Henning, Kirsten

An interview with JET Alum Kirsten Henning of the Seattle Mariners

by Stacy Smith (Kumamoto-ken, 2000-03)\

(From the Summer 2005 “Interpretations” Issue of the JETAA NY Newsletter)

I recently had the chance to speak with Kirsten Henning, JET from 1999-2002 in Hyogo Prefecture.  Following JET she took a position as a Guest Services Officer at the Park Hyatt in Tokyo (location for the film Lost in Translation), where she had the opportunity to take care of many of the rich and famous passing through Japan.  With such an amazing experience under her belt, one would wonder how Kirsten could possibly top it.  However, upon her return to the States a year ago, she managed to do just that!  She currently works as the Japanese media coordinator for the Seattle Mariners, and among her primary duties is interpreting for both outfielder Ichiro Suzuki and pitcher Shigetoshi Hasegawa.  Kirsten took time out of her busy baseball schedule to share some of her stories and insights about interpreting across both language and culture.

Stacy Smith:  How did you land this incredible position and what exactly does it entail?

Kirsten Henning: I returned to the States last year and came back to my hometown of Seattle, and a friend asked me if I had considered working with the Mariners.  It had crossed my mind but I had never really thought of pursuing it, and that gave me the impetus I needed.  I started talking around to different people, and one thing led to another!  As media coordinator, I deal with all the Japanese press and make sure that their access to the players and coverage goes smoothly, whether via interpreting or making sure that they get to talk to the people they need.  I work only during home games; I do not travel with the team.  As I am not a full-time employee my job is seasonal, so I have already started to look for a new job for the fall!

SS:  Describe a day in the life of your job.
KH: On a normal day (if there is such a thing) the first thing I try to do when I get up is to read the day’s English and Japanese articles about the Mariners. If there is something of particular interest or concern in the Japanese media, I let everyone in my department know. After that, I spend time in and out of the clubhouse scheduling interviews for media with players and answering press pass requests. 3-4 hours before the game starts, media begin to arrive and then I am down on the field talking with the Japanese media to make sure they are set with any interviews they have, etc. Each day varies tremendously though. Sometimes I have TV crews or new print reporters I need to help out. A few weeks ago, I spent two entire days with a TV crew from Kobe who were producing a show about the overall ballpark experience in Seattle. During the game, I am in the press box keeping score and of course watching the game. For post-game, I am down in the clubhouse making sure that the Japanese media has access to the players and the information they need.

SS:  What kind of translating and interpreting work do you do?
KH: There are several different situations. I interpret when Japanese writers or TV crews are interviewing players (unless of course it is Ichiro or Shiggy). This year we have had several interviews with the Mariners event staff so I interpreted then as well. Sometimes American writers will want to speak with Ichiro. The bullpen catcher for the Mariners is the primary interpreter for this, but sometimes he is not available so I step in.  [Note:  According to Kirsten, bullpen catcher Allen Turner, whose mother is Japanese, is the only Japanese speaker on the Mariners’ roster.]  For lengthy interviews, we try to share the load. The other time I interpret is when the opposing team has a Japanese player but no interpreter, like pitcher Keiichi Yabu of the Oakland A’s. I think one of my best memories is interpreting live on TV for Hideo Nomo when he was pitching for the Devil Rays in May. (He threw a no-hitter during my first month as a student in Kyoto in 1996, so for me it was quite an honor to work with him. Also makes me realize how you never know where your life will take you. I had no idea sitting there that day in Kyoto that I would one day interpret for that pioneering pitcher.)

SS:  As someone who gets pretty close to Ichiro, how would you describe him?
KH: He is someone who is really serious about his work, a world-class athlete.  It has been very inspiring to me personally to be able to work with someone as professional as Ichiro on an everyday basis.  Also, with the recent steroid controversy, it is great to see someone like Ichiro who takes pride in his work and has put so much effort into it.  That has put a bit of a positive face on baseball for me despite of all the negative press lately.  Ichiro is on a level above many of the other players out there.

SS:  Is Ichiro different from your initial perception of him?
KH: Before I started this job, I think I probably viewed both Ichiro and Shiggy as top athletes and celebrities, like most people do in Japan.  Now that I work with them everyday I see a different side of them in relation to their careers.  Both of them take their performance on the field very seriously.  Shiggy is definitely the more gregarious of the two.

SS:  Do you speak in Japanese with Ichiro or does he try to practice his English?
KH: Both Ichiro and Shiggy speak English, though I have never spoken English with Ichiro.  With Shiggy it’s a mix of both; he actually has written a book called My Way to Speak English on how to speak English based on his experiences.

SS:  Can you give us a funny anecdote about something that happened on the job?
KH: Well, it’s actually not something that happened to me, but it’s a story that I like and most people in Seattle know well.  The players are required to do school visits, and during Ichiro’s very first visit, one little boy grabbed Ichiro as soon as he saw him and wouldn’t let go!  He just kept hugging Ichiro, and of course the media loved it.  When they asked him afterwards why he did it, he responded that when he saw Ichiro he just couldn’t help it.  After going on my own school visit with Ichiro, I saw for myself what a magnet he is for children, both boys and girls.  Once group of third grade girls and boys told me that they like Ichiro because he is a great hitter, and because he has a nice smile. Of course this made me laugh.

SS:  How does the Japanese press differ from the American press?
KH: The Japanese press tends to focus more on details, such as where the ball was hit and more complicated statistics, but the American press tends to focus more on the bigger picture, like how a player is feeling or the overall analysis for an entire season.  There is also a difference between the average Japanese baseball fan and the average American baseball fan.  Most people in Japan who follow baseball are really serious, and know tons of statistics.  On the other hand, here in the States I think there are all kinds of fans.  Of course there are diehard fans, but the average person going to the ballpark won’t necessary know all of the teams’ stats or be that passionate about their home team.

SS:  What are the worst and best parts of your job?
KH: I’d have to say that the worst part is when the team is not doing well.  This is definitely not the best season for the Mariners, and that obviously has an effect on morale, more so for certain players than others.  As for the best part, it has been nice to be recognized for my language skills and to use them to connect people and enable them to understand each other.  When I was living in Japan, I think I often forgot the value of language and took it for granted that most of my friends spoke both English and Japanese.  With this job, many of the American media I have helped have often expressed their appreciation and praised my language skills.  This has reminded me how important it is to not just speak Japanese, but understand culturally what is going on, and be able to explain this to others.

SS:  You mentioned that you are currently job searching,  but are you going to pursue interpreting?
KH: I am not sure which direction I want to go in, but I don’t think I want to do full-time interpreting.  The PR aspect of my job interests me more, so I am looking to pursue that.  Initially I felt like I had to incorporate Japanese into whatever job I chose, but now I am okay with maybe putting it on the side for a while.  I now know that no matter what I end up doing, my language capability and my experiences in Japan will always be a fundamental part of me.

SS:  Last and most important question, do you think Ichiro would be wiling to meet a group of adoring JETAA fans from NY?  Can you give us the locker room tour?
KH: No, no, no!  I would love to help, but Ichiro is way too busy.

Thank you Kirsten, and best of luck in your next adventure!

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