Interview with ITIA member Akagi Kobayashi
Describe yourself professionally in a few lines.
I have been working as interpreter and translator in Japanese and English since the 1980’s, joining ITI as a professional member in 2000 and ITIA shortly afterwards. Bi-directional translation work led to information development (aka technical writing), a field in which I obtained a Masters degree from Sheffield Hallam University in 2013. What I learnt from this and various other qualifications that I studied for, together with my experience and skills developed over the years, enable me to fulfil my current role as a language quality manager in a global organization.
When and why did you decide on a career in translating/interpreting?
By ‘natural selection’, might be the short answer. I had other passions and interests in my younger days, in London, such that it never occurred to me to pursue the career path that I am in now. English was almost the exclusive language in my daily life, the L2 that by pure chance I had acquired to the fluency I had. Aged eight, I was whisked away from the familiar surroundings of Tokyo to New Delhi where my father was posted. The experience of new languages was more fun than arduous, but the culture shock was massive … bewildered as I was, I learnt about cultural diversity through my skin, as it were, absorbing with all the senses and emotions of a child. I acquired a world view that took for granted that we lived in a heterogeneous society – of multiple cultures, languages, religions, beliefs, values, tastes… Not that I was aware of it at the time. It was only a few years later, coping with the counter culture shock of returning to Japan, that I realized what had happened, and much later that I re-evaluated what I had gained. When the time came to consider what tertiary studies I should follow, Linguistics was on my list – diversity of languages and what they represented had fascinated me, as well as the system of structures and sounds. I was also curious about how language functioned inside me: I never felt a direct connection between myself and language. There seemed to be an area of emotional and conceptual depth in my brain that was beyond the reach of words. A thought or feeling would occur conceptually non-verbally, then would get interpreted by language, just as music or visual arts would do (and often better, I thought). Words never felt to be equal to my inner self. In the end, I didn’t take up Linguistics, and instead pursued music, music therapy, and social care for the intellectually disabled, in various combinations. I was deeply engaged in what I was doing. One day, an acquaintance in the Japanese Embassy called me up to ask whether I would work as an interpreter on an Anglo-Japanese opera production. They were searching high and low for a capable person with musical knowledge. Blissfully ignorant of anything about the difficulties of interpreting, I said yes, and had the greatest fun in my life. It turned out that I had the physical knack of interpreting. It was multi-tasking not dissimilar to sight-reading on the piano in a chamber music setting, when you have to keep an ear out for the other parts, and read all the parts simultaneously as well as play your own part. From then on, I took on freelance work. I also took a short professional course in interpreting. A very helpful friend who had studied phonology corrected me precisely where my Japanese pronunciation was getting anglicized. My innate curiosity was satisfied by the variety of work that came my way; I am hopeless at remembering people and faces, but apparently have the capacity to memorize new vocabulary. I do spend a lot
After all, translation exists within a cultural system. If people are completely unaware of cultural differences, they need to be told, within a dialogue of trust.
Name the most important thing you did that helped launch your career.
At one time I had a part-time job in a stockbrokers firm in the City, where my main duties developed into translating business and economic articles. With the kindly help of the managing director, who always read out my translation, I entered another world, and learned how to read The Financial Times! The turning point came when I took a short contract job on a construction site for a memory chip manufacturing plant. This job eventually stretched to nine years of intensive and varied work, day in and day out, in a team of five to fifteen translators, and introduced me to the world of technology, and the complexity of difficulties language and cultural differences could create.
How important are training and qualifications for a career in translating/interpreting?
I would recommend anyone aspiring to be a translator or interpreter to take up translation studies after completing a language undergraduate degree. After that, they should view the early part of their professional life as a period of apprenticeship.
