Yuki Kato, current Chairman & CEO of transeuro, joined a patent firm as a fresh graduate from University, and ever since he’s been treading the path of a professional translator – now for over 30 years. When you hear a description like that, the kind of person who comes to mind would probably be a man earnestly and single-mindedly devoted to his profession, a taciturn type on whom jokes are likely often lost, or perhaps even a sly and underhanded individual?
Or perhaps not?
For those of you who happened to see his picture earlier, the thought that he could be a translator might not even have come into your mind. You might have even thought for a moment, that you somehow landed on the wrong homepage. Whatever the case may be, we set out to interview the man himself, in order to learn more about the enigmatic Yuki Kato.
“Becoming a translator straight out of college, that must have required some serious linguistic abilities, no?”
Oh yes, I was a real genius, haha. Actually, while I was doing my degree (in German Literature), I was your typical slacker/party-type. I was unable to graduate in the usual 4 years, so I studied for an extra two and finally graduated in my 6th year. I figured nothing was going to come of studying German, so I barely ever attended lectures and just spent most of my time working part time at KFC and riding around in my favorite car, the Celica LB2000GT. I entered my 4th year without having earned a single credit in my major.
I actually wanted to study English, because I loved it while I was in high school, but unfortunately studying only English would have meant that my required overall score wouldn’t have been high enough – mainly because Japan’s system prioritizes the average of your grades so much. I had no choice but to enroll in a German major. So, actually when I started I had no interest in German culture or literature whatsoever. I still enjoyed learning languages though, and in my 5th year I decided to pull myself together and seriously study for two years. Those two years of study led to me becoming a German translator at a Patent Translation Agency, so … maybe I actually am a genius, haha.
“Even if you hadn’t started with patent translation, do you think you would still have become a translator?”
Well, even though I was by no means a serious student, I still loved languages from the very beginning. When I was in junior high school, during lunch I even used to put on shows in the classroom where I would do my best impersonations of different foreign languages. I got serious about studying in my 5th year, and I started proclaiming to people around me, “if I’m gonna study German, then I’m gonna be a pro at it!” I mean, to me the idea of studying for the sole purpose of graduating was just nonsensical.
Having said that, given the fact that I couldn’t even so much as recite the German alphabet to people, I was laughed at. Despite that, I figured that you can’t really enjoy studying a language until you’ve got the hang of the 4 main “beats”; reading, writing, speaking, and listening – so even though I couldn’t properly say the alphabet I decided I’d start attending a German conversational school, and through an introduction from the German Embassy, I was able to get a Brieffreundin (a female pen pal) and start a correspondence. That was a simpler, more romantic time, back when we didn’t have e-mail.
I had a professor then who saw me resisting against everyone in vain and kind of took an interest in me. He set up an arrangement outside of class where he would give me private lessons in his office using non-literature texts (like current affairs articles from der Stern or der Spiegel, two famous German newspapers) as materials. This professor’s mother was actually Swiss, and he was very knowledgeable about European society, so we spent two years going through all the relevant social problems happening in Europe at the time, such as Asylbewerber (Asylum Seekers) and Ehe ohne Trauschein (Common-law Marriage), and so on.
And while we were at it, I had him naturally insert some Schwyzertütsch (Swiss German) into conversations (at that time I was totally unaware of the differences between it and Standard High German). Thanks to that practice, I got quite good at pronouncing the German “ch” sound, haha. Also, Züri (Zurich) was the first European city I ever stepped foot in, and then I also became enamored with the Matterhorn, causing me to develop an interest in mountaineering – it’s safe to say that Switzerland holds a deep and special place in my heart.
So, in terms of finding a job, I figured that since I was taking more than 4 years to graduate, and since I was also in the German Department, I had no choice but to go with German. I was recommended a German Patent Firm from the previously mentioned professor who supported me in my declaration to become a pro. An upperclassman of mine from the same faculty also happened to work there. So, I took their employment exam. The head of HR at that company was an extremely strange individual who was quite firm in his belief that grades from Japanese universities were not to be trusted at all, so basically it was all going to come down to the results of the German language employment exam. For someone like me, who had gotten nothing but Bs and Cs, this was quite a lucky break – and I ended up getting the job.
I was still quite bad at actually speaking – though I was the unrivalled living embodiment of overconfidence at the time – so before graduating I decided to go fly over to Germany to meet my pen pal. We went to the movies and the disco together, it was a lot of fun. She and I still keep in touch to this day. I was the type of person who loved to talk, so when I told my friends that I was going to become a translator, many of them were really surprised. They told me things like, “You’re definitely not suited for that job.”
