The Unexpected (or ‘Expected’) Interpreter

by Rachel HM from Great Britain

My heart is warm when I reflect on how the ENF has continued to grow since Great Britain joined,
with more countries than ever forming part of our family. The very niche, and tiny by comparison to
more popular martial arts or Budo disciplines, of Atarashii Naginata is now bringing together many
nationalities from countries eager to establish, study and lead Naginata in their respective nation.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I count 12 countries so far, with new students also raising their hand in
Hungary, Switzerland and Greece too. With all these countries’ Naginata students, we all bring in –

different languages, cultures, upbringing and backgrounds into the dojo and  into any international seminar training hall. In a word, it is still a “Wow!”  moment to enter a sports hall and see so many of our flags go up on the  seminar walls.

What unites us is our energy to learn Japanese Naginata from the point of origin and  motherland, i.e and that’s Japan. Each time I’m in a class, a practice with a Japanese  sensei leading international seminar lesson, I marvel at the patience of many  primarily Japanese women sensei who seem truly delighted but also in awe and (I  opine) sometimes overwhelmed by the many non-Japanese that are gathered  together in an international sports hall to study Naginata.
Those Japanese Naginata sensei’s primary challenge is how to convey their passion, knowledge from  their vast teaching experience, to students of multiple nationalities, most of whom do not have  English as a first language let alone likely having any modest Japanese language comprehension – and all in just 2 or 3 days. That’s not many hours to pack in a lot of learning, relatively speaking  compared to their many hours of teaching in their own regular Japanese dojo.

I’m sure most of you dislike unkindness in the dojo, or a disingenuous attitude  where one person, a student like you – fails to understand or properly translate from one language to another, or one culture to another, because  the interpretation does not match-up with your own entrenched  understanding. I know a few of you have good Japanese, but you hide in the  group (I jest, you are probably as shy as I am). But for the rest, you are relying  on your eyes, and yes, maybe someone else’s interpretation trying to help you, to help everyone.

It is on that note of interpretation and understanding Japanese sensei that this article focuses. In  absence of our dojo normality due to multiple Covid pandemic lockdown measures that have impacted 18 months so far of dojo practice, instead I look back and reflect  on the international seminars that like so many of you, I really miss so much. The international gathering of Budo  players is wonderful thing, when friendship and respect is  put at the top of the list to cross our languages that divide us. I hope that when we all return, be that  at an ENF or INF seminar opportunity, I pray that as always for Japanese sensei to impart their  knowledge, experience and warmth – everything that I hang onto during these difficult months of  pandemic lockdown, stop-start return to the dojo under social distancing rules. 

The multiple languages and level of interpretation we all add in our own minds, to understand what  is being taught, brings many challenges. Ahead of our return to be together again, I make a plea as a regular seminar student – just like you, a dojo leader and the often an unexpected position I find  myself in many times, as an interpreter for a group, or at worse the main-hall seminar practice.  Sometime I don’t realise I am in this interpreter position until all eyes are on me to speak up. In  other Budo, I’m often asked in private ahead of being put on the spot. OK, so I rarely decline but I  do look around the dojo hall (in panic !) hoping there must be someone other than me. I’m honestly  (privately) in heaven, and feel a huge sense of relief – when there’s someone else far better than me  who is more fluent in Japanese, and willing to speak up – and is therefore assigned to be either my  group or the main seminar interpreter. Halleluiah! (Or “Hurrah!” in English) 

Firstly, any professional paid interpreter will tell you having to speak in public, interpreters are under  significant pressure. It is not a simple matter of understanding yourself and relaying your  understanding to fellow student, friend, your child or your family member. Interpretation is about  communicating what the original speaker (in this case sensei) was trying to say and without  embellishment, i.e adding your own words. My mantra is “I’m not important, the sensei is”, and I put  myself under pressure to never say thing the sensei did not say themselves. Yes, I may miss out  things, but I never knowingly add my own words.  

Since English is the first language of only one ENF member country – yes that’s us, guilty Great Britain  (lucky British students) – ENF readers here who are students in the international dojo or sports hall,  will be interpreting in their own minds from Japanese via my interpretation perhaps, to your own  mother tongue. So that’s three times to get a change in meaning and your own interpretation, from  the original spoken Japanese.

