Japanese to English Speech Interpreting Practice

Japanese to English Speech Interpreting Practice

In Andrew Gillies’ book, Conference Interpreting: A Student’s Practice Book, one of the first pieces of advice he gives is to work into your strongest language when practicing. For me, that means I should practice interpreting Japanese into English, not the other way around (which I have always found to be easier).

With that in mind, I have been looking for material that is suitable for practicing interpretation. Gillies goes on to explain that such material should have a narrative and be of a reasonable length without being overly technical (at least in the beginning). He adds that news broadcasts are about the worst thing you could chose because they change topics approximately every 90 seconds. Since that is almost all I listen to, I went in search of some real speeches in Japanese.

I was able to find this site which has the script from several speeches made by Prime Minister Abe, along with their English translation. A few even have the video of the speech, which makes them ideal for practicing.


So far, this is the best resource I have come up with. If anyone finds others, please share them.

Book Review: 同時通訳者の英語ノート術&学習法

Book Review: 同時通訳者の英語ノート術&学習法

Best Book Ever

I recently finished reading this book, 「同時通訳者の英語ノート術&学習法」by 工藤 紘実 and I have to say that it was probably the best introduction to interpretation that I have ever read. While it is titled as a simple note-taking and study book, it is so much more than that. It explains a lot of the foundational skills of interpreting that I had to learn the hard way.

Upside: This book covers a lot of the basics of interpreting like- when and how to take notes, how to study as an interpreter, how to manage vocabulary, how to get jobs and maintain clients as a feelancer, and how to manage your own time and stress.

Downside: I do wish it had had a little more on how to gain background knowledge and how to study for a particular job, but that may be too far out of the scope of this book.

Conclusion: Go buy it now! (You can even on kindle!)

Study All the Things: How a Translator Studies Japanese in the U.S.

Study All the Things: How a Translator Studies Japanese in the U.S.

study-all-the-thingsSo, let’s start with a disclaimer. I live in the mid-west in the United States of America; far removed from the country of Japan or even the Japanese communities of California and New York. While I work at a Japanese company and have exposure to the language every day, that is not enough to keep up translator level language skills. I need to expose myself to a lot more language. In a sense, I have to create my own immersion environment. So, here is how I do it. I am going to share with you the resources I use and the way they help with my translation and interpretation skills and practice.

Reading of the Paper Variety

booksOnce a year, I manage to get to a Japanese book store, either in Portland, OR, where my family is from, or in Japan when I’m on business trips. While there, I buy up a bunch of books to read for the year. Some of them turn out to be boring, some interesting, but I try to give them at least 2 or 3 chapters before giving up. I try not to force my way through books that I dislike, because I will just give up reading all together. I also get a good mix of fiction, non-fiction, technical, magazines, and manga.

The fiction helps me make my interpreting more natural. I usually read novels that are based in everyday life so that I can reuse the phrases I learn in my interpretation. On the other hand, the non-fiction seems to help with my writing. Self-help type books are usually written in a very clear and easy to understand manner. I can reuse a lot of the grammar and structures in my Japanese translations. The magazines help me to stay in touch with current issues in Japan. I love Nikkei Woman! After falling in love with it on my last trip to Kinokuniya in Portland, I have been having it ordered monthly from Japan through our parent company.

On that note: If you work for a Japanese company, it is likely that packages come in from Japan every month for your 駐在員. If you have a good relationship with them, you may be able to request a book or two and get free shipping 🙂 Try not to go overboard; one or two a month max. If that is not you, try a forwarding service like Tenso or White Rabbit Express.  Kinokuniya also has a lot of books in stock in the US and if they don’t have it, they will order it for you Japan, though they mark up quite a lot to cover the import and shipping costs.

