When Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the moon in July 1969, Kumiko Torikai was with them every step of the way, repeating their every word. For Japanese around the nation who witnessed the historic event, Torikai was their communication lifeline, the person who relayed Armstrong’s immortal words, “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
In the process, Torikai, who was still a college undergraduate when she gave voice to the two astronauts as an interpreter for a TV station, also unwittingly helped establish another significant leap for what was then her profession.
“The Apollo landing was . . . a threshold (for my profession),” she said. “People saw for the first time how interpreters worked and that there is such a thing as simultaneous interpreting.”
Three decades later, however, Torikai is unsure if the momentum of that particular leap has been maintained.
She believes attitudes toward interpreting and foreign language education are more comparable to a moonwalk a la Michael Jackson — a trick of the eye that suggests movement but is actually stationary, or even backward.
“In Europe, linguistics and philosophy have always been considered as one,” said Torikai, who worked for several decades as a TV and conference interpreter before taking up a position at the English department of Rikkyo University in Tokyo.
“In Japan, however, language, especially the spoken word, is not considered to be something serious — certainly not academic. It’s something anyone can do.”
The root of this attitude is both historical and cultural, and one that has ultimately accounted for Japan’s “deplorable” and “embarrassing” record with foreign languages, she said.
During the Meiji Era, the government’s efforts to modernize Japan took officials on fact-finding missions to the West.
“They brought back all kinds of books and translated them. So translation has long been a vehicle to absorb foreign culture. But not interpreting,” Torikai said.
” ‘Speech is silver, silence is gold’ — that’s basically how Japanese feel, even though they might say they want to speak English,” she added.
Torikai believes, however, that awareness has increased regarding the need for change, specifically regarding the education system.
How to achieve that change, however, is another question.
“People don’t tend to think that maybe we should think of communication and our communication styles together,” she said.
“They also think that if we start (language education) early enough, at elementary school, for example, then we’ll have all Japanese speaking fluently. That’s really not the case. Our whole attitude toward language and communication has to change.”
Elementary school education has to focus on trying to make children aware of communication, “to let them speak more and be more self-assertive,” Torikai said.
Until last December, Torikai had been able to voice her views as a member of the then Education Ministry’s Council on National Language.
She played a pivotal role in the body’s epoch-making final report, which included proposals as to what kind of communication abilities Japanese should have in the 21st century.
“For the first time in the history of the council we discussed at length the kind of communication competence that’s now being required of us . . . and stressed the importance of translation and also interpreting,” Torikai said.
It was agreed that improved training and facilities for language teachers and interpreters were needed.
This Torikai already knew. For the past two years she has been designing graduate-level courses that will focus on retraining professional translators and English-language teachers.
She will head the Graduate School for Intracultural Communications, Japan’s first school offering such courses, when it opens next year at Rikkyo.
“It’s long been on my mind, the necessity to re-educate (English-language) teachers,” Torikai said. “You cannot change English-language education in Japan unless teachers themselves change.”
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