Faces of Gengo: Jesse

Jesse works in the Marina District in San Francisco. Having worked as a VP of Marketing for four different startups in Silicon Valley, he now builds Japanese-English translation into his work running a cross-cultural marketing and PR firm in the city.

How did you become a translator? Do you translate full-time?

After working in tech for well over a decade, I founded a company called Oppkey, where we handle marketing and PR for technology companies. We specialize in software development and open source. Running a software company in Japan made me realize that it’s hard for Japanese companies that want to do business in the U.S. to form relationships and get a solid start. Roughly half of our clients at Oppkey are currently from Japan, and in addition to helping with marketing and PR, a chunk of my job involves translation.

What languages do you speak? Why/how did you learn them? How do you maintain your proficiency?

I studied French and Spanish in middle school and high school, but I wasn’t a very diligent student. For a lot of different reasons, I had a new attitude heading off to college, and I started Japanese with an new attitude of getting it right from the beginning. I fell in love with the written characters and developed a fascination for Japanese modern history and art. I ended up completing a year abroad at Doshisha University in Kyoto, doing my senior thesis on Hori Tatsuo’s Utsukushii Mura, and finishing a Master’s at Stanford in 20th century Japanese history, focusing on Japanese industrial policy.

I did so much heavy language work for the first 5-6 years and my professional and private lives keep me regularly connected with Japanese friends and business contacts, so I do not often do much to “maintain” my proficiency. I do regularly look up words when I don’t understand them; that’s likely to be a lifelong interest. And I read a ton. When it comes to Japanese literature, I’ll often read a translation in English and then, if I like it, will go back and read it in the original Japanese. That makes it easier to really enjoy the Japanese version.

Based on your specific cultural expertise, what are the best books or movies you would recommend to others?

Anything directed by Juzo Itami (Funeral, Tampopo, A Taxing Woman), Koki Mitani (Rajio no Jikan), or anything staring Naoto Takenaka (Shiko Funjyatta, Shall We Dance?) They include multiple examples proving sophisticated comedy can cross language barriers. I also love Japanese short stories as a way to get a taste without the full meal. The anthologies Tokyo Stories, ed. by Lawrence Rogers, and The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories, ed. by Theodore Goossen, are both fabulous airplane books.


Describe your office setup or workspace. What is the view like? What kind of scenery do you look at everyday?

I’ve done my best to create the ultimate anti-cubicle office space. Lots of room, air and plants. I have a stand-up desk that moves up and down at the touch of a button. Truthfully, it stays in the seated position too often. I couple that with a kneeling chair that I’m good at cheating on. I use Mac and Linux desktops, with lots of Virtual Machine environments, and I’m scrupulous about backing up. When I need a break, I’m able to get over to the Palace of Fine Arts or to the Marina for some fresh air.


What is your favorite “translator’s snack” for while you work?

I enjoy black tea with excessive amounts of milk—my favorite is Lapsang Souchong, a traditional smokey Chinese black tea—and maybe an afternoon pick-me-up of a handful of cut carrots, cashews or raisins.

What’s your favorite thing about being a translator?

Flexibility. I love my job. I translate on my own time and when I can fit it in outside of my primary work running Oppkey.

Finally, if you had to give advice to your fellow Gengo translators, what are the best ways to relax and stay sane as a translator? What is your top tip for those who are just starting out?

Factor in finances. Some projects can be very small and ultimately don’t turn into a lot of money, but can be done in your spare time. Bigger projects may be worth more, but may come with different restrictions on your time and energy. Know your worth, know customers’ expectations and find that balance in choosing which jobs you choose to translate and why. When you do, it can be extremely rewarding.

Want to become a Gengo translator?


Amber Bushman

The author

Amber Bushman

Amber currently works with the Marketing team at Gengo. With a passion for people and world cultures, she’s lived in California and Florence, Italy. Amber spends her free time brushing up on her Italian, road tripping with friends and enjoying iced coffee in abundance.

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