-From business negotiations and international summits to press conferences for Japanese superstars like Funassyi and Pico Taro, you've made a name for yourself as an interpreter across a variety of industries. You currently take on around 30 to 40 projects every month.
That's because I'm on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. [laughs] While there are some fields outside of my areas of expertise, I try not to be too picky and have interpreted for all kinds of projects, mainly in the business world. Learning about a new field can broaden my perspective, which is something that I enjoy about my work. It's allowed me to experience many careers in one—there have been times when I've immersed myself in the world of ophthalmology, and a contemporary art job once had me frequenting art museums. In the last few years, I've been able to learn about the livestock industry, which was totally new to me. At first, I didn't know if I should take on a project so far outside of my wheelhouse. But as I started to read up on bovine and pig-related diseases, I was able to familiarize myself with the subject matter and internalize the technical terminology.
-Working across so many specialized fields must require meticulous preparation.
I read everything I can on the subject and learn as much as possible by the day I'm scheduled to interpret. I gather as much information as I can about the speaker I'm interpreting for. I watch videos of them online to understand their personality, accent, and cadence of speech as well as gain insights into how fast they talk, how they think, and any other issues that may come up while I'm interpreting. This kind of meticulous preparation helps me feel closer to the speaker, and ultimately, allows me to better emulate them.
-So it's not just about translating the words. Would you say it's about conveying the intention of the speaker?
Yes, I'd say so. A message is only memorable if it resonates with people. The interpreter has to connect with the hearts and minds of the audience.
-What matters most to you when you are interpreting?
Simply put, my style of interpreting requires me to think on my feet while being aware of three things. The first is accuracy—that's a given. The second is speed. The interpreter needs to be concise and measured to not waste everyone's time. The third—and the thing I'm most particular about—is being expressive. If you want to render some Japanese into English, we live in a time when computers are more than able to do the job. So the question I'm always asking myself is why humans are hired to do the interpreting. In a business meeting, nothing is more important than staying on track for things to go well. As I interpret, I'm constantly considering what to do and say next. So if the speaker makes a mistake, I can use any number of techniques—from correcting my translation to reading between the lines to provide additional context. I even have to come up with a completely different expression to make things work from time to time. It's a constant reminder that it's not just what you say but also how you say it.
-What are some ways that this "how" appears in your work?
We live in a world of nuance, so once you start to obsess over the details, there is no end to it. [laughs] There's choosing the right words, knowing when to pause, speaking at a comfortable volume, or modulating your tone of voice. There's your articulation, rhythm, or intonation, adjusting between a light or serious tone, and even choosing the right clothes. You also have to be conscious of non-verbal cues such as your body language.
-That sounds like quite a bit of mental gymnastics.
It is. It's simple enough to say that interpreting is listening to something in language A and translating it into language B, but in reality, the interpreter's job is much more intricate. You need to speak and listen at the same time, so it becomes quite the feat of multitasking. I would say that if you have an attention span of 100%, you have to allocate 30% to listening, 20% to taking notes, 20% to thinking about the translation, 20% to speaking, and 10% to gauging the audience's reaction—so you end up doing this kind of parallel processing. With all of this happening inside your head, you need the bandwidth to process vast amounts of information simultaneously—and the inevitable rush of adrenaline helps with that. [laughs]
-The evolution of technology and things like machine translation must have changed the way interpreters work in recent years.
When I interpreted for Dr. Ray Kurzweil, he told me that I didn't have to be afraid of losing my job to an AI. "Let machines do what they do best," he said, "so people can have more time to focus on creative endeavors. The singularity will make our lives richer." And I think he's right. I may be bilingual in Japanese and English, but AI understands many more languages than I ever will. So the question is: will the job of interpreting survive once AI surpasses the abilities of the interpreter? And if it does survive, how will the job change? Every time I think about this, I realize that human interpreters can only compete in terms of their expressive creativity, so I try to pursue innate human ingenuity as an interpreter.