Reading of the Digital Variety

I try to keep up with a couple different online publications:

Reading Techniques

bb6fe80bWhen I’m reading anything, digital or otherwise, I have two basic rules:

  1. Read the document to the end. If it is a novel, that means finishing the chapter as it would be hard to read the whole thing in one sitting. But with a news article I try very hard not to stop in the middle. It is important to finish the idea and get a grasp of the entire discourse.
  2. Only look up a word when: A) it has occurred more than once in a document and/or B) it is crucial to understanding the content of the document. If you look up every word you don’t know, you will go crazy.

Then when I find those words that I don’t know in a dictionary, I do one of three things:

  1. Acknowledge the definition and keep reading. Some words do not need to be remembered or written down. You will actually acquire them better if you just keep reading and let the word take form in the context of the document instead of trying to tie it down and memorize it with an English definition.
  2. Jot it down in a note book and keep going. Generally I do this for phrases that I want to remember and use later, especially those that would be nearly impossible to find in a dictionary; for example, slang terms.
  3. Jot it down on a sticky note to be actively studied.

As much as it might surprise you, number three is the one I do the least. Only when I encounter a word that I have been looking for and wanted to use in daily interactions, will I actually make an effort to study it. Usually, I do number one more than anything: figure out what it means and move on. You will get farther in the actual reading that way.


For this one, I am mainly going to give you a list of resources, as I don’t ‘study’ listening per se.

  • NHK News – At least once a week. Good for professional phrasing in your interpreting and background knowledge about what is going on in Japan.
  • KORL 97.1 – Japanese pop music radio station in Hawaii streamed through the iheartradio app.
  • TuneIn Radio app – Japanese radio live, great for listening to natural, unscripted conversations.



I distinguish this from listening because, while the skill is primarily auditory, the visual component makes it easier to understand what is being said. With youtube, it is actually relatively easy to get a quick shot of Japanese tv any time. I like to chose videos that wil help with my translation but, honestly, sometimes you just have to have fun with the language.

  • FNN News Youtube Channel – Short videos, good for interpreting practice.
  • 小紫真由美 話し方・プレゼンの専門家 – Videos by a former announcer on how to speak clearly and comprehensibly in Japanese.
  • Japanese Commercial Channel – This almost has no redeeming value, but it is fun.
  • Fuji, TBS, and NHK – Keeping up with what’s on tv even when you don’t have time to watch all the shows.
  • NHK高校講座 – A delightful website that streams several tv shows aimed at high-schoolers that cover the various topics they are studying in school. The content is simple, but the vocabulary you can pick up is very useful. They also have subjects like 日本史 and 国語表現 that those of us who were raised in the US didn’t get to take.

Then, of course, I will sit down and watch a full drama from time to time, but I can’t put links to those here.

If you have any resources to share or questions about studying in a Japanese void, feel free to leave me a comment.

One Rule in Practicing Interpreting: Just do it!

One Rule in Practicing Interpreting: Just do it!

I came across this article that I wanted to share with you all. A pair of sisters (twins!) who work together as simultaneous interpreters wrote about the most important rule for practicing interpreting. Stick with it. When you decide to interpret a video or audio recording for practice, don’t give up halfway through. Commit to it and keep going, no matter how bad the interpretation comes out.

Read more here:


Excel Vocabulary Notebook and Flashcard Template

Excel Vocabulary Notebook and Flashcard Template

How do you keep your vocabulary lists?

I have read that a lot of interpreters prefer to write them by hand because it helps you remember them. While I see the merit of that, I like to keep something on the computer so I can easily search for certain words. With that in mind, I found this great excel template for vocabulary lists. It has a notebook and a sheet that will randomly generate flashcards for you. Even if you don’t speak Japanese, it is still pretty easy to use.

Check it out!


Improving your Japanese Pronunciation

Improving your Japanese Pronunciation

Lately, I have had some very long interpreting days. When you talk for too long, you start to slur your words and they become almost incomprehensible. So, I decided to start doing vocal warm-ups before interpreting. I know how to do them in English, but I wasn’t sure how to warm up in Japanese. I found a great activity from a woman who used to be an announcer on TV.

Take a listen and see if you can emulate her fantastic pronunciation.

