Breaking Down Language Barrier During Marathon

Posted on: 10/12/2009

Their marathon will be a race of words.

They’ll be communicating with exhausted and sweaty runners who will vocalize their thoughts while trying to catch their breaths.

Onamae wa? (What’s your name?)

Dooshimashitaka? (What happened?)

Daijobu desu ka? (Are you OK?)

They’ll quickly translate those responses from Japanese into English, relay them to medical personnel, and then converse back in Japanese.

For some 100 Japanese translators, Sunday’s Honolulu Marathon is a race of words, reassurances and using Japanese honorific suffixes at the 13 medical tents stationed along the 26.2-mile course. They’ll be helping the weary wave of participants who will be seeking assistance for blisters, dehydration and aches.

Their presence reflects the overwhelming number of Japanese who fly here for the marathon. In years past, about 60 percent — or 15,000 competitors — have come from Japan. Not all seek medical attention, but for those who do, the translator is a bridge between two languages and, potentially, life and death.

“We don’t ask translators to be medically savvy, we ask them to be there to be the communication link,” said Michelle Hashimoto, assistant to the marathon medical director who recruits the translators. “They’re there to calm them down and relate simple terminology to the runner.”

The translators come with a diverse background of language abilities in both English and Japanese. They are former Japanese nationals now living in Hawai’i, Japanese students studying here, and local high school students studying the language. Some are third- and fourth-generation Japanese who grew up here knowing a few phrases, then found themselves using the language in their jobs.

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