Fri McWilliams

Director, Japan Association of Conference Interpreters

Tell us about yourself. What do you do and where do you live?

I’m a freelance interpreter. I grew up in Hiroshima, moved to Vancouver as a teen, headed to China in my twenties, and then moved back to Japan in 2008. Where do I live now? This year I’ve stayed a month or more each in Vancouver and Toronto in Canada, Ile d’Oléron and Lyon in France, and Nagano and Tokyo in Japan. My plan is to spend eight months or so in France next year, and after that—we’ll see.


What made you decide to live life as a digital nomad?

I’ve always had this dream of one day spending time in Europe, but never had the means to quit work and live in a country where I didn’t speak the language. What would I do to survive? Then the stars aligned—COVID sent 90 percent of my work online, and some of my personal commitments were lifted. The risks seemed minimal if I didn’t need to quit my job. If I didn’t like it I could always return to Japan or Canada. And the idea of whittling down all of my belongings to three bags was appealing.


Why did you choose to be an interpreter, and what do you like about it?

While I was living in China, several Japanese companies approached me with interpreting opportunities. I got hooked on the excitement of the jobs, and decided to make it my career when I moved back to Japan. I’ve been fortunate to get an in-depth look at so many fascinating fields, and continue to meet great people from around the world doing amazing things. One day I’m in a client’s office talking insurance, another I’m walking around a factory that builds heavy machinery, and yet another day I’m in an interpreting booth at a patent conference.


If we asked you to convince other CCCJ members to become digital nomads, what would you tell them?

Timing is everything. With the current ease of access to furnished suites and decent Internet speeds (be sure to check with each place before you go, though), there’s little risk. It’s amazing to be able to really experience cities and countries from a resident’s perspective. That said, most readers have probably already experienced this.


Not many CCCJ members are interpreters, but many of us have had the experience of being interpreted. What’s your best advice for speakers looking to make life easier for interpreters?

All those usual rules about being good speakers apply: For example, don’t read your presentation, and maintain eye contact with the audience. Share your presentation materials with your interpreter ahead of time, including unpolished drafts, scripts, and a list of any people or industry organisations you may refer to. And finally, if you do dare tell a culturally universal, unrelated-to-sport joke, please laugh or smile at the end! When you keep a straight face listeners think that the interpreter must be wrong.

That’s all with simultaneous interpreting in mind. For consecutive interpreting, do use complete sentences, and communicate one idea at a time. A good (er, bad) sign that you should shorten your output is when you feel your interpreter is talking too long, or you see audience members getting restless during the interpreter’s turn. At the end, resist the urge to say “thank you” until the interpreter has finished with your last sentence. That way you can have the final word. 

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