Interview by Isao Tokuhashi
Edited by Jennifer A. Hoff
Mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Multilingual interpreter and visual-media translator
Early October 2017 – We visited a panel discussion organized by the “Global Communication Arts Institute” (GCAI). We met four women working in areas such as entrepreneurship, flower arrangement, and travel guide interpreting, who talked about how they have expanded the scope of their unique activities by sharing information overseas. One of the panelists was Ms. Milly Nakai, an interpreter and translator who speaks four languages, including Portuguese and Japanese, to bring voices from around the world to Japan.
Born in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Nakai came to Japan in 2008 and began her career as a visual-media translator, which later expanded into interpretation. She has been involved mainly in the entertainment, broadcasting, fashion and sports industries, and has served as an interpreter for worldwide superstars such as Brazilian soccer player Neymar and Portuguese soccer player Cristiano Ronaldo when they visited Japan.
Nakai left a strong impression on us, because she clearly stated, “I have always had a strong desire to live my own life!” when she looked back on her life and talked about her future goals during the discussion. We have been exposed to the life histories of people of all nationalities, so we felt that we would love to hear her stories. After the discussion, we asked Nakai for an interview. Despite always standing beside worldwide superstars, she was very pleased with our request.
*Interview at Akabane (Kita-ku)
An interpreter is always someone who is behind the scenes
There are a considerable number of interpreters for my native language, Portuguese, in Japan. However, someone told me that there are few people who can interpret in both languages at the same level, especially in the entertainment field. I think it is fortunate that there is a need for someone like me due to such circumstances.
I often work as a soccer interpreter, but I feel I am required to convey the human side of the players, such as what Neymar and Cristiano Ronaldo are thinking during a match or what they feel when they come to Japan, rather than their technique on the pitch. Furthermore, I interpret using different first person pronouns (“僕boku”, “俺ore”, “私watashi”, etc.) depending on their personalities. When I interpret from Japanese into Portuguese, I use different words depending on the person I am interpreting for.
People sometimes ask me, “Don’t you ever get nervous interpreting for superstars?”. But my job is to deliver their voices to their fans in Japan, and to tell the stars what Japanese people want to know about them in words they can easily understand. I’m always ready to interpret on any big stage; I concentrate hard on the player’s talk so that I can’t hear any other voices. In other words, I know what I am there for. People are interested in what the player has to say, not me. No matter who I appear on TV with, I keep my composure by going back to the starting point: “What is the reason I’m here?”.
Video of Nakai acting as interpreter at Cristiano Ronaldo’s event in Japan (July 2015)
Am I Brazilian? Am I Japanese?
I was born and raised in Sao Paulo, the largest city in Brazil. My parents came from Fukuoka and Kumamoto, respectively, to the city where many Japanese Brazilians live, and where the largest Japanese community outside Japan is.
I spoke to my family in Japanese. I attended Japanese language classes and loved to read the Japanese encyclopedias, children’s story collections, and magazines my parents ordered from Japan. I would also watch Japanese TV shows so for me, Japan was a foreign country that was not foreign.
Thanks to this environment, I grew up bilingual in Portuguese and Japanese, but being bilingual had some unexpected pitfalls. In my mid-teens, I had an “identity crisis”. To be more specific, “Am I Brazilian or Japanese?” was the question, and that haunted me for 10 years. For a time, I even hated the Japanese language because of it. During the crisis, I could not accept myself; I had no self-confidence.
But on a good day, I suddenly realized. “It’s not a question of being Brazilian OR Japanese. I am both Brazilian AND Japanese”. In fact, when it comes to work, my attitude and approach towards it is one of Japanese diligence, but when it comes to enjoying my life, I act as a Latin American. From that moment of realization onwards, I began feeling much lighter.
Finally stepping on the “other motherland”
I started my career right after entering university. This is not unusual in Brazil, and people do not look down upon those who attend university while working. While majoring in English literature at University of Sao Paulo, I joined a Taiwanese company that produced and sold disposable diapers, working for four years as the secretary to the president.
