Picture this. You’re working as a team. The person you’re working with is younger and less experienced than you, but as far as your client is concerned, your senior. It has to do with titles. His trumps yours. Remember this. It’s important.
Now, picture this. You and your teammate (let’s call him George) have been asked to interpret at court. There’s a witness. She’s coming into testify. She’s scared. She doesn’t want to do this. Unfamiliar with how the U.S. judicial system works, she feels alone. The two interpreters, yourself included, have been told you are to be neutral, third party personnel. You aren’t to engage her in conversation. There is to be no chitchat. You are to repeat what she says and is said to her and then leave. Simple. Right? Not when George, the one senior to you makes a mistake.
Before I go into what the mistake was, I will go straight to the moral of the story. There are two, actually. One is, if you don’t know a word, don’t fake it. As far as I’m concerned, Romanizing it is pretty close to faking it, unless the word is known and used in Japanese as a Romanized word.
What do I mean by “Romanized”? Think Roma-ji. Cake is ケーキ. Chocolate is チョコレート. Now think of words that cannot and should not be Romanized. I doubt any interpreter would use the word ハット for 帽子. Nor would an interpreter say クロック for 時計. You get my point.
If an interpreter does not know the word for clock and used クロック in its place, I would say the interpreter is “faking” it. Don’t do this. You don’t know a word? Look it up.
This brings me to my second point. Not knowing a word and looking it up on the spot means two things. First, it’s embarrassing. You’re stopping the conversation. All eyes are on you. Everyone knows you’re stumped. I know what this is like. Embarrassment aside, I argue it’s your duty to look up the word. Faking your way through an assignment by Romanizing a word when there’s a proper Japanese equivalent is not okay.
Stopping the conversation and looking it up implies you carry a dictionary. In my opinion, this too is an interpreter’s duty. Can you honestly say you are confident enough to state outright you will know every word uttered by everyone? If you are, you are my hero/heroine. Good for you. The rest of us mortals need dictionaries. We’re human. It is highly probable we will not know a word. Or, the word is on the tip of our tongue but our brain can’t get to it on time. For these moments, a dictionary is a must.
Back to our witness. She’s nervous. She enters the courtroom and we go into action. She’s sworn in and proceeds to mumble her answers, stumbling through what she and the prosecution rehearsed. I see the prosecutor is visibly frustrated by her testimony. Angry even. It’s not going well. She finishes and the prosecutor comes up to us.
“What the hell was that all about?” he says and I choose to let George answer, giving into seniority.
“I’ll ask her,” he says.
We march off to find the poor woman. This is where George takes over, doing his best to get information out of the woman who is choked up and holding a handkerchief under her nose. He gets her to say she didn’t know there were going to be so many people, and that she was intimidated by the fact the grand jury asked probing questions. She felt accused. She felt she was being accused of lying. This is fair. I’m now angry at the prosecutor for not prepping her properly. I decide to keep my mouth shut and let George continue to take the lead.
We go back to the prosecutor and George repeats the woman’s words. There’s nothing more the prosecutor can do and we are excused. All done. Right? Wrong. Outside the courtroom we run into the woman and her husband. She’s crying, her shoulders shaking. Her husband stands by her not knowing what to do. He comes up to us and asks, “What happened in there? She won’t tell me anything.” This is where my jaw drops. George says, 「グランドジュリーからあれだけ質問される事知らなかったらしいです。」
This is accurate. Sort of. She said earlier she didn’t realize she would be asked so many questions by the people on the grand jury. But, really? Grand jury as グランドジュリー? The husband looks confused. I’m furious. I can’t believe George said this.
Now. Here’s the million-dollar question to all you interpreters out there. Do you correct your teammate who is senior to you and make a fool out of him in front of the witness and her husband? Do you stay silent? What do you do?
To give you my answer (and mind you, I’m not proud of the decision I made) I will tell you what happened the next day. I got a call from the hiring agency the next day and got an earful.
“Who’s ‘Grand Julie’?” After brief pleasantries are exchanged, this is the question I am asked.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Who’s ‘Grand Julie’? The husband of the witness called all pissed off and said George said she was freaked out because ‘she didn’t know Grand Julie was going to ask so many questions.’”
Ah. Of course. The husband must have thought “Grand Julie” was a person. This is what happens when グランドジュリー, a word that should never have been Romanized into English is faked. That my teammate didn’t know the word, that I didn’t step in and correct George on the spot, for that we are both to blame. (In my defense, this was over ten years ago. If this happened today, I would step in without question and rip George a new one once we were alone.)
Back to the moral of the story: 1). Don’t fake; and 2). Always carry a dictionary. I am still today sorry I did not have the courage to do the right thing and take over when I saw George was making a mess. Learn from my mistake. Don’t use Romanized words when there’s a proper Japanese word for it, don’t let anyone you’re working with do this, and step in when it’s called for. I’m not saying it’s easy. Doing the right thing isn’t most of the time.
Amya Miller lives near Boston, Massachusetts and is the President and CEO of Lupine and Co., which offers Japanese interpretation, liaison services, business etiquette training, consultation on successful negotiation techniques and problem solving.
Amya also founded the Gaijin Group; a group for gaijins all over the world. She was born and raised in Japan and spent time in Tokyo and Hokkaido. She has worked as an Interpreter and behind-the-scenes liaison in Japan-US business for 20 years. You can reach Amya at firstname.lastname@example.org and find out more about at http://www.lupineandco.com/ and http://www.gaijingroup.com/.