When Toyota president Akio Toyoda took the hot seat before Congress during this winter’s customer-safety crisis, by his side stood a crucial participant: an official interpreter, who carefully translated the sincere apologies and gas-pedal quality issues for the beleaguered CEO.
Although not in the official media spotlight like Toyoda and his deputies, the translator’s role, interpreting Toyoda’s statements from Japanese to English, was vital for not just ensuring that statements were translated correctly, but also keeping in mind their cultural context.
“A good interpreter is practically able to read a person’s mind and understand not just the language, but the intention behind the words,” says Mayumi Lincicome, a longtime Japanese-English interpreter who has worked for museums, biotech and pharmaceutical companies, telecom clients, and other organizations. “An interpreter acts as a bridge between two cultures, conveying ideas and concepts between languages.”
Although the words are often used interchangeably, interpreting and translating are different professions: interpreters deal with spoken words, translators with written words; many language specialists do both. Lincicome started out as a Japanese language teacher at the college level but decided to strike out as a freelancer. Her first interpreter assignment was acting as a liaison between a Japanese company that wanted to contract with a U.S. provider of on-site child-care services.
Early in her career, she also acted as an interpreter when a Hokkaido delegation visited Boston in 1993 as part of a sister-state relationship between the Commonwealth and Japan’s northern island prefecture. These assignments gave her more and more experience and aptitude, and she became an indispensible interpreter for clients like the Boston Museum of Fine Arts when they opened a branch in Nagoya.
“Interpretation is a skill that needs constant practicing, just like tennis,” says Lincicome, who came to the U.S. in 1978, after meeting her husband, who is an American, in Japan.
While demand for the romance languages, such as French or German, has declined, the State Department and the military have labeling Japanese as a critical or strategic language, along with Russian, Chinese, Hindu, Urdu, and Korean and other Middle East and East Asian languages. As the global economy and foreign service opportunities expand, employment opportunities for translators and interpreters is expected to increase 22 percent to 2018.
Q: Why did you want to become an interpreter?
A: When I was a child in Japan, I’d see interpreters on TV with foreign dignitaries or musicians, and they were always so beautiful. They’re like little stars of their own accord. I thought it was such a cool job although I never thought I’d be able to do it myself.
Q: What’s the most challenging part of the job?
A: Work comes from all different fields, and you need to understand the terminology. For example, I did some interpreting for a theoretical electrical engineering company. There were a lot of technical terms involved, so I had to cram, creating my own glossary and quickly grasping the basic principles involved so I could accurately convey the concepts and ideas being expressed.
Q: How do you practice your English?
A: I read a lot and often I listen to NPR in the car for practice, constantly thinking about how I would say the words in Japanese. I’ll “shadow” the narrator on the radio, follow exactly what he’s saying, and repeat it in Japanese.
Q: What advice would you give to someone who’s interested in getting into this occupation?
A: Sharpen your skill by doing translation work, converting written text from one language to another, which requires 100 percent accuracy. This will heighten your sense of vocabulary. Be curious and proactive and create your own methodology to improve your language skills.
Q: Have you managed to get rid of your accent?
A: Japanese is the furthest language away from English or the Germanic languages. The word order is so different, and there are so many sounds that the Japanese don’t have. So I still can’t shake my accent, but it’s only very slight now, after years in the United States.