Baseball Legend Randy Bass, My First and Last Interpreting Assignment

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Caption: A moment I grabbed from YouTube where Mr. Bass actually looks happy with the inexperienced interpreter (i.e. me).

The following is a brief account of my very short-lived interpreting career. After working and thriving as a translator for nearly 10 years, I decided I wanted to branch out and add something new and different. Interpreting (which is different from translating) seemed like it would be a good fit for my Japanese language skills, though I knew I would need some improvements to my speaking and especially my listening comprehension, since as a J>E translator the only Japanese skill I use heavily is reading. I did not quite realize, however, just how formidable a challenge I was taking on. Jumping into this field, it turned out, would be much harder than how I jumped into translation. (Any professional interpreter reading this must be deriding my hubris thoroughly.)

My first opportunity to try out full-on professional interpreting came through a fellow translator and occasional interpreter who introduced me to a company that was looking for an interpreter with knowledge of baseball. I happen to be a lifelong baseball fan, so this was extremely exciting for me! My elation grew even more when I found out whom I would be interpreting for: Hanshin Tigers legend Randy Bass.

The fact that I was able to land such an assignment with no prior experience was astonishing! According to the event coordinator who hired me, there is a severe shortage of skilled interpreters in the Kansai region where I live. Lucky me!

Mr. Bass, by the way, is an incredibly nice, friendly, laid-back guy whom it was a pleasure to meet. He was also an awesome baseball player in Japan! He won the Triple Crown (leading the league in average, home runs and RBIs) for two straight years from 1985 to 1986, he was the Central League MVP in 1985 (not sure why not in 1986, too), and he led the Hanshin Tigers to their one and only championship in their history in the 1985 Japan Series. Mr. Bass is also known for his association with “The Curse of the Colonel.”

After retiring from professional baseball, Randy Bass returned to his home state of Oklahoma, where he farmed and embarked on a career in politics, serving as a state senator from 2004 to 2018.

Anyway, Mr. Bass was in Japan in December 2014 for a Christmas promotional campaign run by the Hanshin Department Store, which is owned by the same company that owns the Hanshin Tigers baseball club. Mr. Bass got into a Santa Claus outfit, then we joined members of the media on a boat down the Dotonbori River in downtown Osaka, where we later disembarked and conducted a press conference.

My interpreting was at best mediocre. I was mostly able to convey what was spoken by the reporters and Mr. Bass, though I had a few silly blunders. What I soon realized was that I had seriously underestimated not only my Japanese listening and speaking skills, but also the pressure of standing in front of reporters, their notepads in hand, staring at me as I spoke, alongside all those cameras pointing our way. Thankfully it was a not live press conference, but still, the pressure was intense.

As it turns out, I hate pressure.

Still, I tried my best. I had a brain fart when one reporter used the word 研究 (kenkyu), which typically means “research,” in a way I wasn’t used to hearing. During the press conference, I also learned the word 背番号 (sebangou), which means “uniform number.” That’s something I should have known in advance, rather than asking the reporter what it meant…

After 45 minutes or so, which seemed to last forever, we were done. Mr. Bass said I did a good job, though I think he was just being nice and trying to cheer me up. I was thinking that I was in fact not qualified to interpret, and that I should either find a way to practice before taking another job, or just forget about interpreting. I figured I should probably opt for the latter.

So it was a surprise when three months later, the following March, the coordinator for the Christmas promotion event contacted me about another interpreting assignment for Mr. Bass! There would be a baseball game at Koshien Stadium, where the home team, the Hanshin Tigers, would play the Yomiuri Giants. It was a special date because 30 years before, in 1985, that magical year for the Tigers, Randy Bass and two of his teammates, Akinobu Okada and Masayuki Kakefu, blasted three straight home runs over the fence in straightaway center field in a regular season game against their arch-rival, the Giants. To commemorate the anniversary, the three players would throw out the first pitch(es) before the game.

Mr. Bass would also provide interviews for several media outlets before and during the game, and he needed an interpreter. I hadn’t done much of anything to study interpreting in the time since the previous assignment, and I only had a month to prepare. This time, I was determined to be ready. I studied baseball lingo hard, interpreting along with interviews of foreign baseball players in Japan that I found on YouTube. I watched a Japanese baseball news program, プロ野球ニュース (Professional Baseball News), every night, taking notes on new vocabulary.

Finally, the day of the game arrived. First on our schedule was a press conference (not live) at the Hanshin Department Store in Osaka. I felt more confident than last time, so I had a good feeling about this. We were in a private meeting room with all the members of the media carrying their video cameras and notepads, just like last time. Mr. Bass was joined by his agent in Japan, Marty Kuehnert, who is one of the most knowledgeable figures on sports in Japan, especially baseball. He is also quite fluent in Japanese.

And yet it was me who was hired to interpret…

The first question came:

「バース選手がどうやってタイガースの選手に活を入れますか?」
Transliteration: Bass-senshu ga dou yatte Tigers no senshu ni katsu wo iremasu ka?

What I heard was:

“Mr. Bass, how are you going to 活を入れます the Tigers players?”

I froze for a second. Then I asked,

「もう一度お願いします。」
(One more time, please.)

As the reporter repeated the question, my mind raced:

「カツ。。。カツ。。。豚カツ?ちがう!それは関係ないやろう!」
(Katsu… Katsu… As in tonkatsu, the pork cutlets? No, that can’t be it!)

