This story is part of GlobalAtlanta’s exclusive Japan special issue. Click here to read more.
While Japanese chef Masahiko Yanagihara was slicing ingredients to create traditional sushi, his interpreter also had her work cut out for her.Janet Abraham, a missionary’s daughter who grew up in Japan, served as the interpreter for a sushi demonstration by Mr. Yanagihara, the head chef and owner of the Sushi Koma restaurant in Tokyo.
Mr. Yanagihara’s demonstration was held at the Buckhead residence of Takuji Hanatani, the Japanese consul general in Atlanta, during an evening reception in October.
Using a wooden mold, Mr. Yanagihara pressed together different raw ingredients with rice to create box-shaped pieces of sushi called “oshizushi.”
He also demonstrated how to create a number of other types of sushi including “chirashizushi,” a simpler mix of raw ingredients and rice.
Ms. Abraham had the chance to meet the chef the night before and to familiarize herself with his personality, but she readily admitted that she is no expert in making sushi and was faced with the challenge of having to translate terms and procedures with which she was unfamiliar.
“I’m not much of a chef or a cook on my own, although I’m very good at eating,” she said.
In addition to being unfamiliar with the process of making sushi, Ms. Abraham said the demonstration was challenging because certain Japanese ingredients do not translate perfectly.
For example, “shiso,” a leaf commonly used in Japanese cooking, is literally translated as “beef steak plant.” Instead of using this confusing translation, Ms. Abraham used “Japanese basil” to communicate a more familiar term to the audience.
In some cases, a term or an idea cannot be translated because of differences in culture.
During the sushi demonstration, an audience member asked if the chef ever used kosher salt. The concept of “kosher” is foreign to the Japanese, and the ingredient is not found in the country, she said.
Growing up in the small town of Numazu, Japan, which is located on the Pacific coast about 80 miles west of Tokyo, Ms. Abraham was well-versed in Japanese culture.
She grew up speaking the language and was able to learn its intricacies early in life.
“I cheated in learning Japanese. I was a missionary’s kid who was born in Japan, so I was surrounded by Japanese. All my playmates were neighborhood kids and everything was in Japanese,” said Ms. Abraham.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in Asian studies from Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., and a master’s in Japanese art and archaeology from Princeton University.
After college, she fell into her career after realizing that a degree in Japanese art and archaeology was not very marketable to prospective employers.
“What I found I could do was interpreting. It just kind of came naturally to me, partly because I was bilingual and bicultural,” said Ms. Abraham.
Ms. Abraham said that her ability to translate the language is constantly challenged by the ever-changing personalities and situations that she finds herself in as a freelance interpreter.
“I always feel like, if I’m lucky, I’m just barely staying a step ahead of what’s happening,” said Ms. Abraham, who has worked to facilitate political, financial and cultural exchanges.
One of these exchanges included translating for a comic artist husband and wife team that worked under the alias, “Konohana Sakuya,” at the Savannah College of Art and Design-Atlanta, sponsored by the consulate-general last November.
Aside from the varying situations, she added that part of the difficulty of interpreting lies in finding the right word or phrase to express a larger idea.
“Interpreting is not just taking one word and replacing it with a Japanese word. It really often is trying to get the best expression of an idea that is often approached differently in English and Japanese,” she said.
For more information on events sponsored by the Consulate General of Japan in Atlanta, visit www.atlanta.us.emb-japan.go.jp.