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Making a living using foreign language skills

Freelancer learns English, French, Italian to succeed in 'her favorite work'

by Chiho Iuchi

Staff Writer

What would it be like to make a living using foreign language skills as a freelance professional? Missa Takahashi, an interpreter and translator of English, French and Italian, shares how she established her career, expanded her work and deepened her understanding of language and culture.

Although Takahashi was good at English while at a Japanese high school and studied French at Meiji University in Tokyo, her first job had little to do with these languages. After working for a domestic clothing company for six years, mainly in charge of inventory control, she had the feeling that “it’s different from what I want to do.” She decided to quit the company and to go abroad — not to study, but just to live in her longtime beloved city of Paris. That was the turning point in her life at age 28.

“I traveled to Paris withdrawing all my savings,” Takahashi recounted, “but thanks to my personal network, I found some temporary jobs there,” which helped improve her language skills in English and French. She stayed in the city for two years. “Actually, I wanted to stay longer until a family matter made me return home.”

Back in Japan, she needed an income, but she did not feel like being an office worker again because she found it “constraining.” First, she received some jobs from her acquaintances that made use of her language skills. These were small tasks, such as translating resumes for those who wanted to work abroad. Once, she got a request to attend to a French musician during his Japan tour. “I was lucky,” Takahashi said.

Of course, she “did not get paid much” at that time, but she tried her best to meet the clients’ requests for each job, which paved the way for the next job.

Meanwhile, she started learning Italian, her third foreign language.

“During my stay in Paris, I met many people who could speak three or four languages. It gave me the idea of learning one more language to strengthen my skills,” Takahashi said.

“To make a living, I also did various part-time jobs, including being a telephone operator at United Nations University in the Aoyama district (of Tokyo). But when I paid my tuition to the Italian language school, not much money remained at hand,” Takahashi recounted.

“If you have only made your living as a salaried employee, you may become scared of losing your monthly income. But once you experience a life without a regular income, you will find yourself able to manage the situation,” Takahashi said, adding, “When you pay for whatever you desperately want to obtain, you will be paid the same amount through your next job — it’s really strange, but I experienced that. I believe it is a kind of blessing for our sincerest wish. So don’t be too afraid.”

For many people, even one second language is hard to master, so how does one master three foreign languages?

“In the case you aim to be a simultaneous interpreter, you would be better off concentrating on one language in a limited field that you are going to cover,” Takahashi pointed out. However, she explained her way of thinking and working with multiple foreign languages.

On the one hand, she said, “even for a single language, we will never be perfect. You may study more and more, but you will still encounter unknown words and expressions. So I think it’s better to take it easy while continuing to learn.”

On the other hand, she said using a metaphor, “when you spill water on one spot on a tray and then spill milk on a different spot on the same tray, the two liquids will become mingled in an unexpected way. This is the case with studying a few languages as well. Also, if you have an interest across the various disciplines or areas, your knowledge will be combined and reach to an unexpected range and depth. This is fun and more natural for me.”

In reality, she said, clients don’t care much about your specialties nor your future visions, and often request something that is unknown to you, to which you need to respond if you want to get paid. And you will learn something new through that job. “So it may not be us who decide to limit or expand our specialized fields,” Takahashi said.

That was the way she encountered an important job at the New National Theater in Tokyo (NNTT), which came through an interpreter agency. She served as the Italian/Japanese interpreter for Italian choreographer Marta Ferri, who joined the NNTT production of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” (“A Masked Ball”), which was staged in September 1999, under the direction of another Italian, Alberto Fassini.

“I was no better than a beginner in Italian. In addition, I did not even know the name of the theater, as I had never seen opera until then. But the agency appointed me asking, ‘You know dancing, right?’ Yes, I have taken ballet lessons since my childhood,” Takahashi recounted.

It seems amazing that a beginner in both Italian and opera worked as an interpreter for an opera company. Didn’t she hesitate to accept the offer?

“I find it arrogant to judge your abilities by yourself,” said Takahashi. “If the clients judge that you can do what they expect, after observing your actual services at some work site, they come to you with work. Their judgments are more correct than your ‘humble’ judgment. So it may be very rude of you to decline the offer, saying ‘I cannot do this.’ If you get a job offer, you should accept it. I think it is the basic business rule.”

