By Sascha Udagawa

Many people think of an interpreter as someone who sits in a glass booth with headphones on at an international conference, speaking fluently into a microphone in a foreign language. Perhaps that image was created in part by actresses such as Audrey Hepburn in “Charade” (1963) or Nicole Kidman in “The Interpreter” (2005), who both played U.N. conference interpreters who got caught up in all sorts of thrilling and romantic escapades. Although we may not notice them, interpreters appear on news programs almost every day, standing slightly in the shadows but only whispering distance away from high-level government officials from around the world. But not all interpreters work in such high-pressure situations as international conferences and meetings between heads of state. Interpreters can be spotted in action at a wide range of venues such as business meetings, medical consultations, legal proceedings, and site visits.

Interpreters enable the cross-cultural communication necessary in today’s society by converting one language into another. However, these specialists do more than simply manipulate words – they relay concepts and ideas between languages. They must understand the subject matter in which they work in order to accurately convert information from one language into another. In addition, they must be sensitive to the different cultures associated with the languages they work in. Japanese-English interpreters have a particularly challenging task because of the profound linguistic differences between Japanese and English. Interpreters must be capable of accounting for these differences almost intuitively and expressing the sense of what the speaker says without relying on a literal translation of a string of words.

Paul Hersey (at right) interprets at a meeting between former President Bush and former Prime Minister Koizumi at Camp David. (White House photo)

Interpreters must possess not only the language skills to convey the substance of what the speaker says, but also an ability to express the meaning in a way that is appropriate for the situation and allows the conversation to proceed without interruption. Fumi Tsuchiya, who works as a freelance interpreter and instructor at Simul Academy as well as a broadcast or simultaneous interpreter for CNN, explains, “In most cases, the accuracy of the information and the natural flow of the speech or conversation are equally important. Maybe accuracy should come first, but the ‘sense’ should be a close second. If we pay too much attention to the details, the interpretation or the conversation can get dull and mind-numbing. (In such cases, we say the interpreting was perfect, but the meeting was a disaster.) For instance, in the case of a courtesy call or congratulatory remarks at a wedding or reception, interpreters should pay close attention to make sure their interpreting carries the right ‘tone’ suitable to the setting, rather than focusing on details while missing the tone. There are some exceptions, though. For highly technical issues – such as legal cases or in medical consultations – in which the details play a critical role, interpreters must provide word-for-word translation. Interpreters do not have the freedom to ‘summarize’ what the speaker said on such occasions.”

Paul Hersey, Senior Diplomatic Interpreter in the Interpreting Division of the U.S. Department of State, talks about the mental processes involved in interpretation: “Listen. Listen not as a student taking notes and without the imperative of immediate understanding at a depth approaching the speaker’s, nor as an average delegate tuning in only to those topics of particular interest to him, nor as a subject-matter expert who has devoted as many years of her life to studying the topic as has the speaker and therefore need not think too hard to get all aspects of the speaker’s intent, nor as one who wants only the big picture and can afford to ignore the details. Do so while maintaining enough spare concentration, once you have understood something, to either jot down a few consecutive interpreting notes to aid your memory during rendition once the speaker has finished, or to begin speaking even while continuing to listen. Remember, if you have not processed hard and fast, you will not achieve clarity in your rendition. And hurry. In consecutive, the whole room is anxious for you to finish. In simultaneous, you must match the speaker’s pace.”

Interpreter Paul Hersey at an APEC meeting held in Santiago, Chile. From left are: former Prime Minister Koizumi, former President Bush, interpreter Paul Hersey, former Secretary of State Powell. (White House photo by Eric Draper)