After graduating, I joined the Brazilian subsidiary of a Japanese automobile and motorcycle manufacturer in Sao Paulo. I took advantage of my language skills to work in the import and export of automobiles. There was no discrimination for me being a woman, so it was a good place to work.
A few years after I joined the company, I felt the need to think over my future because I had been working since I was in college. Then I decided to study in Japan. I went to a university in Fukuoka because my father was from there, and I studied International Culture for one year. After returning to Brazil, I was assigned to work on a new project in the R&D department of the motorcycle division of the same manufacturer due to being fluent in Japanese. There I met someone who had been assigned from the Japanese head office as an expatriate. He would later become my husband.
I moved to Japan during spring in 2008, when my husband returned to Japan. If I didn’t meet him, I might have stayed in Brazil forever. It was the same for him because he actually wanted to work in Germany but he ended up being transferred to Brazil, and he met me there. You never know what awaits you in life!
A long winter
I quit the company after I came to Japan, mainly because I didn’t like the idea of a couple working for the same company, for I always believed that each person should have their own space. Therefore, I wanted to find a place that I could call my own and thought, “What area should I work in, now that I am in this new environment?”
I looked at myself and came to an answer – My strongest talent is my language skill. Moreover, I’m a Latin American by nature, so I can’t be passionate about my work unless I enjoy it. That’s when I started thinking about subtitling and translating movies, foreign dramas, and music videos, which I’ve always loved. That was when I enrolled in Japan Visual Translation Academy (JVTA).
However, soon I began to wonder: “Do I really want to do this?” I loved movies, but I wasn’t sure if I could be passionate about creating subtitles. I finished the course but I had a very hard time passing the exam to become a professional subtitling translator.
I remember complaining day and night on why I couldn’t make it, and my husband often told me, “Study harder if you have time to whine”. I didn’t even like to look at my face in the mirror. I cried when I saw the cherry blossoms in full bloom. “Even if winter seems to last forever, it will surely end someday and spring will come. I wonder if there will ever be a time when I will bloom like these flowers…”
And in the midst of the darkness, I realized something.
A drama without a plot makes my buds blossom
Each movie and drama for theater or TV has a script, translated by a subtitle translator. On the other hand, there is also material where there is no script, and those are documentaries, sports and variety shows’ footage taken overseas, where an accurate listening skill is required from the translator, a skill in the same level of an interpreter, requiring them to identify each and every word spoken in the footage. I strongly felt that I had that particular skill. Moreover, I had the advantage of speaking three languages other than Japanese: Portuguese, Spanish, and English.
I took the trial exam again. It consisted of dictation, subtitling, and voice-over translation for a documentary program about a British rock band and a British sports digest program, respectively. That’s where I finally passed!
The director of a translation agency, who was teaching at the school, said to me, “Sports and news are fields that know no recession. Why don’t you give it a try?”
The world’s attention had turned to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. FIFA Confederations Cup, which is held the year before every World Cup and considered to be an avant-premiere of the competition, was to be held in Brazil in 2013. Since the Japanese national team was also participating, NHK produced a special program. I was in charge of transcribing and translating interviews of the Mexican and Uruguayan national teams. That’s when I started to get work on other soccer-related projects. Since I was born and raised in Brazil, I used to watch soccer even if I didn’t know much about the rules. So these were the jobs that I really enjoyed.
In addition, the Olympics and Paralympics, also to be held in Brazil, were coming up in 2016. In fact, I had been assigned by JVTA to work as a Portuguese interpreter for the live broadcast of the 2016 Olympic & Paralympic Games host city decision ceremony, back in 2009. I made up my mind: “I’m going to brush up my skills now so that I can be involved in the Olympics seven years from now.”
With this in mind, a great opportunity came to me in an unexpected way, two years prior. It was the World Cup 2014 held in Brazil, and the job to be rising Brazilian soccer star at the time Neymar’s interpreter, in his first visit to Japan. I felt a bit anxious about the job, but I really wanted to be involved in it. Fortunately, my experience in translating many soccer-related videos was highly valued, and I got the big job of interpreting for Japanese TV programs featuring Neymar in July 2014.