At the theater, Takahashi learned that choreography in opera is a wide-ranging duty, for example, teaching singers “how to move” to properly act as the specified characters, from an elegant lady, to armored knights in combat scenes and aristocrats at a spectacular medieval-costumed ball, with the relevant music.

“Ms. Ferri is an exacting professional and did not trust me at the beginning. She even said, ‘Are you really interpreting what I say?’ ” Takahashi said.

It was a tough job, and Takahashi struggled to follow Ferri, interpreting and sometimes indicating by gestures what the choreographer instructed to the singers. Takahashi listened carefully to a Japanese assistant, who excellently interpreted for director Fassini. “I took notes of the key translations and reviewed all of them at home every day. During the rehearsal period, my Italian ability surprisingly improved,” Takahashi said.

Before long, Takahashi developed a trusting relationship with Ferri and she worked with the choreographer for three other Verdi operas at the NNTT: “Il Trovatore” in January 2001, “Rigoletto” in February and “Don Carlo” in December the same year. “And many more operas at the same venue,” she added.

These intensive experiences at the theater helped Takahashi to establish her career in the opera industry. She has been in charge of telephone interviews with foreign singers and directors in English, French and Italian for the NNTT’s monthly club bulletin The Atre, too.

Today, as a freelance interpreter and translator, Takahashi offers a broad range of services responding to various clients for different jobs, such as attending to foreign musicians during their Japan tour for music agencies; interviewing professional racers for a motorcycle magazine; researching electric vehicles by comparing the reference materials in French and English for the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism; and arranging the international conferences of the World Health Organization on International Classification of Diseases.

“It is my advantage that I can use three foreign languages. I have the impression that the era in which one foreign language was sufficient to do business is coming to an end,” Takahashi said.

Based on her experience, Takahashi advises freelancers not to expect to make more money than company workers. According to her, “It is even, roughly speaking,” if you compare the revenues and expenses. It’s all about if you prefer “independence, human relations and a pride that you make a living doing your favorite work.”

Another practical advice: “It’s better to avoid the child-raising period (if you want to have a child) to establish your career as a freelancer because it takes at least five years to gather steady clientele,” said Takahashi. “It’s not a good idea to do both at the same time.”

Things are never easy, even for a seasoned professional. Recently, for a concert program of a Japanese soprano singer, Takahashi was asked to translate words of an Italian song composed by Ottorino Respighi into Japanese.

“It was a very difficult Italian poem. Actually, the original was a poem written by Percy Bysshe Shelley in English,” Takahashi explained. The most difficult point was a name of a plant. The original English was “dandelion,” but it was changed into a different flower in the Italian version. “So I didn’t feel like translating it ‘tanpopo’ (dandelion) in Japanese. Which term would be the most suitable translation in this context?” She asked her Italian friends how the flower looks like and searched for an alternative term in Japanese.

“Lost in translation, it was like a battle among three languages,” Takahashi said. “I realized anew that every language is deeply rooted in our life and culture. Such kinds of recognition of the distinction in the context shall never be replaced by translation software or speech converters, but should be done by human beings. And I believe this is how we pass our language and culture down to the next generations.”


What is a guide-interpreter?

Guide-interpreters play a key role in introducing Japan to visitors. Not only do they use their excellent language skills, but also their wide-ranging knowledge about Japan from geography and history to industry, economy, politics and culture.

One of the first steps to understanding Japan for visitors is to help foreign tourists go home with good impressions of Japan.

Under the Guide-Interpreter Business Law, individuals who attend to foreigners and give them guide services concerning travel with the use of a foreign language for a consideration have to pass the examination given by the Japan Travel Agency Commissioner and acquire a license issued by a prefectural government.

The number of license holders reached 15,371 as of April 1, 2011.

Foreign languages within the subject of the guide-interpreter examination are English, French, Spanish, German, Chinese, Italian, Portuguese, Russian and Thai.

For more information about the examination, call the Japan Tourism Agency at (03) 5253-8111 or visit www.mlit.go.jp/kankocho/en .