Cultural and linguistic differences between the two languages can sometimes create obstacles to smooth communication. It is the interpreter’s job to somehow fill the gaps and keep the conversation moving along naturally. Hersey says, “The only time that I’ve been absolutely unable to interpret something is when I wasn’t given context, when the speaker had stopped after just one phrase or one sentence and I’ve just quietly asked them to continue.” Cultural perceptions of humor can also cause problems. “Jokes are by far the most difficult thing to translate, especially when the jokes are associated with a particular name or place (e.g., a historical figure or actor) not known to people outside Japan,” says Tsuchiya. “This is an interpreter’s nightmare. If you try to explain the joke, it would be almost like killing the joke. I once read about a famous Russian-Japanese interpreter who just said, ‘That was a joke. It just doesn’t translate well, but that was a good one. Please laugh.’ Then the Russian audience burst into laughter and the Japanese speaker was quite pleased with the reaction. Out of dire necessity, I used that phrase once (when the speaker made a joke about a 12th century princess in a local feudal domain) and it turned out be a great success, too.”

It is a common belief that translation and interpretation are basically the same type of work, but they are actually two very different professions. Interpreters deal with spoken words, translators with written words. Each task requires a distinct set of skills, and most people are better suited to one or the other. On the difference between translation and interpretation, Hersey says, “It’s mainly a difference of speed, but it’s also a difference of medium. Either you’re speaking or you’re writing – those are really two quite different exercises. Is it possible to do both? I suppose, but I think the qualifications and the abilities to do one or the other well aren’t usually found in the same person.”

Paul Hersey (center) interprets at a U.S.-Japan summit meeting in New York on Sept. 23, 2009, between President Obama and Prime Minister Hatoyama. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)

There’s certainly no doubt that Japanese-English interpreting is a challenging profession, but what qualities other than language skills should aspiring interpreters possess? Hersey says that the key components to being an effective interpreter are, “Analytical skills. Mental agility. Powers of concentration, logic, and expression. Broad general knowledge and the ability to adapt quickly to acquire specific knowledge in new fields. Many people underestimate the rigorous demands of the job, assuming it is a question of ‘being good at languages.’ A necessary condition, granted, but by no means sufficient; nor do I believe it ranks very high in the above list of qualities. To use a computing analogy, the database of linguistic and cultural data must be exceptionally good, but it is useless without another database of broader knowledge of how the world works and another on the basic concepts of the specific topics to be discussed. The key to it all is a CPU with clock speed and memory access quick enough, programmed with logical algorithms powerful enough to draw on those databases to organize input into a coherent output.” Tsuchiya says the most important qualities for interpreters are, “Curiosity, ability to concentrate, eagerness to learn, and sensitivity – in order to really capture the emotion of the speaker.”

Interpreter training varies greatly depending not only on the country where the training takes place, but also on each aspiring interpreter’s ultimate objective. Being fluent in at least two languages is essential. A university degree is normally required, but any major is acceptable. It does not necessarily have to be in a foreign language. Indeed, candidates who manage to acquire the necessary linguistic knowledge on their own might be better served by majoring in something else. An educational background in a particular field of study, such as political science, economics, law, engineering, or biology, can provide some of the valuable knowledge and skills required for specialization.

Many interpreters have master’s degrees either in interpretation or their particular fields of specialization. Despite the growing demand for interpreters, there are only a handful of graduate schools worldwide that offer master’s programs in interpreting. For example, the Monterey Institute of International Studies, a prestigious language and international policy studies school in the United States, offers both a master’s degree in conference interpretation and a master’s degree that combines both translation and interpretation. According to the website, students travel to Monterey, California, from all over the world to work with a full-time faculty of experienced interpreters, and train under the same conditions and using the same technology that interpreters use in the field.

Hersey studied interpreting at Ecole Superieure d’Interpretes et de Traducteurs (ESIT), the graduate school of interpreting and translating at the University of Paris (Sorbonne Nouvelle). About the training he received there, he says, “The training course at ESIT mainly consists of practicing interpreting. The main method of instruction is for a group of students and perhaps a teacher also to have someone prepare a speech in advance and give it as if they are some kind of expert, and then have someone interpret the speech and have everyone else comment on it. If it’s just other students, then it’s likely to be people that have a complementary language combination to yours and who can therefore tidy up your linguistic expression in your non-native languages. If it’s a teacher, they’re also able to give you tips from their professional experience on how to handle the passage that you just heard and about how to better harness the intellectual faculties at your disposal. That was the main component. It’s just interpreting practice. It may sound simple, but many students with solid academic records are unable to acquire the practical skills necessary to graduate. There were some academic courses, too. There were courses on conference preparation study techniques, international life, interpreting theory, economics, and law.”