I would also add that the environment in which interpreters find themselves has changed quite a bit in the 21st century. In the past, I would have stood out just for being able to speak English. But now, as Japan continues to become more international, interpreters find themselves in situations where the majority of people are polyglots. Expectations continue to grow regarding the quality of interpreting, which is one reason why this profession can be so rewarding.
-We hear that many of your clients happily attest to your commitment to the power of expression.
Sometimes things don't work out, but my barometer for success is whether or not a client invites me back to interpret again. That is not a low bar—I owe my career to my clients, who ask for me specifically and introduce me to other opportunities. It keeps me grounded and honest in honing my craft, no matter how busy I may be.
Audio and video of my interpreting have started popping up online, and I always make sure to review my performance. Sadly, I can't help but cringe whenever I hear my own voice. [laughs] Hindsight is 20/20, and you can always find ways to improve after the fact. I often look back and want to phrase something I said differently, but I also know that I couldn't have done any better at the time. It can be a rude awakening, but I always give myself these pep talks.
-You lived in the United States from the ages of six to eleven. Do you think this influenced your decision to pursue a career in interpreting?
Believe it or not, I didn't set out to be an interpreter. It was a series of chance encounters that eventually led me to this career. As a student, people expected me to be able to speak English because I had lived in the US when I was a child. So I felt like I had to be good at something else. I admired my father, who traveled the world working for a trading company, and I wanted to prove myself in the world of business. After graduating from university, I got a job at Canon, but a turning point came six years later. My boss asked me to interpret for an international conference, which I agreed to without giving it much thought. But once I was on the spot, I realized that I wasn't familiar with any of the terminology. My mind went blank, and I started sweating bullets. I was no use to anyone—it was at that moment when I realized that language proficiency and interpreting ability are two completely different skill sets. I was so frustrated—yet curious—as to my inability, so I started attending an interpreter training course. And somewhere along the way, I realized that I had acquired the skills needed to interpret professionally.
-So you went to school out of frustration—not because you wanted to become an interpreter?
Yep. [laughs] I'm the kind of person who just can't let that type of thing go. After my training, I also won ¥50,000 in a translation contest. Unlike my corporate salary, this was something that I had earned all on my own. I wanted more and decided to register with a translation agency on the side. During my interview, the owner told me that I was better suited to be an interpreter. At the time, I had no intention of quitting my job and was ready to say no when they told me they already had a job lined up for me and was eventually persuaded to leave my company of nine years. The owner of that agency helped make me who I am today.
-How did you spend your time at SFC?
I majored in development economics while splitting my free time between the badminton club and a part-time job as a private tutor. A lot of students at SFC are the types that challenge the status quo, so I had a lot of exciting friends. [laughs] If my current approach as an interpreter seems unconventional, perhaps it’s due in part to the culture at SFC. It’s not uncommon to run into old classmates when I'm interpreting, and I'm always happy to see so many of them doing exciting things in their careers.
-Could you say a few final words to current students?
Regardless of your goals or your major, communication skills are always important. Like I mentioned earlier, it's not just what you say but how you say it. People are often obsessed with the what, but how you say something—your word choice and your timing—can create very different results when it comes to business situations and personal relationships. Mastering the "how" of communication begins with listening to others and taking an interest in their stories. Think about what they're feeling and where they’re coming from. Learn to communicate in a way that resonates with others. Dare to forge your own path forward.
-Thank you for your time.
Miho Hashimoto was born in Houston, Texas, in the United States and spent her early childhood in San Francisco. As a teenager, she moved to Kobe, where she attended high school before entering the Keio University Faculty of Policy Management at Shonan Fujisawa Campus (SFC). After graduating in 1997, she joined Canon Inc., where she was involved in business planning. After almost a decade at Canon, she moved to Coca-Cola Japan as an in-house interpreter before going freelance. Hashimoto specializes in business interpreting in fields such as finance, pharmaceuticals, advertising/marketing, and IT. She is also highly sought after in the academic and entertainment sectors, having worked on more than 5,000 consecutive and simultaneous interpreting projects. She is a prolific speaker as well, giving lectures at numerous conferences and interpreter training programs.