Connecting two cities beyond interpretation


Staff Writer

Interpreters and translators facilitate communication and understanding between people who speak different languages, which sometimes is instrumental in bridging two distant cities.

Tomoko Kitamura-Nielsen, a journalist, coordinator and adviser based in Lolland, Denmark, was happy to hear the news in July about the opening of the Discovery Center in Higashimatsushima, Miyagi Prefecture, featuring the first Science On a Sphere (SOS) in Japan. Developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of the United States, the sphere displaying planetary data has been attracting local people — children and adults alike — who were greatly affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011.

“The news really stirred my emotions,” Kitamura-Nielsen said.

The idea came from local builder Koichi Hashimoto, who was inspired by the sphere at the Visual Climate Center in Lolland when he visited the island in June 2013, and the project was brought to fruition through collaboration with a local entity called Higashimatsushima Organization for Progress and Economy, Education, Energy (HOPE).

“The project fell behind schedule because of the facility’s complex and unprecedented features. But the efforts by the local residents involved in the project finally got us to its opening,” said Kitamura-Nielsen, who has helped to arrange assistance to the disaster-hit Higashimatsushima as an interpreter and coordinator.

New life in Lolland

Kitamura-Nielsen has lived in Lolland since 2001.

After working for seven years at a company in Tokyo, she felt she had reached the limit in her job because of her lack of linguistic abilities. To work on what she felt was a weak point, she went to the United States to study English for a year. After returning home, Kitamura-Nielsen further studied the language by attending translation school, which paved the way for her to become a freelance translator for visual media, mainly working in sports broadcasting at TV stations.

In the summer of 2000, Kitamura-Nielsen was on her way back from a business trip reporting on the 2000 UEFA European Football Championship in the Netherlands. On a plane from Amsterdam, she met her future Danish husband, who happened to be sitting next to her. That fateful encounter led her to quit her job in Japan and to move to her husband’s home island of Lolland.

Stepping into a completely foreign land, the first thing Kitamura-Nielsen did was to learn Danish. When her son began kindergarten, she started working at a local TV station, which allowed her to learn Danish-style journalism and local politics. During this time, she also became aware of environmental efforts of Lolland.

The island of Lolland, with an area of 1,243 sq. kilometers, is located about 150 kilometers southwest of the capital, Copenhagen. Although it went through difficult times on the back of a massive deficit and high unemployment after the shipyard that had sustained the local economy closed in the 1980s, the city of Lolland bounced back by tackling environmental issues and became a front-runner in adopting renewable energy, not only leading the nation, but also the world.

Denmark’s energy self-sufficiency rate was only a tiny percent in 1973 when the oil embargo occurred. Against the decision made by the government at the time to grow nuclear power generation, the people of Denmark waged an opposition campaign, which forced the government to give up its nuclear energy policy. After that, Denmark became energy independent in 1997 and achieved an energy self-sufficiency rate of 121 percent in 2010, 20 percent of which was generated by wind. The site once planned for a nuclear power station on the island of Lolland has been developed into a wind park with 23 windmills.

“To my surprise, no one had written about Lolland in Japanese yet. So I decided to do it myself,” said Kitamura-Nielsen, who started introducing the environmental efforts and eco-friendly lifestyle of Lolland as a freelance writer through her blog and Japanese media.

When she was writing her first article on Lolland, which was published in a Japanese magazine, she met Lolland city council member Leo Christensen, one of the leading figures who had contributed to reform the city by adopting renewable energies. Before long, Kitamura-Nielsen began to receive job offers to write or coordinate tours from one Japanese media outlet after another.

It was around that time the Great East Japan Earthquake occurred on March 11, 2011.

Assistance from Denmark

In the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami, then Danish Ambassador to Japan Franz-Michael Skjold Mellbin visited Higashimatsushima, which was the beginning of Denmark’s assistance activities for the devastated city. Shinji Sato, one of the city officials, knew little about Denmark at the time, but while gathering information, he came across a blog on Danish eco-friendly lifestyles written by Kitamura-Nielsen.

“The blog contained dreamlike things. I felt I had to contact Ms. Kitamura-Nielsen,” said Sato, who called her in Lolland just three weeks after the disaster.

“I spoke with Christensen about how we could help in the reconstruction of the affected area and contacted the Japanese Embassy in Copenhagen and the Danish Embassy in Tokyo,” Kitamura-Nielsen said.

