Sen Nishiyama says that translating one language into another is “a dangerous field to get into. You need plenty of insurance.” He took his first steps into this dangerous field more than 60 years ago. He was a pioneer in the simultaneous interpreting of Japanese and English more than 50 years ago. Sen is now 90 years of age, a slim, upright man with a strong voice, a clear memory and a fund of vivid stories of situations into which his languages led him.
He was born in Salt Lake City, where his name was registered as William Sen Nishiyama. Japanese was the main language spoken at his home. As a child he was often brought by his mother on visits to Japan, where he improved his conversational Japanese. After graduation in electrical engineering from the University of Utah, he became a teaching assistant at the university. He took his master’s degree in 1934, the year his father died.
“My mother decided to bring my father’s ashes back to Japan,” Sen said. “There were no jobs available in electrical engineering or electronics in the United States as depression and racial limitations closed opportunities, so I accompanied her. I was amazed at the culture and art in Japan, and impressed by the kind treatment we received. I was hired as a technician in the Electrotechnical Laboratory, and since this was a Japanese government job I decided to apply for naturalization. I became a Japanese citizen.”
For 10 years, which carried him through to the end of the war, Sen continued laboratory and research work. He learned written Japanese and undertook translation of technical articles. In 1945 the Occupation authorities at GHQ required his bilingual services. Until 1951, he said, “working in a liaison capacity between the Occupation authorities and Japanese officials offered many lessons in cross-cultural communication problems.” Since his interest was aroused in improving understanding between the two countries, he accepted an offer of employment with the U.S. Department of State. “I began as interpreter-translator with the United States Information Service, Tokyo, in 1951,” Sen said.
During the next 21 years, as he progressed to being public affairs consultant and senior adviser, Sen advised the American Embassy on public opinion trends in Japan. He assisted in establishing the Fulbright program office in Japan, and helped with seminars, programs and conferences sponsored by USIS. He interpreted for visiting dignitaries, who included Richard Nixon, Robert Kennedy and John Glenn. His “meritorious service and exemplary performance in developing, organizing and directing the USIS Research and Materials Section, and exceptional service as interpreter and adviser to the American ambassador to Japan” won him a Meritorious Service Award in 1961. On his retirement in 1972, the USIS conferred on him a Superior Honor Award.
Whilst he was with the Occupation authorities, Sen developed the ability to interpret between Japanese and English both consecutively and simultaneously. He said: “In the past it was regarded as impossible to interpret simultaneously, as the word orders in Japan and English are reversed. However, efforts were begun and simultaneous interpreting became feasible, resulting in probably the earliest success between these two languages. One or two others were involved in the development. Since then, simultaneous interpreting has become a common form.” Sen’s skill led to his simultaneous interpreting for NHK during the live telecasts of the Apollo flights to the moon. Thereafter, Sen received many requests for lectures, articles and appearances on other TV programs.
He has published more than a dozen books, most of them in Japanese, some of them translations from English into Japanese. He continues to produce articles in Japanese and in English on the related subjects dear to his heart: “communication, American-Japanese relations, language, interpreting.”