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An Interpreter in Her Own Words

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Yuki Morimoto says she, like every interpreter, is the most attentive person in the room. Just inches from Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn – as if tethered by invisible cuffs, such proximity could have a similar effect on anyone.

But Morimoto, weighted by a shoulder bag and neatly tucked into a suit of seasonal hues with lipstick to match, is not one to flinch. She exudes an executive’s confidence – arguably, that’s part of her job.

Now in her 12th year of interpreting and translating for Ghosn, Morimoto is his proxy in the Japanese-speaking world – a legend among Japanese interpreters and a rock star in the eyes of those who aspire to the profession.

Despite her rise to fame at Nissan, she broke into her career by chance.

As a student at Kobe College

While working at a Kobe-based pharmaceutical company, Morimoto became the ad hoc interpreter for her South African boss at a birthday lunch for staff. The outcome, which she describes as a failure,  shocked her into learning interpretation at a school in Osaka, adding credentials to her English degree from Kobe College.

The rest is histrionics – in English and Japanese.

Tapped in 2001 as a candidate to be Ghosn’s interpreter, Morimoto landed the position in February after a successful presentation at Nissan. Her performance met with a characteristically terse “good job” from her new boss.

Prior to meeting the CEO, she did not know what to expect.

“I just saw him a couple of times on TV. He looked strict and stern and that was the only image that I had.”

That’s since changed, she says.

“When I’m interpreting…for Mr. Ghosn, who is a passionate speaker, I’m really concentrated on conveying his feeling, his enthusiasm, his passion. And when I try to do that, I tend to mimic what he’s doing.”

First job right out of college in 1995

In simultaneous interpretation, she is CEO 2.0 – embodying Ghosn’s hand gestures, facial expressions, cadence and energy. If he strikes three points in the air, she does the same; if he shrugs, makes a joke or casts a wide smile, so does Morimoto. To watch and listen to her is to see and hear Ghosn in parallel.

Her interpretation, she says, is not literal, but more based on communicating the notion of meaning.

It is often said among Japanese executives that to be criticized by the CEO is to be yelled at twice – once by the boss, then again by Morimoto.

In fact, she is the only Nissan employee who can yell at Ghosn – provided she’s interpreting amid the roar of factories or at the Fuji Speedway.

Meticulous in preparation, Morimoto’s main challenge is to make sure she understands the subject and the speaker.

That’s why Nissan’s annual shareholders’ meeting – whose diverse audience asks random questions – is her Gordian knot.

But every year, she pulls it off without a hitch, thanks to her ritual of buying a new suit before the meeting and promising herself a perfect performance.

Surely, such performances are one of the main reasons why the CEO has kept her as his interpreter for nearly12 years, as well as chemistry, says Morimoto.

“I assume that he doesn’t find me bothersome,” she said.

“When we go on these business trips in Japan, I’m following him everywhere except for the restroom. I feel very comfortable, close to him. And I hope Mr. Ghosn feels the same.”

Morimoto’s Tips for Interpreters:

A learning attitude

Sensitivity – to understand what the speaker wants to communicate

Flexibility – to adapt to any situation

 

Coco Masters

Producer, Global Media Center

CEO, People

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