So you know, I can safely say that if it weren’t for all the fortuitous meetings I had and the tact and resourcefulness I learned from that series of commotions which began at the start of my 5th year, forget becoming a patent translator, I don’t think I would have become any sort of translator whatsoever.
I think it’s really a waste when you have a translator who is content to get by with just reading and writing. You’re missing out on 50% of the fun of languages! With languages, I think even if your pronunciation is terrible, there’s value in speaking! And it’s just boring if you do nothing but convert words someone else has written into a different language. I want to write and say something for myself, so perhaps I’m more the type who wants to be translated, not a translator but a “translatee”, so to speak. Of all possible people, such a person becoming the CEO of a translation company is kind of funny to me, I must admit.
I kept telling myself that I can quit being a translator at any time, and you know, it’s not a situation like Abe Kobo’s “The Woman in the Dunes”, but before I realized it I’d spent 35 years immersing myself completely in the world of translation, and I’ve found that I no longer have a way out. If you trace back the causes, everything happened the way it did precisely because of that derailment when I failed to get my German degree in 4 years, so at this point I’m simply surrendering myself up to the whims of destiny.
“What kind of hobbies do you have?”
Boxing and Kendo! I started Kendo after I turned 40. I’ve managed to reach the 5th “dan” (rank), but I’ve yet to land any particularly ‘rocking’ critical hits on anyone.
So that people don’t get the wrong impression I’d like to mention that I also love reading as well! I read books quite often. I’ve even read Sartre and Camus!
In terms of Japanese writers, I’m fond of Kobo Abe, as well as Mishima Yukio. I like reading them and thinking to myself “aha, I bet this is super popular in France.” Also, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, I’ve also read pretty much all of the main canonical works of German literature. I find Hesse to be an easy read and I really enjoyed Narziss und Goldmund. But my favorite would probably have to be Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain). For one, it’s set in Switzerland (in Davos), and I’m a fan of Mr. Settembrini’s quibbling.
When I’m riding the train, I usually read spy novels. I also like Tom Clancy, Brian Freemantle, and Dan Brown. I love Science Fiction too – my favorite is probably Dan Simmons’ Hyperion series! In terms of length, it’s a much bigger undertaking than Mann’s Magic Mountain. It’s a grand, “rocking” space epic, in my opinion the best piece of Science Fiction ever written! I really respect Akinobu Sakai, the man who translated the entire series into Japanese.
As far as Japanese works, I like Shiina Makoto’s Ad Bird, as well as the books in Murakami Haruki’s A Wild Sheep Chase series. Both of them have these really bizarre character names in them, like the “Sheep Man” or the “Brain Man”, I find them to be really interesting linguistically. The book that was my Bible while I was in high school and University would be Yazawa Eikichi’s Nariagari (How To Be Big). Despite reading that book I still wasn’t able to finish school in 4 years so I really was quite hopeless, but the book definitely served as a kind of driving force for me when I decided to start studying and become a pro. ”Well, just you wait and see!” – I often said that. When you look at this way, given that I was reading books with excessively argumentative rhetoric and content, perhaps I am suited for being a patent translator after all?
“There were some other things I wanted to ask you, but I’m afraid we’re running out of room on the page. To round things off, would you be able to give us some final words for our clients?
I’ve taken up the majority of the space here talking about the past, haven’t I? I read in an article somewhere that men who only talk about their past are really unpopular, so, I think I’d like to touch a little bit on the future as well, haha.
Since someone like me is the CEO, basically everyone in this company – including the president, board members, regular employees, part-timers – is kind of strange. Even the translators are strange (although I’m not sure they realize it…) However, if there’s one thing they’re absolutely exceptional at (and it’s just that one thing), it would be translation. Many of them are colleagues of mine from my days at the patent firm, so I have complete trust in them. Last year we began offering interpretation services as well, which meant we finally included some listening and speaking elements into our company! Now that we’ve injected that remaining 50% of what’s enjoyable about the language experience, I think we’re in an ideal position to continue expanding our business. “
Gleich und gleich gesellt sich gern!” Birds of a feather, flock together, as they say, haha.
We’ve been getting lots of very passionate and interesting students coming in to study at our German Language Academy as well, so I think what would make the happiest is if in the future we could become the type of company that brings together all these eccentric language-lovers in one place, and has them all work together to create and expand a truly ‘rocking’ enterprise.
Translation and interpretation are an adventurous journey surrounding words! Or as Murakami might put it, A Wild Word Chase! Every single moment is an adventure to be had. We may be a somewhat unorthodox company, but I would be honored if you would accompany us on this Wild Word Chase. We’ll lead the way.