Not everyone is likeable. Sadly, this is a fact. Certainly life is more fun and flows smoother when we are able to work with those whose company we enjoy. It helps if they’re nice. Add competence to that and you’ve hit gold. How does this concept affect interpreters? Let me give you an example.
On a particular day several years ago, I find myself working with a sociopath. The guy is cruel. I hate him. I really do. This is a job I’m doing purely for money and I tell my husband I’m blowing this cash when all is said and done. I need to reward myself for surviving this man. I try to make seeing him again bearable (I had worked with him before) by betting one of my American clients $20 the first words out of the sociopath’s mouth would be “you got fat.” I won. Did I mention how much I hate him?
The thing is, he likes me. I know how to walk the line between taking his crap and pushing back. He pushes my buttons deliberately to see how I will react. Over time, I have learned how to play his game. If he uses foul language in Japanese I repeat it in English. He knows these words in English, of course. I know he’s testing me. He wants to hear me use these words. I know he’s watching. I now don’t miss a beat. You want to curse? Fine. Go ahead. I can dish it out with the best of them.
For this assignment, he’s traveling with several of his subordinates. They have interpreters, too. At one point, we’re all in a van going from Point A to Point B when he happens to mention a Japanese marathon runner. This is the year of the Sydney Olympics. I had been keeping up with the news. Sort of. I read the coverage of the Olympics the night before online, and read the news coverage from Japanese sites. I knew to keep up with the Japanese athletes, just in case the subject came up. When it did on this particular drive, I had the answer to the question the sociopath asked in an attempt to stump everyone around him. This one marathon runner’s shoes were made out of some sort of rice husk material. I had read an article about this. He asks the question about the shoes and without missing a beat, I answer. They all look at me. The sociopath is impressed. I can tell. I am so incredibly proud of myself. All I want to do, really, is yell “HA!” but of course, I don’t.
One of the other interpreters asks, “How did you know this?” The sociopath loses it. He berates this interpreter, screaming how obvious it was that I would know the answer saying, “SHE READ THE ARTICLE! DON’T YOU READ?!”
This is my point--not that working with sociopaths is horrid and should be avoided at all costs (that’s a given), but that interpreting involves more than just interpreting. Those for whom you are interpreting, the one or two people who can’t communicate with others except through you, will rely on you as their lifeline. You are one of the few (if not the only one) who understands them. They talk to you. You see photos of their family. You talk about sports, current events, the latest TV shows, etc. If you can’t keep up with the conversation, whatever the topic may be, it soon turns from a two-way conversation to a monologue. They will go on and on about whatever they want to talk about and you are relegated to listening. Personally I find discussing things more interesting than listening to someone ramble on about a topic that I don’t particularly care about.
The key point here is to be able to keep up with the conversation. For that, you need a certain amount of knowledge. This means staying abreast on current events. In the case with the sociopath the big event going on during this assignment was the Olympics. He’s Japanese so it’s natural he would be interested in the Japanese athletes. Of the Japanese athletes, the hot story of the moment happened to be the running shoes made out of rice husks. I read that story. That’s how I avoided being the target of his wrath.
The moral of the story is, unless you are in a setting where it is explicitly clear you are to have no communication with the person(s) you are interpreting for, it’s always better to be armed. I argue it not only helps to fill the dull moments with topics you want to discuss as well, it makes you more likeable. Likeable is good. I don’t see a downside to it. It certainly helped me survive working with a sociopath. Who knows what it will do for you.
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 https://www.lupineandco.com/ and https://www.gaijingroup.com/.