Nakai interpreting at a press conference event of Neymar’s featuring playing games with children (July 2015)
Opportunity comes to all
When I was working as an employee, I never dreamed that I would work with the world’s greatest soccer superstars. I couldn’t believe it when I was offered the opportunity to work with Neymar. I’d never planned for it, and it was never even a goal for me. I didn’t have any big dreams in particular, I’d just always given my all to the task at hand. And that is exactly what led to me to new career possibilities, to new challenges.
That’s why I think, “Opportunity always comes to everyone at least once”. Whether or not you can grab it depends on whether you’ve prepared yourself enough to take it or not. And also on whether or not you are able to give it your best when you do get the chance.
In addition, having worked as an interpreter for many years made me realize that interpreters are required not only to just have high linguistic skills. It is also very important to be able to read the atmosphere and the persons involved, understand the personalities of the people you are interpreting for, and to gain their trust.
Interpreters connect people. They work as spokespersons. If people do not trust the interpreter, they will not open their hearts. If the staff around do not trust you, you will not be able to accomplish your job. This is only an example of how soft skills are sometimes more important than hard skills, when it comes to working as an interpreter.
When in doubt, don’t be afraid to change directions
There is one more important thing.
If you simply want to translate word by word between languages, machine translation will do the job. But a true and competent interpreter is one who understands the core message of a dialogue and translates it in a precise yet clear manner.
Actually this is also how you need to think when you work on subtitle translation, where I had once hit a wall.
Subtitles are made to match the timing and line length limits of their accompanying footage. If you translate the original text as it is, you will exceed the character limit. So you have to be concise in capturing the translated meaning of each line in Japanese, and not necessarily translate word by word.
What I learned in subtitle translation is: “Summarizing and conveying the original text into accurate Japanese,” and I now fully apply this technique in my work as an interpreter. So, attending a visual-media translation school was not a waste of time at all. On the contrary, now that I am mainly working as an interpreter, I really feel that learning visual-media translation techniques is one of the things that differentiates me from other interpreters.
Not changing courses is also an option, if you’re happy with it. But I also believe one can consider changing his/her career path, depending on the timing and the environment. I eventually felt that I was not suited to subtitle translation for content with scripts, such as movies and dramas. So I changed direction to translation in the field of sports. Then I took the plunge and took on a job as an interpreter from there, where I was able to seize a great opportunity.
Looking back, I have learned in all aspects of my life such as in the field of manufacturing, at an MBA course in fashion marketing which I have always been interested in, studying image consultancy which I have also been interested in, and most recently, at “Global Communication Arts Institute (GCAI)”, a school run by JVTA, where I learned PR skills for overseas markets. All of these will be useful when I expand my work beyond interpreting into other areas of interest, such as promoting intercultural communication and women’s empowerment.
If you’re in doubt or lost, don’t be afraid to change your path. Even if you change direction, the investment you’ve made in learning will never be wasted. If you find yourself in a long, dark tunnel, think about changing direction. And think hard about what that unique talent of yours is, that something that only you can do. If you are able to do so and spring comes to you, I am sure you will be able to accept the suffering of a long winter period.
I myself felt a great urge to explore more my talents and abilities, coming to realize that my strength was my communication skills, other than just languages. I am currently creating a course about personal branding for freelancers, as well as a Portuguese-Japanese translation & interpretation course in the entertainment field, making the most of my knowledge in image consulting, in communication, in personal branding, and most importantly, sharing my personal experience as a freelancer.
What is Japan to you?
Now it feels more like “home” than Sao Paulo.
Sao Paulo, where I have spent most of my life, is an important place for me because my family and friends live there. But if I am to speak about dreams, Tokyo is the place where they can come true. Because my life has bloomed since I came here.
Tokyo is the city that made me believe that nothing is impossible, if you have the will.