Paul Hersey interprets at a meeting between visiting Defense Secretary Gates and Foreign Minister Okada. (From left: U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Roos, Defense Secretary Gates, interpreter Paul Hersey) (U.S. Embassy photo)

In addition to university programs, there are also many private language schools in Japan and the U.S. where interpreter training is given without leading to a particular degree or diploma. These programs offer hands-on training using state-of-the-art equipment and instructors who are experienced professional interpreters. Since these schools are often operated by language service agencies or media companies, they often lead to on-the-job training or employment opportunities either during or upon completion of the training programs. Tsuchiya says, “In Japan, most interpreters undergo training at interpreting schools that are operated by, or have strong connections with, prominent interpreting agencies. (There are some universities with interpreter training courses, such as International Christian University and Sophia University, but their numbers are limited.) When entering the schools, students take two types of tests – an English fluency test and a translation test. In accordance with the test results, the course will be determined. In the case of Simul Academy, where I teach, the classes are divided into five levels, including a preparatory course, a consecutive interpreting course, and the most advanced simultaneous interpreting course. The students must pass an exam, which is held at the end of the six-month course, in order to move up to the next level. Even for the most talented students, it would require 12 to 18 months of intensive training to become a ‘professional’ conference interpreter. Typical training at the schools includes shadowing, retention, paraphrasing, note-taking, consecutive interpreting, sight translation, and simultaneous interpreting (for the most advanced course only).”

For those interested in a career in Japanese-English interpreting, it’s never too early to start preparing. NHK Global Media Services recently launched a program in which it sends seasoned interpreters to local junior high and high schools in Japan to present seminars on careers in interpretation. During the seminars, the interpreters talk to the students about how they launched their careers without any experience living overseas, provide tips on how to improve language skills, share interesting anecdotes on broadcast and conference interpreting, and discuss their motivations for becoming interpreters. Optional programs include introductory interpreting lessons and demonstrations. The American Translators Association, which describes itself as the largest professional association of translators and interpreters in the U.S., has also developed a school outreach program in which it encourages members to visit local schools in the U.S. to give presentations on careers in translation and interpretation. The global professional association for conference interpreters, AIIC, offers useful information online for those exploring career options.

So before you set off on the journey to becoming a professional interpreter, how can you tell if you’re really cut out for the job? Hersey offers some words of advice to aspiring interpreters: “I would first try to seriously evaluate yourself based on the list I gave earlier on the key components to being an effective interpreter. What’s a good way to test that? You could have someone, a friend of yours, study a newspaper article, make it into a little speech, make it last about three minutes long, preferably make it on something quite technical in a field where you are not an expert, or maybe something argumentative and convoluted. Listen to it without taking notes and then try to reconstitute at least the main outline of the argument. If you’re able to do that then you can tell yourself that you maybe have a shot at working as an interpreter. Then the things to do to prepare would be to study something that has practical application in the world of conferences. It’s not likely to be poetry or literature. It’s more likely to be engineering, science, international relations, political science, finance, economics, or law. Study one of those fields in one of your target languages. I think that’s the best preparation. It is also very helpful to be an avid consumer of radio, television, and print news in all your languages.”

Tsuchiya also provides some words of wisdom for those considering a career in interpreting: “Being a fluent English speaker does not mean that you can become a good interpreter overnight. After entering interpreting school, many students tell me that they were shocked at first to know that it would take more than a year or two to become an interpreter. Conference interpreters must learn all sorts of things – not just terminology or jargon but broader pictures as well. My advice is – please enjoy the learning process to become an interpreter. It might take longer than you had expected but it is worth the time and effort!”