Rendering explanations as faithfully and idiomatically as possible in front of  many pairs of eyes and ears, is not a piece of cake. I’m a natural introvert (there  I said it, if you didn’t already know), so I need to overcome shyness and an  introverted character as well as be brave in speaking up, loudly so that everyone  to hear, and speak fast so the sensei has more speak time than me. The pressure  of doing my best is very high, as well as me being there first and foremost as a  student to learn Naginata. I do listen differently to communicate onwards a sensei teaching  something, than I do to listen only for myself, as I’m sure you all do, for yourselves, friends or family  if watching a foreign movie or in maybe you’re a tourist somewhere exciting and new.

In the seminar I am listening to pass on what I can accurately, I am not listening  simply to understand for me, I am listening to understand for you too. I never ever  profess to be anything close to Dr Alex Bennett, or Baptiste Tavernier, or other  truly bilingual speakers like Japanese who have moved to another country to live in  and make their new second home. Yes, I am mixed race (half Japanese) but that is  in itself not a qualification to be your unplanned, unexpected interpreter on the day, I promise you. 

Having an excellent command of two languages cannot alone make  any person a good interpreter. I am trying hard to break down  language barriers, to help bridge cultural gaps in split seconds. To  pass on often more than just action or instruction, but Naginata  Budo meaning and a deep-rooted cultural awareness that all  Japanese sensei feel is integral to Naginata. This is not a sport for Japanese sensei, this is a Budo  discipline, to virtually all Japanese sensei I have had the pleasure to encounter. Sometimes, that  culture is not expressed by words but by attitudes, demeanour, a warmth and kindness. Even if  those Japanese sensei don’t understand a word of your language, respect up and down the ranks,  can be felt. No words needed.

This is another challenge for me. For example, in Japan, one is not supposed to  express their personal desires or opinion to those more senior to you without  being invited to offer that view or what’s on your mind. It is a sign of politeness  and deference. Likewise, unless you’re in a professional teacher-student  situation (school/university) Japanese sensei believe in ‘humility’ is a virtue and  not ‘humiliation’ which is seen as a punishment and the height of rudeness.

Interpreters have to be aware of these cultural differences because they serve as a bridge for  intercultural communications. Japanese sensei almost never invite questions on a technical point, in  their own dojo or seminars in Japan, so please see the fact Japanese sensei are inviting questions at  the end, as a mark of meeting western students more than half way, and their respect towards you,  as students. So when offering up your views or if they ask, ‘Are there any questions?’ remember it is  a chance to seek clarity, not a chance to challenge you think differently, someone else said  something different to your own understanding. So Naginata players and fellow students, I regret  that I find it impossible and stressful to translate questions around a ‘why?’ viewpoint or an opinion  to sensei more learned than yourselves, compared to a question you may have about an action or  movement of a body-part. 

A professional interpreter once told me, it is very common and very difficult for the interpreter to  find the right words in a milli-second. For an unpaid amateur, trust me that’s some pressure aside  from being there to learn Naginata. There is nothing more terrible than looking for words during the  interpretation which is done at speed, quickly so that the sensei can move on and impart even more  knowledge or instruction.  

As for the challenge of interpreting for the group when we’re all wearing our bogu !! and having to shout at you all as well (and I do not mean kiai,  which comes from the diaphragm/’tanden’ area) sometimes I’m therefore left physically exhausted, not to mention mentally.

Despite being asked to interpret across seven different Japanese Budo disciplines over many years in  Europe and Japan, I can tell you, every single time fills me with horror: an interpretation seminar  situation, never gets any easier for me. After the 18 months or more months before we meet, due to  the pandemic measures, I do worry I’ve forgotten all my Japanese, in fact I think I’ve forgotten how  to communicate in person especially to large groups, period (full stop). The stuff of nightmares.

So my dear Naginata friends, until we meet post-pandemic, whether in  the international Naginata seminar environment with our Japanese sensei  imparting all their wisdom and experience or elsewhere, I will be as ever,  an ordinary humble student just like you. Please “Don’t shoot the  messenger”, or critique “It’s just her/his interpretation” implying yours is  different, that maybe privately so. I will leave you with just one of the  many Japanese words that cannot be translated, (yes there is a list). 

Memories of when we were all together in an international sports hall setting,  exhausted, hot, aching, but happy Budo players and amongst fellow Naginata friends. Until we meet again.

Rachel HM

August 2021