Here is a link to the text she is practicing:


Levels of Language Acquisition

Levels of Language Acquisition

As a preface to this post, I think it’s important that I point out that I am not an expert in second language acquisition. I have studied it, but this post is mostly based on my own observations.

At the recent IJET conference in Tokyo, I was struck by something I had not realized before:

There are people who make a living translating Japanese into English, who cannot speak Japanese.

This astounded me. 

I always thought that language skills were developed somewhat evenly: you could speak as much as you could write (output based skills), or listen as well as you could read (input based skills). However, much to my surprise, that is not the case. From my years of teaching non-native speakers English, I really should have known this. So, I would like to propose a hierarchy of second language acquisition, as it relates to translating and interpreting. 

We will assume for the sake of argument that the person in question speaks English as their L1 (native language) and Japanese as their L2 (second language).


I. Translation Skills Hierarchy

  Level 1: Written L2 Input Comprehension 

  “I can understand written Japanese.” This is a great first step. Many people get to this level after a few years of study in an environment that is lacking in auditory input.

  Level 2: Written L2>L1 Translation Capability

  “I can put what I read in Japanese into English.” Some people have this ability without ever being able to produce output in their L2. They have a high level of comprehension of their L2 and proficient L1 writing skills. Truly, that can be all one needs to translate Japanese into English. (I am not endorsing this method, but there are plenty of people who make their living that way).

  Level 3: Written L2 Output Capability

  “I can express myself in written Japanese.” This is the logical next step, but sometimes one that learners do not attain. The ability to understand what one reads and the ability to translate what one thinks (L1) into one’s L2 are not always synonymous. 

  Level 3: Written L1>L2 Translation Capability

  “I can translate English into Japanese.” It may go without saying that your understanding of you L1 is almost always higher than your L2, but that doesn’t always make it easy to translate E>J. Translating someone else’s words into your L2 is much more difficult than translating your own. In your own head, you often have both languages floating around. You can grab words you know and look up words you don’t (assuming you aren’t at the level where you think exclusively in your L2). However, when you are simply reading your L1, you have to think a lot more about the intentions of the writer, what they are trying to convey. 


I. Interpretation Skills Hierarchy

  Level 1: Spoken L2 Input Comprehension

  “I can understand spoken Japanese.” The difference between Level 1 and Level 2 here is the difference between, let’s say, listening to a lecture and giving a lecture. There are people who can listen and comprehend what is being said in a lecture (on a topic they are familiar with), but who could not stand up and give their own lecture off the cuff and be understood. Now, let’s be fair. That is also true of native speakers of any language. Some people just need more time preparing before they speak. While it may seem unkind, I would posit that those people, regardless of L2 capability, should not be interpreters.

  Level 2: Spoken L2 Output Capability

  “I can speak my own thoughts out in Japanese.” See above.

  Level 3: Spoken L1>L2 Interpretation Capability

  You may wonder why I switched things up here. While it is true that, L2>L1 is easier in translation, that is often not the case in interpretation. When you have time and a dictionary, you comprehension of your L2 is higher and you can craft a better composition in your L1. When you have no time to process or look things up, it is often easier to take something that you understand fully (your L1) and express it in your L2. Even if you do not know the correct Japanese term for something in English, you can work around that by using words you do know. If you were going L2>L1 and something was said that you didn’t understand, you would have to either take a guess, omit it, or stop the speaker to ask. 

  Level 4: Spoken L2>L1 Interpretation Capability

  While I am listing this as a separate skill, because of the difficulty level I explained above, I think it’s important to point out that there are very few, if any, interpreters who have the luxury of working only in one direction. Even when a presentation or conference is held all in Japanese and the interpreter is only responsible for conveying that into English, there are still pre and post events that they interpreter must attend. Get-togethers, introductions, cocktail parties in which the presenters and attendees mingle and ask questions of each other. With most events, there will be some back and forth that requires the interpreter to, as it were, go both ways 😉 But each will have her strong suits. 


