Translators vital for many foreign players

Translators vital for many foreign players

It was only the fourth inning, but Yoshitaka Ono knew who would be in the spotlight after the game.

Ono is a professional translator, and his client, Rockies second baseman Kazuo Matsui, had just cracked a grand slam during Game 2 of the 2007 National League Division Series against the Phillies. Watching from the Colorado clubhouse at Citizen's Bank Park, Ono began preparing himself for the inevitable postgame media horde, knowing that scores of reporters would want to know Matsui's nuanced thoughts about his performance. To get them, they needed to go through Ono.

"If he hits a couple hits or home runs, I got to do the interview. I need to know what the situation was," said Ono.

While ballplayers earn hefty paychecks and achieve international fame, translators often go unnoticed by the public. Far from being anonymous communication conduits, however, translators play vital roles in helping foreign baseball players become acclimated to a foreign country, so they can focus on their jobs. In turn, translators share in players' successes and failures.

Ono was beaming that day during the postgame press conference, smiling more than Matsui, who had just experienced what was likely his best day as a Major Leaguer.

"We were in this conference room with 50 to 100 reporters, doing lots of interviews in lots of countries," Ono said. "It was so exciting."

Translators are always at the ready, anticipating their clients' needs, said Roger Kahlon, who has served as the translator for Angels designated hitter Hideki Matsui since 2003, when Matsui joined the Yankees.

"As an interpreter, I'm always going to be on standby as far as helping him out at the ballpark," Kahlon said. "I get there about an hour before Hideki, and when he's around, I become a shadow, right by his side."

That can include standing by the batting cage during batting practice, to help Hideki Matsui's communication with coaches and other players and shagging balls in the outfield, alongside his client, who speaks enough English to communicate with his teammates.

"His English skills have gotten better," Kahlon said. "Plus, baseball language is baseball language."

Kahlon also helps Matsui away from the ballpark.

"It's inevitable," Kahlon said. "There are situations where his English isn't enough to get stuff done, so it's inevitable to a degree."

Still, interpreters interviewed for this story, all of whom were employed by clubs and not individual players, said that they were keenly aware of the perception that they work for only one player. As a result, they try to make themselves available to other members of the club.

For Anthony Suzuki, the interpreter for Mariners outfielder Ichiro, that means assuming diverse duties. Suzuki serves as the PR contact for the sizable Japanese media contingent that follows the club; he's also been known to throw batting practice.

"He's a lefty, and he can throw batting practice," Kahlon said, "So I think he's a better interpreter than I am."

Suzuki, who played baseball in high school and college, said he hopes to parlay his experience into a front office job. He said that his day-to-day experience in a Major League clubhouse helps him learn particulars of the game and solutions to problems that he might not have otherwise picked up.

"What I'm doing right now will be big for the future," he said. "I try to take advantage of that and see how [players think]. To actually just be there, you learn a lot."

He also said that he wanted to demonstrate his value to the club, knowing that his employment is conditional on the club employing a player whose words need translation, making clear that he didn't think Ichiro's job with the Mariners was in jeopardy.

"You want to build some kind of foundation," he said. "You want them to want to keep you. You don't want to be an interpreter your whole life. I don't take this job for granted, but this is not a dream job."

It beats the alternative, though. Kosuke Inaji was earning $12 per hour last year in an entry-level position with Campbell's Seeds, where he was hired after graduating from the University of California Davis in 2009 with a degree in Biotechnology. Today, he makes $45,000 per year as Braves reliever Takashi Saito's primary translator.

While Inaji said that life on the road is a difficult adjustment, he enjoys the job.

"It gets tiring at times," said Inaji, a California native, who grew up rooting for Hideo Nomo and the Dodgers. "But it's definitely worth it to be a part of the Braves organization.

"My friends are all happy for me," he added. "They say they root for the Braves now."

A job in the Major Leagues can be tenuous, however, something Ono learned on May 19, when the Astros waived Kazuo Matsui with the intention of releasing him. At the time, the second baseman, who joined the Astros in 2008 along with Ono, was hitting .141 over 71 at-bats. Ono didn't follow Kazuo Matsui when the latter signed a Minor League contract with the Rockies five days later; he performed his final act as a Major League translator when he and Kazuo Matsui sat across a table from an Astros executive, who broke the news to both of them of their release.

"Those kinds of things happen," Ono said. "This season was too quick for me to end. It happened to us, but it was too quick."

One of Kahlon's final acts as a Yankees employee happened at the club's World Series parade in 2009, which he intended to watch from the audience with his mother. Just before the parade started, Kahlon left his mother on the bus used to transport Yankees staff and family members, to check on Hideki Matsui. In the commotion, Kahlon was separated from his mother, and he was forced to join Hideki Matsui and the Yankees on their parade down the Canyon of Heroes.

When the team arrived at city hall, they assumed chairs on a makeshift stage, where New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg honored each of the team's players and coaches individually, giving them each a key to the city. Kahlon, who was the last person to get on stage, was expecting to fade into the background.

The final person Bloomberg summoned to the podium for recognition was familiar, if unexpected. For the first time, Kahlon was alone in the spotlight.

Sunil Joshi is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.