I would recommend anyone aspiring to be a translator or interpreter to take up translation studies after completing a language undergraduate degree. (Choose well, as courses vary.) After that, they should view the early part of their professional life as a period of apprenticeship. It is a little bit like training to be a pilot, or a teacher, where you need the basic skills plus the experience and exposure to a wide variety of situations to become fully competent. In my experience, students coming out of universities are equipped with the foundation to develop their knowledge and skills in the chosen field. I think that’s wonderful, but only the beginning. It is important to have an understanding of the cognitive and theoretical aspects of the art of translation. If you have natural facility in languages, I’m sure you’ll enjoy discovering what lies beyond your immediate experience. You’ll be able to explain the grounds of your linguistic decisions not only to yourself, but also to your customer, confidently and convincingly. Readers may agree that our profession still lacks the command of respect that it deserves. I believe it is our responsibility also to educate the public, and to be the beacon of professional knowledge.
Do you think it is necessary to specialize?
Someone in a translation agency once told me that the best way to make money from translation was to work first in the financial industry for a few years – to acquire the credibility as well as the knowledge – as financial institutions, unlike the health service or the arts, for example, had money to spend. There is something in this advice, as trust is key to your relationship with your customer, who may not know a word of their target language and have only you to extend that bridge of trust to reach their client’s mind. Imagine how difficult it must be to build trust without a common language or culture. How do you show trust? How can you read the signs? How can you tell that the TT appropriately conveys the rhetoric in the ST? A proven track record in their own discourse community may well inspire the much needed confidence and comfort. Specialization also means that you are steadily accumulating knowledge on the subject matter, and likely to need less time for research. Pharmaceuticals, which works within a fully documented regulatory framework, may be another choice if looking for bountiful funds.
How do you find clients?
Through a network of professional organizations and recommendations from past customers. This is as true for individual translation jobs as for opportunities of employment. Doing good work and keeping in touch.
Is it possible to have a good standard of living?
I read a report on a debate in the Japan Association for Translators as to whether one could make ends meet by being a
I read a report on a debate in the Japan Association for Translators as to whether one could make ends meet by being a freelance translator. The definition of making ends meet included being able to support a family and put at least one child through university. The answer, unfortunately, was borderline negative.
What is the favourite type of text/assignment?
I was thrilled in my first assignment when I interpreted a joke … obviously intended to be funny, though not to me. Nevertheless, I translated … and the listener burst out laughing! It’s hilarious when this happens. Conveying emotional content is important, often overlooked in meetings under the weight of factual information that has to be put across. But without emotion, a true meeting of hearts cannot be. I’ll never forget interpreting a zen master’s discourse – coming from the heart – with an audience hanging on every word and nuance.
What is the best/worst thing about being a translator/interpreter?
Communication between people’s minds is what interests me most. In any interpreting or translation situation, my cue is on ‘what is the intention of the text?’ and my TT is rendered differently accordingly. Options to reconstruct a sentence are as many as there are ways to inflect the sentence in the first place (think of the umpteen ways the soliloquy ‘To be or not to be’ can be spoken), so that the equivalent emphasis is expressed in the rendered text. If the intention is missed, the response will be skewed, which will allow an element of unease to creep into the dialogue. Information development, which I studied, also focuses on anything and everything to do with optimising technical communication for the benefit of the user. Translation of a technical text needs to address the rhetoric in the ST in ways that are comprehensible for the user in the particular context. Failure to do so will leave the user stranded. From all of above, you may not be surprised to find that I like translating poetry: dippng into that area of no-word, to explore, and to re-express.
What advice to someone starting in the profession?
Are enlightening linguistic intrigues and being the vehicle of communication your greatest desire? Is that where you find job satisfaction? If you should become more interested in the subject matter you are working on, and wish to take an active role in the discussion, you may need to question your choice. I have heard of interpreters becoming frustrated at not being able to ‘do anything’, an inversion of which I have come across in management advice ‘not to mistake the intelligence demonstrated by interpreters/translators for the ability to take charge of the subject matter’. Like any profession or trade, you need to be dedicated and continue learning to make a success. Devote some time to study, if you haven’t already; a qualification can also work for you in a competitive market. Be professional, have pride in what you do, have respect for the text, all you work with and for, be true to yourself and let your passion and enjoyment speak through!