Keep in mind that none of these skills are mutually exclusive, nor does one necessarily lead to the next. There are people who are great at phrasing Japanese into English, but their general comprehension is poor. There are people who can express themselves in Japanese, but cannot interpret someone else’s words. There are people who can translate English into Japanese, but cannot write well in their own native language. Each person, let alone translation professional, has their own strengths and weaknesses. But there is something that each can do well and that is how they earn a living. Being able to read fluently but not speak, doesn’t mean you are less of an accomplished learner of Japanese; anymore than someone who trips over their own words in their native language who might be an avid reader. 

IJET 25 Post 1: よくわかる逐次通訳

IJET 25 Post 1: よくわかる逐次通訳

I had the pleasure of attending IJET (the Japan Association of Translator’s Annual Conference) in Tokyo last June. Since I have been away from blogging for a while, I thought giving an overview of some of the sessions I got to attend might be a good way to get back in the swing of things.


Interpreting-222x300Ms. Chikako Tsurata gave one of the best comprehensive overviews of interpretation that I have ever heard.

She began by explaining that interpreters’ primary job is to foster communication, which requires a very delicate balance of 直訳 and 意訳. Too much 直訳 and the interpretation becomes incomprehensible. Too much 意訳 and the listener (or speaker) will start to feel that the interpreter is not conveying the true message. However, the difficulty is that Japanese is a particularly high-context language; meaning that there will always be things left unspoken which must needs be spoken in English to communicate the intended meaning.

She explained that an interpreter’s job is actually to comprehend a non-verbal meaning from spoken dialogue and express that meaning in another language. Their job is not to translate words, but the meaning that the speaker is trying to convey with them; to give words to meaning. So, you should ask yourself, what words would I use to convey this meaning in English?

She went on to say that interpreters are effectively information processors. They have to first listen, then gather meaning from what was said, then put that into the target language in the appropriate register. In order to listen effectively, you need to listen actively and follow the flow of the discourse; anticipating where it will go next. In order to understand the meaning, you have to have a very broad knowledge base. In order to convey that meaning in words, you have to be sensitive to the type of discourse, and choose the appropriate register, terminology, and phrasing to get the speaker’s point across.

She then took some time to cover the basics of note-taking. However, I won’t go into that here because there are vast amounts of resources on note-taking and I feel ill-equipped to add to the pile when I am not myself a consecutive interpreter.

Lastly, she made the point that interpreters are effectively public speakers. Therefore, it is important to be a good speaker, not just a good interpreter. She then made a point which is very close to my heart. (I am translate-paraphrasing here because I didn’t take exceptional notes:) “Just because we can’t say our opinions doesn’t mean we don’t have them. Sometimes it’s good to practice debates and speeches so that you can put yourself in the shoes of the speaker.” She closed by stressing the importance of native language competency, stating that your first language is the base for everything else. You build your second language on top of that. If your base, your grasp of your native language, is not firm and well grounded, what you build on top of it will also be weak.


A Study in Keigo from Hanzawa Naoki

A Study in Keigo from Hanzawa Naoki


*Note: May contain small spoilers for those who haven’t seen the show. No major plot points are revealed.

Many of you have probably watched the show Hanzawa Naoki. It was a huge hit in Japan last fall; just under half of the country was watching the final episode. If you haven’t seen it, well, you should. It is an excellent resource for understanding the nitty-gritty of Japanese business culture. But that is not what I am going to talk about today.

Hanzawa Naoki is an excellent display of how different levels of 敬語 and 丁寧語 work in practice.

①半沢と同期 (Kondo & Tomari)

When Hanzawa is talking to the guys who joined the company at the same time he did (his buddies), he doesn’t use any formal language. He doesn’t put -さん on their names. He calls them by their last names only. He uses informal language with them.

When we learn Japanese, we are taught that everyone who is not a -ちゃん or a -くん is addressed as -さん. However, that is not true. With people on the same level as you or (as we will show later) people lower on the chain than you, it is perfectly acceptable to call them by their last name only. There is a scene where Kondo puts the smack down on his subordinate who had been acting like his boss. Kondo had been addressing him politely by his title and all of a sudden he shouts, “Oi, Noda!” This gets the guys attention. It says, “I have been trying to be polite to you, but don’t you forget that I am still your boss.”


