The role of a bilingual assistant is probably one of the most challenging, and yet rewarding, positions that someone seeking a quick path to more experience can have. In effect, it is the ultimate form of apprenticeship in that you get to work side-by-side on a daily basis with an expert in the field. Over time, you become knowledgeable and trusted, taking on greater responsibilities. In other words, being a bilingual assistant is a great training role.
The most common areas in which companies seek a bilingual assistant are those where a high level of technical and/or management expertise is required and where the company brings their expert or manager in from overseas. Typically you’ll see on Daijob.com positions open for assistants in the software development, project management, accounting, senior management, and regional marketing roles.
Now, when you read the job ads you’ll find that most companies want a bilingual assistant who has already had some experience in the field they’re assisting with. Ideally this will mean that you’ve actually done some software development, project work, accounting, etc. But I can tell you that candidates with such a perfect match are few and far between. Instead, often the successful candidates are those with relatively strong language skills, self-confidence, and who have taken some evening courses and passed a basic exam in the field – at least proving that they have an interest and understand some of the basic concepts. So pick the field you want to support first, then do some basic professional qualifications in your spare time.
How good do your language skills need to be? Clearly you need to be able to listen to someone speaking, and after 10-20 seconds while they pause, be able to regurgitate the information in Japanese. Perfect word-for-word interpretation is NOT the objective. Instead it is to make sure that the general concepts and context are relayed accurately. Do you need to speak strong English? Well, clearly this would help in gaining the confidence of the person you are assisting, but if I were to weigh the two skills of English or technical awareness, the second skill is probably more important. Thus, if you find yourself heading into this type of position and you have a couple of weeks to prepare, focus on the subject matter rather than on trying to polish your language. You’ll get plenty of polishing in the months ahead.
In the beginning, your actual work will involve lots of study both at work and at home, discussions with the person you’re working with to gain a basic grounding, and of course work interactions. Some people start off in meetings by apologizing in advance for being new. This is a good strategy, and by putting yourself in “humble mode” it also allows you to go back after the meeting to confirm things. Above all, as you are interpreting, have your note pad available so that you can write down the things you don’t know about. Ask a friend later what those concepts mean.
Dealing with stress is an important part of being an assistant of any sort. Not only will you have to deal with the frustration of a normally functional expert/manager suddenly having to revert to speaking in very simplified terms, but you will also have internal frustrations at not being able to know, learn, and do better. I think it is really important that if you’re in this kind of role to “manage” the situation right from the start. Yes, even as a junior staff member, you can engage in some basic management strategies.
The best way to manage expectations, for example, is to move very early on in the process and ask for a one-on-one meeting with the person that you’re helping. They may be surprised that you’re asking for this meeting, but will usually accommodate you. However, if they’re busy, be persistent – for this meeting is very important.
At the meeting, you need to let the expert/manager know that you’re nervous about helping them, but that you’ll try your best. Then be sure to ask, very clearly, for their support so that you can quickly come up to speed with the vocabulary and concepts of what it is that you’re helping out with. This controlled setting, and your plea for help will reach the heart of even the toughest person. Once they have made a promise to support you, you’ve created a safe foundation on which to ask a lot of irritatingly basic questions, make a few mistakes, and take a few risks – all without getting fired.