Sunday, November 16, 2008

How to Interview Someone Who Doesn't Speak English

I've been reading a lot of articles about a small seaside town in Japan called Obama that launched a pro-Barack publicity campaign called "Obama for Obama." I wanted to learn more, so I decided to write my own article about the guy who organized the campaign and victory party, Seiji Fujihara (pictured here). 

Google searches revealed that Mr. Fujihara is the head of the Sekumiya Hotel in Obama. I called the hotel, but the man who answered the phone didn't speak English. 

"Can I speak to Mr. Fujihara?" I asked. 

"Go home tomorrow," he answered. "Hi! Thank you!" 

After a few minutes of this I finally said goodbye and hung up. 

At first I laughed about it, but I was disappointed. I had really wanted to write the article. Then I remembered that a friend of mine speaks a little Japanese--she used to live in Japan while working as a jazz musician. I called her, explained my predicament and she emailed me some handy Japanese phrases. 

The next day, I called the hotel again. This time a woman answered. "Konnichiwa" (good day), I said, very slowly. "Eigo o hanashi-masu ka?" (which means, "Do you speak English?").  

To my amazement, she replied, "Yes." 

"I'd like to speak to Fujihara," I said in English, and then -- just because I didn't want to waste my friend's work -- repeated it in Japanese: "Fujihara ni hanashtai o kudasai." 

She put me on hold for a few minutes, then Mr. Fujihara himself came to the phone. But after I introduced myself and explained I wanted to interview him for an article, he said his English wasn't good enough for an interview. 

But I wasn't ready to give up. So I asked if he could respond to questions in writing. He agreed to have me fax him some questions he could write answers to. 

So far so good. Then I got his answers. They were short and cryptic, almost like haiku. 

For instance, I had asked him to name the most challenging aspect of planning the Obama victory celebration. 

He wrote, "The hula of man named OBAMA BOYS. I made our debut on November 5."

I asked, "Is there anything else you would like people to know about planning this event?" 

He replied, "I told you that I owned the friendly feeling in Japan, and I was good, and President-elect Obama knew Obama-shi in that." 

I couldn't really use his quotes, but I still managed to file my story. So here are my tips, kids, on doing interviews with people who don't speak English:

  • Don't give up. If I hadn't called back, I never would have connected with Fujihara.
  • Reach out. Think, "Is there anyone in my network who could help me with this?" 
  • Be flexible. Non-native speakers will probably find it easier to do a written interview, so be prepared to accept their answers in that form. And also be prepared to, as journalists say, "write around" their answers when they don't make sense. 


Goody 2 Shoes said...

I wondered about the town of Obama. How enterprising to dig for the article, and not give up. I wonder if you are going to send the interviewee the parts you "wrote around" to make sure he finds those story parts accurate?

Joan Novark said...

No, I only check people's quotes with them if they ask. Fortunately, this guy didn't. But I ended up using so few of his quotes anyway since they were so unintelligible.