Profiles in Translation: Inside the World of a Professional Baseball Interpreter

Arizona Diamondbacks relief pitcher Takashi Saito, of Japan, throws against the San Diego Padres during the seventh inning of
Arizona Diamondbacks relief pitcher Takashi Saito, of Japan, throws against the San Diego Padres during the seventh inning of their baseball game, Sunday, Sept. 9, 2012, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

Baseball interpreters have been in the news a lot recently, due to the decision to allow interpreters to approach the pitching mound during games. I recently caught up with Kenji Nimura, an experienced professional interpreter for Japanese, Spanish, and English for players in the Major League. Nimura was featured in my new book, Found in Translation: How Language Shapes Our Lives and Transforms the World. In the interview that follows, he sheds additional light on his unique and inspiring job within the broader field of translation.

Nataly Kelly (NK): How long have you been an interpreter for professional baseball, and who are some of the players for which you've interpreted?
Kenji Nimura (KN): I've been an interpreter for five years, translating for players like Hiroki Kuroda, Takashi Saito, Tony Abreu, Vicente Padilla, Ramon Troncoso, Manny Ramirez, Rubby De La Rosa, Eduardo Nuñez, and Ichiro Suzuki.

NK: What are your working languages and how did you learn them?
KN: Japanese, English, and Spanish. Japanese is my native language. I learned English and Spanish simultaneously when I came to Los Angeles with my family 30 years ago. I also studied in Spain both as an undergrad and a graduate student.

NK: What are some of the most challenging things about baseball interpreting?
KN: The most challenging thing about my job is keeping the balance between being an interpreter and being a friend to some of the players. I've been called to the manager's office to tell a player, with whom I had become a close friend, that he was being sent down. I've also accompanied a player who became a big brother figure to me to a hospital, where I had to translate for the doctor who informed him that his elbow was beyond repair. A baseball interpreter has to be close to the players so that they feel comfortable, but he or she also must be objective and accept that this is a job.

Other times I am caught in the middle between the player and the manager (or the team). Some issues that a player is having are best kept quiet, but if they are going to affect the team, you have to say something to management. For example, a player may confess to you that he is in pain but tells you to keep it a secret because he believes if the team finds out, he would be cut. He also thinks that it's a minor pain and it's not going to last. So now you have a dilemma.

Another tough challenge is being away from my family all the time. I have a three-year-old son and I missed a lot of milestones in his development already. You come back from a road trip and find your child an inch taller or doing or saying new things.

NK: How did you get your first job as a baseball interpreter?
KN: Since I did not know anyone in baseball, I simply sent my resume and went to a job interview.

NK: What is a typical "day in the life" for you on the job?
KN: A typical day depends on how much responsibility you have and how many people you are in charge of. I would go in to the stadium two hours prior to the first player arriving in order to get my exercise done. Whether it's swimming in the Swimplex or running on the treadmill, a staff member cannot be seen working out by the players. But it's a long season, and it's important that I keep myself in shape.

When the players come to the clubhouse, you have to be present for whatever needs they have. I would accompany them to the trainers room if they need medical attention. If the player does not need any help while training, I would normally read the sports section of the paper in three languages and check the players' comments from the previous day. I learn a lot from other players' comments.

During batting practice, I would play catch with some players, help the coaches, or shag fly balls with the players. This is a great time for players to communicate on the field and some of the most interesting conversations take place during batting practice. Then, the players go to the food room for a pre-game supper and I would usually eat with them.

When the game starts, I'm usually in the dugout. If I'm not translating for a player who is starting that night, I will watch the game in the clubhouse or translate the scouting report, preparing for the next pitchers meeting. When the game ends, you have to be prepared for the post game interview. And my day ends when the players leave the clubhouse.

NK: What do you think would surprise people most about your job?
KN: People are surprised that we play so many games and I'm away from my family for such a long time.

NK: What skills do you need, aside from language skills, in order to interpret successfully?
KN: Aside from language skills, a baseball interpreter has to have diplomatic skills. You cannot translate everything everyone says, particularly in conversations between people with tension. There are times when you have to leave some stuff unsaid or embellish a little in order not to aggravate a situation, thus enhancing the relationship between people.

It's very difficult not to be romantic and emotional about the game since I'm a baseball fan. However, an interpreter has to be neutral most of the time. When the players are elated, you can get excited but not too much. If they are depressed, you can't go down with them. If you have a trusting relationship, you can even cheer them up. It's crucial for an interpreter to have common sense and life skills.

NK: What are some of your favorite moments in your career so far?
KN: In 2008, a few months after I started this job, I was still not sure I was doing anything right. I did not think I was gaining the trust of any players on the team because I was new. But after a night game in Miami, in which Takashi Saito successfully closed the game, he handed me the winning ball, on which he wrote and signed, "You are doing a great job!" It's my favorite baseball, and it's sitting in the best spot in my Wall of Fame.

Then, in the height of Mannywood in 2009, Manny Ramirez was asked by a friend of his to get a baseball signed by all of his teammates. Instead of asking a clubbie to do the job, Manny himself walked around the clubhouse, asking each player to sign the ball. After getting an autograph from Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, two star players on the team, Manny came to me and asked me to sign the ball as well. I said to him, "I'm not a player," to which he responded, "you are a part of the team."

I grew up in the Tokai Region of Japan. By default, that means you are a Chunichi Dragons fan. In the early eighties, the star of the team was Ken Macha, the tall, blond gaijin (foreign) third baseman who assimilated successfully into the Japanese baseball culture. I went many times to Nagoya Stadium with my father and watched Macha play from afar, dreaming one day I would be a baseball player and be on the same field with him. Thirty years later, that dream partially came true. I was not a player but an interpreter for the Dodgers. Ken Macha was no longer a player, but the manager of the Milwaukee Brewers. When I met him, I transformed into a 9 year-old kid asking his idol for an autograph.

NK: How do you deal with new terminology that enters the sport?
KN: I would consult with the Japanese or Spanish reporters. For example, I did not know how to say "throw back jersey" in Japanese or Spanish, so I had to ask them.

NK: What is your favorite aspect of this job?
KN: Baseball is more than a sport. Baseball is a dream in every sense of the word, especially Major League Baseball. Players speaking different languages that come from different backgrounds support each other to achieve a common goal. It's an ideal world that people dream of. Whether people agree or not, America is far from being a cultural salad bowl or melting pot. Even in cosmopolitan cities like Los Angeles and New York, people live in their own ethnic pockets. But when they come to the ballpark, everything changes. No matter the color of your skin or the language you speak, the fans are high-fiving and hugging each other when their team wins. Baseball is more than a reality. It's a metaphor that people dream of. What do I love about my job? I love the fact that I'm a part of something magical, something more than life; that I'm part of a dream.