Language aide’s value went way beyond words

by Setsuko Kamiya

Being an interpreter involves a lot of time and hard work, but the job’s many rewards often include a chance to get close to the action.

Take the experience of 47-year-old Masako Tsubuku who, after living in California for three years in the 1980s, worked as a translator for a decade from 1992 for classical music artists who toured Japan. Working through Japanese promoters, she served as the linguistic link for numerous individuals and groups, including Estonian conductor Neeme Jarvi, Russian pianist Boris Berezovsky, the Prague Symphony Orchestra and the U.S. Metropolitan Opera.

Tsubuku’s job was to accompany artists on their concert tours and translate whatever and whenever. As music is a universal language, in most cases she was not needed during rehearsals or performances. Beyond that, though, her role was frequently closer to that of a road manager.

Recalling that time now, Tsubuku says she was often reawakened to the peculiarities of her native culture. For instance, she says that though she has dealt with artists from nearly 30 countries, without fail everyone was always surprised that their itineraries in Japan were detailed “to the minute.”

Treated like children

She also realized that Japanese treated their guests as if they were “children” — though it may have been their way of being “considerate.” She cites promoters who asked her to handle innumerable small tasks, such as calling artists in advance to remind them of appointments, or checking if they have all their belongings.

“I felt this was too much, because we were supposed to be dealing with professionals,” she says, adding that she would sometimes ignore such requests while still ensuring things went smoothly. “I was like a sponge.”

In a similar way, Tsubuku says she also functioned as a buffer when translating business matters, such as guarantees and recordings. She would not only translate, but also serve as a cultural go-between — which is not as easy it sounds.

She said she always had problems when Japanese used the standard phrase kento-shimasu, which literally means, “We’ll think about it” — but often conveys a denial or rejection. I would tell them to clearly say ‘no’ because the artists might think there really was a possibility that their offer would be accepted,” she says.

Similarly, Tsubuku said that if negotiations seemed a bit unfair to the artists, she would sometimes take the artists’ side and mention other issues that should be taken into consideration. Or sometimes, vice versa. A typical nemawashi (behind-the-scenes facilitator) indeed.

“Sometimes it was hard, because I could understand the feelings of both the Japanese and the foreigners,” she says.

Although Tsubuku gave up her job as a translator/road manager to become a magazine editor, she has fond memories of her experience. “It was a lot of fun to be able to hear the live performances of great artists, and to learn something about their countries by talking to them throughout the trip,” she says.

And there was always the fun of being privvy to backstage incidents.

Determined maestro

For example, Tsubuku tells how she was in a rural town in Kyushu working for an east European conductor. He was to perform for two hours from 6:30 p.m., before going to the town where the next concert would be — and where his hotel for that night was located. Usually, she says, concerts go past their scheduled finishing time, so this would typically end around 9 p.m. Hence the promotor had bought tickets for the 10 p.m. train.

On hearing this, though, the maestro said he wanted to take an earlier train departing at 9:15 p.m. What’s more, he also wanted to pick up food from McDonald’s before getting on the train and it closed at 9 p.m.

Though Tsubuku says she told him quite clearly that this would be very difficult, the maestro was quite clearly determined. “Don’t worry, we’ll make it. I’ll conduct fast today,” he told her. “And I won’t bother to change my clothes.”

Speedy baton

During the intermission, Tsubuku says it was amusing when some orchestra members came up to her and said, “The old man’s in high gear today, huh?” At which point, she told them why.

The speed with which the maestro wielded his baton, though, obviously didn’t harm the program because the audience called for an encore — and there was time for the orchestra to oblige. Even then, Tsubuku recalls with a laugh, the concert finished earlier than expected. The conductor was able to hop into a waiting taxi, get his fast-food fix . . . and still catch the 9:15 train with his concert trousers on.

As they found their seats, Tsubuku realized that the other orchestra members were also on the train. “They said with a smile: ‘We wanted to get this one too.’ “