Bilateral operations rely on bilingual service members


Reposted from Defense Video Imagery Distribution System

Story by Staff Sgt. Debra Best

CAMP KENGUN, Kumamoto City, Japan – When bilateral coordination between two countries is part of a military exercise, one piece is vitally important: communication. This was especially true for U.S. and Japan Ground Self-Defense Force service members as they conducted a bilateral annual command post exercise known as Yama Sakura.

Translating between the English and Japanese is a difficult task, but it is even more challenging for those translating for military forces.  "When we have new people or people who are interested in it, I tell them you have to know four languages: one is English, second is Japanese, third is U.S. military language and the fourth is [Japan Ground Self-Defense Forces] terminology," said Daniel Reese, U.S. Army Japan civilian language specialist.

"It's so different,” continued Reese. “You can't just take somebody from the civilian world to come over and interpret for the military and expect them to do your level, because it's totally different." Knowing all the military terminology is important, however to build trust and relationships interpreters must translate with finesse.

"A lot of people who don't have exposure to a different language don't understand that it's not just the words themselves coming out of your mouth, but you also have to have a general understanding of what they're talking about, because sometimes things do not translate that well,” said Sgt. Travis Wilson, I Corps signal intelligence analyst and Japanese translator.

"Sometimes you get those commanders who say, 'I need you to translate this exactly the way I'm saying it.' I've had to tell commanders that's impossible because you're not taking under consideration the cultural difference of what you're saying,” continued Wilson. “I will get them the message, the way you want it, but it will not be the exact words you say, verbatim. If you want me to, he'll have no clue what you're trying to say.

I think us, as a nation constantly reaching out to other countries and doing these bilateral exercises, we're still in a growing phase to understand where they're coming from. Sometimes it's painful, but to understand their cultural differences so that we can either aid in the betterment of their army or vice versa, we can learn from them."

Understanding the message is important, but the cultural aspect is also vital.

"Translation is very difficult in certain areas, because language is so culturally connected. It's not necessarily just the words coming out of the mouth, you have to understand the context of how their saying it, the little nuances,” said Wilson. “Every language we speak has idioms and phrases if you translate verbatim just doesn't make any sense at all. Like two days ago someone said, 'straight from the horses' mouth,' and I'm like, 'well that's not going to translate' so there is a cultural equivalent and you have to know it. Since I'm quick at that, because I grew up speaking Japanese, they would prefer that I just take over the meetings and the translation aspect and it just goes a lot smoother.”

Both Wilson and Reese have a very strong background in the Japanese culture. Both spent much of their childhood growing up in Japan. Wilson's mother is Japanese so he spoke it with her in the house growing up. Reese grew up only speaking English in the house, but went to a Japanese school so leaving the house he would only speak Japanese. Both married Japanese women and speak Japanese in their household. Reese currently lives in Japan, but Wilson lives in the U.S. and finds coming to Japan to be a homecoming.

"I love coming back here because it is home for me," said Wilson. "When people ask me where I'm from I don't know what else to say but Tokyo. They're like, 'No, where are you really from.' I grew up here so that's my home." While Wilson enjoys attending these exercises, he does have to make peace with his wife due to these trips.

"I already have three boxes full of stuff under my bed that I've got to figure out how to get home. She's very jealous," said Wilson. "However, this past summer we were able to come back as a family. We were in the Tokyo/Yokohama area for three weeks. I love telling her what I'm doing out here, but through nine years of marriage I've found that sometimes it's best to not say certain things. She gets, not upset, but just jealous."

Using their background is useful for further strengthening the mutual friendships created from Yama Sakura, said Reese.

"The way I've been developing trust, relationships, so forth, is just to keep working with my counterparts, working with the Japanese interpreters, helping them out with terms they don't understand or helping them rework some of their translated documents to make sure their English is not too far off," said Reese. "I've got quite a few friends that I've made doing that."

Just as the U.S. and Japanese alliance continues to evolve to meet future challenges, so does its communication facilitators. "Yama Sakura is an ever-changing beast. As soon as you think you know how Yama Sakura works and what needs to be done, the year after it's totally different, they throw in new stuff," said Reese. "Each regional army has their own way of doing things so trying to take what you did last year at a different regional army may not work for the regional army you're at this year. So, you have to be fluid and able to adapt."

Not only do the translators need to adapt for the missions and the region, but also for language changes.

"From a linguistic perspective, I don't think people realize how much slang and improper English we use as a nation because that's just our culture, that's the way we speak. Their culture is the same, they have words and phrases they say that are not proper. If someone were to learn Japanese they would be like 'what you said doesn't make any sense at all,' but we do that," said Wilson.

“From someone whose been doing this translation for many years now, I feel like I'm at an advantage because I understand both worlds so well that I understand the idiomatic uses of language, I understand the slang.

So rather than translating verbatim it's better to get the essence of what they're saying and to translate it into something they can understand. I think we struggle with that. They do their best to understand our English, but then they'll talk to someone who has very good English, then they'll find someone that has a different way of saying things. They struggle too. Nothing is perfect because language is a constantly changing entity in the world and it's like trying to keep up with technology."

Wilson has attended Yama Sakura since 2013, but this will probably be his last as he re-classes into the medical field starting in early 2017. While he is moving on, Wilson is thankful for the opportunities he has had with Yama Sakura and I Corps. Reese began with Yama Sakura 59 and plans on continuing building relationships with the Japan Ground Self-Defense Forces and making friends through translating.