create a good work environment, even at home.
While working from home may be comfortable because you don’t have to leave home, sometimes it is less comfortable because you don’t get to leave home. A long-time Japanese client of mine asked me if I would be willing to help him while he attended the annual conference of an industry association. This conference was to have taken place in Paris, but this year it was held virtually. What this meant for me, logging in from California, is that I was working in the early morning from 2:00 am to 6:30 am one day, and then overnight from 11:00 pm to 9:00 am the next day. Without the pandemic, if I had been asked to accompany his delegation to Paris, I would have had time to prepare during the flight to Paris, and then time to rest and continue to prepare after arrival in a quiet, comfortable hotel room. I could have adjusted to the Paris time zone and would have been given a briefing with the clients over a nice meal. I probably would have been paid for five days of work, including travel time.
This time, however, I was at home and therefore spent a normal day as a mother to three children, and then tried to get even a couple of hours of sleep before the all-night assignment began. My client was joining the meeting via GoToMeeting from Japan, and since only the association member could log into the session (and not his interpreter or staff), the meeting was somehow forwarded to me using Microsoft Teams so I can view and hear what’s going on. And I had another Teams session open on a second device to which I was broadcasting my talking to the client team. This client is fairly comfortable in English, so this was not a “simul assignment.” It was a mix of interpreting, narrating, and providing other support he needed to get the most out of the conference. The hardest part of it for me, by far, was staying awake because I did not have the normal buffer time of traveling and resting. Tethered to my desk with two headsets around my head and neck, I must have looked like a madwoman pacing around and stretching periodically trying to stay awake. For this, I got paid for approximately 2.5 days. Oh, I miss my “work-vacations”!
That said, another positive outcome of this pandemic is the improved connectedness in the interpreter community around the world. In California, freelance interpreters were already in a tough predicament because of California Assembly Bill 5 (AB5), which went into effect in January 2020, requiring companies to reclassify independent contractors and hire them as employees. That meant that even for a day of interpreting work, a company was required to make the interpreter an employee of the company and pay them benefits. This resulted in companies looking for interpreters from other states to avoid the added costs. The only way around this was for the interpreter in California to reorganize as an LLC or a corporation, which would involve a lot of legal paper work and fees.
In order to unite and commiserate about the shelter-in-place reality and all of the developments around AB5, a few local interpreters started to meet up virtually on a regular basis. What started out as an opportunity to see how everyone was coping with the changes, quickly turned into valuable information sharing sessions on unemployment benefits, practice sessions for simultaneous interpreting handovers on various platforms, and sharing best practices on virtual as well as in-person assignments, which are slowly starting to happen again.
These meetings have been enormously helpful for me professionally and mentally to connect with Senpai interpreters. It has also been exciting to get to know other Japanese interpreters from around North America and Japan, as well as interpreters of other languages from all over the world, via different platforms. We have seen developments in the virtual meeting platforms, too, and now there is a platform called Hubs where you can choose an avatar for yourself, enter a room, and walk toward the people you want to chat with. And multiple people can speak (and be heard) at once, which is different from most video conferencing platforms where only one microphone can be activated at a time. I have only used it once, but it’s interesting to see the incredible creativity and innovation that occurs when people are confronted with the constraints of a pandemic. While the USA will take much longer on its recovery to normalcy, I’m delighted to have made all of these new connections over various platforms.
The Kabuki webinar that I interpreted for recently was definitely one of the highlights of the past 8 months. It was very different from most of the work that I did pre-pandemic, which was often IT, legal, or government-related with a business agenda. This webinar was all about culture and enrichment, which was very refreshing. As the Kabuki actor Nakamura explained how actors and musicians stay in harmony without a conductor, as in a Western opera, or during his Kabuki makeup demonstration when he explained what it means to be glared at by a Kabuki actor with Kumadori makeup, I was grinning ear-to-ear the whole time. It reminded me of why I wanted to become an interpreter. I love being able to convey to a listener what is going on, so that they can understand and share in the “Wow!” feeling of what is being said by the speaker.
“Art can’t be quarantined” is one of the video projects that Nakamura has worked on during the pandemic. Although his physical stage had been taken away by the pandemic, he considers every small project, even the creation of a video clip or an appearance in a webinar, to be his stage and he always gives it his best. I feel that we can all use that lesson and approach our work as though we are in the booth, at the podium, behind the microphone, or whatever our pre-pandemic mode may have been. Performances at Kabukiza theater have started again in a socially-distanced manner since August. With the COVID infection rate here breaking records on a daily basis, it is hard to imagine when Broadway will return to normal, and who knows when interpreting in the USA will return to something like it was before. Nevertheless, I will continue to remind myself that “learning and practicing can’t be quarantined,” and I will treat every opportunity as my big stage.
This is my last article for the Freelancing without a Parachute series. Thank you for reading this far and for sending me encouragement along the way. Interpreting definitely feels like freefalling at times, but it’s also a career in which you can leverage every experience you’ve ever had in your life. I’m hoping for a soft landing and I know that this career will be an exciting path to be on as I grow older and gain more experience. I just need to remind myself from time to time to enjoy the journey.
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.