I was royally screwed.

Mr. Kuehnert could tell, so he jumped to my rescue and said,

“How are you going to encourage the Tigers players?”

I wanted to disappear, to be magically teleported away from the cameras and empty notepads bearing witness to my epic fail. After all that preparation, I had completely bombed the very first question!!!

The press conference went smoother after that, though I did get tripped up on a question about Mr. Bass’ work in the Oklahoma Senate. You never know what topic may come up in an interpreting assignment, but I should have studied that vocabulary more. Mr. Kuehnert jumped in again here to save me, as well as in another instance where the polite passive voice in Japanese (asked by the same lady who made me stumble with “research” last time) confused me and made me say something stupid.

So despite all my preparations and determination to do a better job, at the end of the press conference, I felt that my performance this second time around was worse than in the first assignment, mostly because of that initial question that froze me like a deer staring at the headlights of an oncoming vehicle.

Since that day, I’ve asked many of my colleagues if they know what 活を入れる (katsu wo ireru) means. None of them who speak Japanese as a second language, even those who are much more fluent than me or have worked in sports in Japan, know it until I explain it to them. When I ask Japanese people about it, they know it of course, but they say it pretty much only comes up in a sports context, so they can see why it would throw me off.

Anyway, after the press conference, I joined Mr. Bass and Mr. Kuehnert for lunch at a fancy Chinese restaurant in the department store, where we had a special private room. We chit-chatted a bit about baseball and other things, and Mr. Kuehnert mentioned going to the stadium with Mr. Bass after our meal. I said, “Oh, you’re coming with us?” Incredulous, Mr. Kuehnert asked if I was going along, too. But of course! I was going to interpret for all the interviews that day.

Mr. Kuehnert would have none of that. He made a phone call, then told me I was fired. That sounds mean at first, but actually it wasn’t. In fact, he was more than fair to me. After he got off the phone, he said to me something to the effect of:

“You’re good at Japanese, but you’re not good enough for this work. But this isn’t you’re fault because you shouldn’t have been selected for this job. So here’s what’s gonna happen: I’m going to interpret for Randy, because he’s my client. You can join us at the stadium during the interviews and dinner and be our assistant. And you’ll still get paid what you were promised for the day.”

After a brief pause, I said,

“Okay!”

This was actually an enormous relief for me. After that first press conference, I was absolutely dreading trying to do the same thing on live TV!

At the stadium, I got to go with them into the restricted area under the stands and see how the sport operates behind the scenes. I felt really down for a while, but eventually I got over it and decided to observe and learn from what I saw.

I was particularly interested in Mr. Kuehnert’s interpreting technique. The reporters around him were smiling and laughing at his jokes, the complete opposite of the mood when I was in the role. Of course he spoke smoothly and communicated ideas accurately, but I realized that the most important thing in sports interpreting is creating the right atmosphere to give fans what they want. In fact, this is much like the creative translation that makes up most of my work, where I focus on translating the idea rather than each and every word.

Witnessing the inner workings of the sports business was also fascinating. During the first pitch ceremony, Mr. Keuhnert and I watched from the edge of the field. I said to him, “You know, when I see baseball on TV, it looks like it’s all about fun, but seeing all the people working here behind the scenes, I also realize it’s a big business.” He smiled and said to me, “It’s a very big business.”

I also learned something interesting about the Japanese press through my interpreting experience. When I had that first assignment three months before, Mr. Bass was telling me about sports reporters and how they quote people. He said, “They write whatever they want.” I found that hard to believe, though. However…

During the December press conference, there was a question about the Curse of the Colonel and the tradition of jumping into the Dotonbori River to celebrate big events, like the Tigers’ 1985 championship. Mr. Bass said, “I think it’s a great tradition!” But the reporters didn’t like his answer—which I did interpret correctly, by the way. They kept asking him the same thing. They told him most Japanese people think it’s dangerous (admittedly, the water’s definitely not clean) and bad behavior, but Mr. Bass was adamant. He wouldn’t tell them what they wanted.

And yet the next day, as I was reading articles on the promotional event in the Japanese papers, he was blatantly misquoted as saying, “I think it’s a great tradition, but they shouldn’t do that.” I was shocked! During our lunch at the department store on the day of my second assignment in April, I told Mr. Bass about this. He just knowingly nodded.

Lastly, I want to relate one very nice thing Mr. Bass did for me that April. We were all in a large private room inside the stadium. He and the other former players were autographing memorabilia, and I said, “You know, before I go home, I should stop by the store and buy a souvenir for my son.” (He was 5 at the time.) I wasn’t trying to get an autograph or anything, but Mr. Bass casually offered to give me a ball signed by him, Kakefu and Okada to give to my son! I can’t imagine there are many—if any—other items like that in the world. After the game, I bought a case in the stadium shop for the ball and gave it to my son. I told him to never play baseball with it and to never sell it, either. It’s sitting in his room.



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Caption: Not for sale

While we were in that room, Mr. Kuehnert also kindly offered to take my picture with the three legends.



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Caption: This photo never fails to make jaws drop among Japanese baseball fans from Kansai.

Interpreting for Randy Bass was a terribly humbling learning experience that I’m glad to have had. I also know now that interpreting is not for me!


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