On the final day of ATA 64, Allyson Sigman spoke about differences in work environments that interpreters in Japan and the US are facing.
Allyson began her presentation by outlining her 13 plus years of experience working both in-house and freelance. She also reviewed a career path that started with Japanese classes in high school and lead to becoming a self-described “interpreting otaku.” Currently, she interprets for conferences and teaches at The Ohio State University.
Allyson has worked freelance in Japan and the US and is in a unique position to analyze the various challenges of working in either country. Her presentation focused on practical tips for client management. Freelance interpreters hoping to work with American and Japanese clients must first understand that there is no universal definition of what these clients look like. However, Allyson has found that US clients generally have a more casual corporate culture, while Japanese clients generally have strictly formalized rules for documentation, presentation, and client interaction.
These differences not only affect how freelance interpreters perform their role, but also the ways they might get hired or build an ongoing relationship. For example, US companies are more likely to hire freelancers directly without having a clear understanding of what the job entails. They look for publicly available information on potential interpreters and expect the interpreter’s input/advice during all stages of the job. However, Japanese clients are more likely to use an agency, demand that freelancers meet explicit professional standards, give feedback to the interpreter, and thoroughly prepare materials/schedule.
Allyson stressed that neither style is “correct,” and that interpreters must be ready to customize their approach based on client needs. She illustrated this with a very clever (and painfully accurate) YouTube video that highlights the extreme differences in American versus Japanese business emails. The video began with an American responding to a client inquiry in less than 30 seconds. However, handling the same inquiry in Japanese required a reply nearly ten times as long. The video was a hit and one of the highlights of the afternoon.
Finally, Allyson concluded with specific examples for resume building, negotiating techniques, invoicing formats, and interpersonal style that she has found effective in each country. As someone who has also worked as a translator in Japan and in the US, her observations resonated with me. I would advise any freelancer looking to enter either market to follow her advice.