The branch manager, Asano, is Hanzawa’s first rival. Also, the first person he threatens. Technically, Asano is two steps above Hanzawa and therefore Hanzawa speaks in fluent Keigo to him. However, he is only paying lip service. His tone betrays his true feelings.

In a TV show, this is all well and good as it creates added drama. Hanzawa sticks it to the man with every beautiful line of Keigo. But we, as non-native speakers, need to be careful not to do the same. No matter what you may think of Keigo, it all comes down to respect. You must try to show sincere respect to your superiors. I found this quote in the ビジネス能力検定3級 book that I have mentioned in previous posts.

「相手を敬う気持ちを持ってのぞむことが大切で、この気持ちがこもっていれば、多少使い方がおかしくても不快感を与えることは少ないものです。反対に、敬う気持ちのないまま、口先だけで丁寧なことばを使っても、相手にそらぞらしい感じをもたせるだけです。むずかしいのは敬語そのものではなく、この相手への尊敬や感謝の気持ちのもち方なのです。」-2012年版, pg. 64

Even if you can’t master Keigo (and trust me, there are many native speakers who never do), what’s important is that you show respect in the way you speak. But I would encourage you all to try and master Keigo as much as you can because I feel that it is something that many Japanese don’t expect from foreigners. Especially as interpreters, we need to aim to exceed those expectations.

③頭取⇒Everyone else

There is no one in the show higher than the bank president and that being the case, he almost never uses Keigo. He speaks informally to almost everyone under him. Must be nice to be the boss.


The only time we hear the president speaking formally, it is on the phone to Kurosaki, when he finds out his bank is about to be audited. Within the company, only the company organization chart matters. But even the highest person in a company must be ready to kowtow to an outsider who holds their company’s future in their hands. This goes for customers too. Even if the customer is lower on his company’s food chain than the president of the bank, the president will almost always address him formally and may even use Keigo to him.

When deciding whether or not to use Keigo, think of the following things:

1) Have I met this person before?

    – First impressions are important and almost always require more formal language.

2) Is the person part of my group (company, school, etc) or an outsider?

    – An outsider (customer, employee of another company, student from another class) will always be addressed formally.

3) Is the person higher on the food chain than me?

    – This one probably goes without saying. Respect your higher ups.

The Importance of Background Knowledge

The Importance of Background Knowledge

Background knowledgeI recently had the opportunity to interpret for a machine specialist from Japan. He was visiting the U.S., trying to help different customers who had purchased his company’s machines get them set up correctly. After he ran some trials and explained what he had done to our English speaking staff, they thanked him for his time and I left the room with them. When he was alone with our Japanese staff, he proceeded to tell them how impressed he was with my interpretation. “Most interpreters can speak both languages and are fine with regular conversations but they get caught on the nitty-gritty machine stuff,” he told them. What impressed him about me is that I was able to talk like someone who knew about machines.

When you become an interpreter, it is easy to feel like you have arrived. You have been acknowledged as someone who is fluent in both languages and you are paid for that skill. However, that skill should never be static. We should never be content where we are. If we want to truly be able to express things the way someone would if they had spoken in their native language, we have to know what they know. I’ve heard experts say that if you are interpreting for a doctor, you should almost as much as a doctor knows. You can know all the words a doctor knows in two languages, but if you don’t have the background knowledge, you may not put them together correctly. Your interpretation will always lack the fluidity and coherence of the native language utterance.

The good thing is that we learn with each new job we take. So, all you have to do is be proactive about it. As you are interpreting, jot down or make a mental note of things you don’t understand or didn’t prepare for and look them up later. When you have the opportunity, ask questions. Don’t be afraid to speak up to clarify something that was not clearly stated. In my experience, most people respond favorably to their interpreter being thorough and trying to learn, rather than just glossing over things they don’t get.