Simultaneous interpreter Mariko Nagai found herself momentarily nonplussed near the end of a speech in Washington by Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara this April.
"Tokyo has decided to purchase the Senkaku Islands," the controversial politician said.
The incendiary statement came at Nagai completely out of the blue. It had not come up at all in her meeting with Ishihara immediately prior to his speech, but Nagai, 69, knew it was no time to be at a loss for words.
She relayed the governor's statement in English, and it was subsequently reported by the world's media. She has been interpreting for Ishihara for the last 20 years.
In 1989, a book entitled "The Japan That Can Say No" that Ishihara co-wrote with then Sony chairman Akio Morita drew considerable attention in the United States. Nagai first interpreted for Ishihara the following year on a trip to the United States to explain his reasons for writing the book.
Since then, whenever Ishihara has needed an interpreter, Nagai has been his first choice. "Even if I get agitated and speak quickly, or become angry, she completely attunes herself to my emotional fluctuations. We know each other well, and she even interprets my own mumblings to myself, like 'This person doesn't get it.' She's a supremely reliable ally," he says.
Ishihara is only one of many fans of Nagai's interpreting expertise in Japanese political and business circles.
Toshiba adviser Taizo Nishimuro has the opportunity to observe her work several times a year at meetings between Japanese and American business leaders and other events. His own proficiency in English gives him a special appreciation of her talents.
"Her interpretation makes it easier to absorb speeches that are worded in confusing Japanese," he says.
A CRANKY A-LIST ACTOR
Nagai has been a trailblazer for women in simultaneous interpreting, playing a crucial behind-the-scenes role at meetings of heads of state, the Japan-U.S. Structural Impediments Initiative, and a United Nations disarmament conference.
Her work has put her at the center of efforts to deal with some of the most pressing issues of our times: the 1970s oil crisis, trade friction between Japan and the United States during the 1980s, and the nuclear crisis in Japan after the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011.
During her high school days at Miyagi Gakuin in Sendai, she had her first genuine encounter with the English language when she spent a year studying in the United States.
Nagai was later selected to interpret at the Tokyo Olympics while a university student, and also volunteered her services at public gatherings protesting the war in Vietnam.
She was eventually discovered by Masumi Muramatsu, founder of conference interpreting association Simul International, and started off down the path toward becoming a professional interpreter.
Near the beginning of that career, Nagai recalls working at an international conference where teams of two or three interpreters were taking 20-minute shifts to try to avoid the losses of concentration that are a hazard of extended simultaneous interpreting. Nagai's turn came around but, as she faced the microphone, a note arrived from Muramatsu pinpointing a previous error in her interpretation.
The learning curve was steep, with colleagues subjecting her efforts to exacting and sometimes intimidating scrutiny. Nagai met the challenge by trying to make absolutely sure she never repeated the same mistake twice.
"For example, there were many phrases like 'zero in' that I learned through bitter experience, after my lapses were pointed out to me," she says.
One of the fundamentals of interpreting is making sure that not even the most trivial utterances go unheard. Interpreters are taught to listen with their entire being and accurately translate the speaker's words. This is especially important in diplomacy and business, when a single word has the power to influence the outcome of negotiations.
In such situations, Nagai admits to getting so nervous that the palms of her hands become slick with sweat, but she says: "You have to believe in your own judgment, and interpret decisively. Once I finish a job, I'm exhausted."
In some situations, it is not enough to just faithfully interpret the speaker's words.
Nagai once sat in on an interview with the actor Anthony Hopkins, who had won a Best Actor Academy Award for "The Silence of the Lambs." Hopkins had already been interviewed 48 times over a day and a half and was in a cranky mood. Only three minutes in, he exclaimed: "I'm going home. I've had enough of this." Interpreting his words faithfully would have made him seem hostile, so she did her best to rephrase them in a polite manner.
Before interpreting for a Japanese government minister, she says she received a request from his staff: "Our minister has a bit of a habit of speaking in conclusive terms. We want you to throw in a 'maybe' here and there."
Colleagues say Nagai reads the situation for each job and tailors her words to suit the occasion, ascertaining the intentions of the speaker and then sometimes paraphrasing to achieve the objective.
"It's for that very reason that she can handle any situation," said a colleague.
IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF CHIYO UNO
Nagai married a university classmate and gave birth to a son at the age of 28, and a daughter at 30.
She accompanied her diplomat husband on three overseas postings, taking about a decade out of her career, but each time she came back to Japan she returned to the forefront of her profession.
After 25 years of married life, she divorced her husband. It took her seven years to decide to get a divorce, and she says it took another seven to bounce back from it. It was the first major setback in her life.
"I accomplished most of my dreams through putting in effort, but the same approach doesn't work with personal emotions," she says.
When the divorce first went through, she would cry when she met people who knew her well.
"I think she must have wondered why it had happened to her, despite the fact she'd never given less than 100 percent in everything," recalls her elder sister Atsuko Aota, 72.
After the divorce, Nagai chose not to relinquish her married name. "If I'd gone by my maiden name after such a long time in the interpreting field, people would have asked 'Who?'"
Her two children have now left the nest, but she is busier than ever. While maintaining her status as one of the country's top interpreters, taking on more than 200 jobs annually, she also works free of charge for citizen activists and nonprofit organizations involved in disaster recovery in the northeastern Tohoku region, where she grew up.
Nagai says she feels especially energized when interpreting for prominent female leaders. When the speaker slams their fist against a desk, she sometimes does the same in her interpreter's booth.
One view of the role of interpreters is that their work should be emotionally neutral and objective. Nagai, who is sometimes told she seems to be possessed by the spirit of her clients, is well aware of the ideal of the black-suited conduit who almost disappears from the room.
"Even so, words aren't symbols, they're messages,” she says. "I believe that we should go so far as to convey the speaker's emotions."
At 69, she has no intention of retiring. "I'll remain active my whole life," she says. "I want to be the interpreting world's answer to (the prolific author) Chiyo Uno."
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Born in 1943 in Sendai City. Graduate of International Christian University (ICU). Became a professional interpreter affiliated with the international conference interpreting association Simul International in 1967. She interpreted at over 20 summit meetings and is currently ranked the top of around 50 interpreters affiliated with Simul International. Her broad repertoire ranges from politics and business to culture and sports.
Music: Nagai took violin lessons from the age of 6. Today, she plays viola for several orchestras, including the Marunouchi Symphony Orchestra. Sometimes she drives straight from the airport to rehearsals immediately after returning to Japan from an overseas assignment. According to a close friend: "Her drive and stamina are extraordinary."
Working mother: "She was a busy mother, but I don't remember ever being lonely," says her daughter Yukiko, 38, now a graphic designer based in the United States. When Nagai had time off from work, she would make her daughters take the day off from school so she could spend time with them. "It's best that people do what they're good at," says Yukiko. "I love that my mother works."
Memorable client: Of all the famous people she has interpreted for, the former president of the Philippines Ferdinand Marcos left perhaps the most indelible impression. "He had an air of authority, a piercing gaze, and what you might call an aura."
Some of the leaders she met through her work were later deposed or assassinated. "Ruling over others is a forlorn occupation," she says.
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