The relationship between Denmark and Higashimatsushima was further deepening, with financial support and Crown Prince Frederic’s visit in June 2011 to encourage the residents. The city of Higashimatsushima announced the direction of its reconstruction by becoming energy-independent using renewable energy learning from the experiences and expertise of Denmark.

With this policy, Higashimatsushima was selected by the central government in December 2011 as a site for its Future City Initiative, which will address the environmental challenges.

In January 2012, a delegation from Higashimatsushima visited the city of Lolland to learn about its technologies. In March, city council member Christensen visited Higashimatsushima. The representatives from both sides discussed how they could cooperate in promoting the Future City visions.

In May 2012, the Danish Embassy in Japan took the initiative to form a consortium in order to provide ideas and solutions for revitalizing Higashimatsushima into a sustainable city. The consortium involved five major Danish companies, which were followed by LOKE from Lolland in July. On July 9, 2012, the city of Lolland signed an accord with Higashimatsushima to cooperate in its sustainability drive.

Interpretation skills

At each of those events and meetings, Kitamura-Nielsen served as interpreter and coordinator. In October 2012, Kitamura-Nielsen and Christensen accompanied then Danish Minister of Climate, Energy and Building Martin Lidegaard and then Danish Foreign Minister Villy Sovndal to Higashimatsushima.

“People often say that my interpretation is not just literal translation, but something easier to understand,” Kitamura-Nielsen says. “I think this is because of my habits formed in my days of sports broadcasting.”

“For example, in the case of soccer analysis programs, there are many types of announcers and commentators, ranging from very serious to funny, and some have wonderful skills in the art of conversation using great metaphors that appeal to the audience. As translators for those programs, we are expected to choose the most natural and suitable Japanese expressions to reproduce the characters of each person, hopefully including favorite phrases and even accents, rather than just literally translating what they say,” Kitamura-Nielsen explains.

“So I’m aware of my weakness in handling more serious discussions such as conference interpretation,” she confesses. “It was a white-knuckle experience serving as interpreter at the Japanese-Danish ministerial meetings last year.”

She also served as interpreter for Christensen, who was invited to the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo in April 2013 to make a presentation on the environmental efforts of Lolland.

“Christensen says to me ‘I trust you, because your interpretation is based on your good understanding of the background of what I am saying,'” says Kitamura, who has always accompanied Christensen on his business trip to Japan.

“In translation school, we were told over and over to get enough evidence of the stories by researching and checking the facts,” Kitamura-Nielsen recounts. “It’s very dangerous to automatically convert one language to another. What is said or written may include factual errors. Translators need to have as much understanding of what they translate as possible,” Kitamura-Nielsen says.

“When I worked on translating sports broadcasts, it was quite useful to read many books and sports magazines to understand the words and behaviors of athletes and trainers,” Kitamura-Nielsen says.

“It’s not just the matters of translation,” Kitamura-Nielsen says. “I believe the best way to achieve a good outcome is to develop a great affection for what you are working on.”

Beyond translation

Today, Kitamura-Nielsen also works as coordinator assisting various inspection tours from Japan to Lolland.

“I try to be as flexible as possible so that I can match the visitors to the most suitable places and people, which would lead to satisfactory outcomes. When I serve as interpreter during such tours, I try to choose the words according to the visitor’s background and inform them of the characters of their Danish counterparts if necessary. I think it facilitates their communication from first contact and vitalizes their conversation with affinity and interest,” Kitamura-Nielsen explains. “These are skills I developed through what I learned in school and in my job as translator for visual media.”

Kitamura-Nielsen has been keeping in touch with Sato as well as other Higashimatsushima city officials, which has helped build human relations between Higashimatsushima and Lolland.

During her fourth visit to Higashimatsushima, with Christensen in April 2013, she and Christensen were introduced to local builder Hashimoto, which paved the way for the construction of an educational center with the SOS in Higashimatsushima.

The Discovery Center is one of the first concrete results from the cooperation between Lolland and Higashimatsushima. It is surely a long journey for Higashimatsushima to be reborn. But the center, which serves to educate local children, may serve as a symbol of reconstruction for the disaster-hit city.

Kitamura is planning the next visit to the city, determined to further contribute as a bridge between Lolland and Higashimatsushima.