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Daily coverage of the Mariners during the season and all year long.

September 8, 2009 at 11:52 AM

Ichiro should be interpreted any way he chooses

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Hope you all had a nice holiday weekend and that some of the trolls in our comments section are back in junior high school where they belong. No, that’s not condescending. It’s reality.
Anyhow, congrats to the Tacoma Rainiers for pulling off their magical comeback — their own 1995 if you will — by defeating Colorado Springs yesterday. The Rainiers were 7 1/2 out with just over two weeks to go, then had to take three of four versus Colorado Springs over the weekend. So, that’s done. Brandon Morrow will skip the playoffs and rejoin the M’s this week, almost certainly replacing Luke French unless Doug Fister’s blister causes him to miss a start. In that case, Morrow might replace Fister. But I’m betting on French being the odd man out.
Hope you enjoyed our Ichiro story this morning. Been reading some of the comments beneath it and also had a phone call this morning that raised an issue that I know is a big one for some fans. It isn’t for me. And really, if this was going to be an issue, the media should be the ones bringing it up since they are the most directly impacted by it.
It’s the issue of why Ichiro uses a translator instead of speaking English after so many years in the United States.
First off, let me say that Ichiro can speak passing English. He can make his way through this country on a daily basis without being led around by the hand. Much better than any of the raw recruits we wrote about in spring training of 2008, taking cultural immersion courses given out by the Mariners. I can tell you that, this morning, when I ordered my breakfast at the hotel, my waiter was clearly of Spanish-speaking origin and could barely take my order in English. In our last stop, at my hotel in San Francisco, the maid of Asian descent had no idea what I was talking about when I tried to answer her “Clean room now?” question.
There are hundreds of thousands of people, maybe even millions, living and working in this country without a fundamental grasp of how to get by in English. Ichiro is not one of those people. He can get by perfectly well.
The difference is, when Ichiro has something to say, unlike the hotel maid or waiter, it spreads like wildfire around the country. And sometimes gets repeated by you folks and others around the country. Like in Cleveland, for instance. (Gee, wonder whether we’ll crash Chuckie’s server today?)
Do I have a problem with him wanting an interpreter? Nope.

In fact, I’m kind of pleased that the Mariners provide one.
Because frankly, I’m a little too busy trying to keep this blog going, writing features for the paper and covering games to add “learning Japanese” to the list. Been meaning to learn Spanish for years and that keeps getting put on hold. I can speak rudimentary Spanish when I travel to Spain, South America and, later this year, to places like Costa Rica. But when I went to the Dominican Republic and to Venezuela to write baseball stories, or to Mexico City for a news story back in the mid-1990s, I always had an interpreter with me.
Because there is a big difference between speaking a language for “getting by” purposes and being quoted for attribution. Or taking down notes to write for a newspaper story. I’ve tried a couple of times to interview Yuniesky Betancourt in Spanish and the results were pretty comical. Betancourt also used an interpreter.
Languages do not always come easily to people. I speak French, so for me, Spanish is not as big a leap as it would be for people who speak only English. But Japanese would be a huge leap. And while the English language is fairly simple with its verb tenses and easier to pick up than, say, Hungarian, it would not be as easy for someone being immersed in our culture for the first time.
And the older you get, the tougher it becomes.
I grew up in Quebec, a province that is 80 percent French-speaking. But I’m from an English family and both my parents can barely utter a sentence in French without sounding like me trying to interview Betancourt in Spanish. In the 1940s and 1950s when they were growing up, my parents were not immersed in language lessons, nor was french as legislated and mandatory as a working language the way it is now.
By the time I started school in the 1970s, there were full linguistic immersion lessons made mandatory in schools. As a result, my generation — those who remained in Quebec — learned to speak the language and to work in it. I can’t speak it like a graduate of the Sorbonne in France, but have gotten by and even done some TV interviews in that language once I started my newspaper career in Montreal. But make no mistake, if ever given a choice in the matter, I would do the interviews in English. If interviewed on something very serious, I’d probably want it translated. And I’ve been learning that language since I was 6.
So, for me, if Ichiro wants an interpreter and the Mariners are willing to give him one, I have no problem with that. And for me, it makes him more accountable as well. Ken Barron has grown into his job pretty well over the past several years and does more than simply the rudimentary Spanish translations some players and coaches can do on-the-fly. He’s gotten to know Ichiro, his moods and his mannerisms. So, if Ichiro makes a crack about Cleveland, there is no hiding behind the old “the interpreter misunderstood me” line. Just as there can also be no ducking any negative fallout from a Cleveland joke — he does get booed everytime he goes there now — by saying that “the reporters misunderstood what I was trying to say in broken English.”
When Ichiro talks, and his words get spread across the country, you can bet he’s being quoted how he intended the words to come out.
And for me, that’s what is important here. Not sending some message to fans that he cares enough about the country to learn the language. He’s learned it. Kenji Johjima is learning it as well. So is Betancourt. Jose Lopez has learned it and now feels comfortable speaking in English. But again, no offense to Lopez, but the words coming out of his mouth aren’t repeated around the country and world the way they are with Ichiro. If Lopez messes up, chances are not many people will care,
I’d rather Ichiro do it his way than what Vladimir Guerrero did for years in Montreal and then to some degree with the Angels as well. Guerrero simply didn’t talk to anyone for the record, He just didn’t feel comfortable speaking in English. As far as I know, there was no official translator for him.
And really, my own view is, when I go up to talk to a player, if we can’t communicate because of language, then the onus is on me to get a translation. Either by learning the player’s language, finding someone else who does speak it, or simply letting it go. I’ve never felt a player has to learn to speak English so I can quote him for my paper. That the Mariners provide the interpreters is, to me, a great service. They have spent millions of dollars on Ichiro and Johjima and are making sure they are available, understandable and accountable.
I really can’t ask for much more.
And neither should you. I know there is a lot of anger in this country right now about illegal immigration, or people from other countries being permitted in without adequate language skills and who don’t at least gain a working knowledge. Believe me, I’m in the process of a Green Card application and know that times are tense and rules getting stricter.
But Ichiro does not fall into any of those categories I’ve mentioned. He is here legally, contributing to the economy and can get by with a working knowledge of the language spoken in this country. Yes, he is the face of the franchise. As such, he is always at his locker after games, willing to give interviews and using a translator to make sure his oft-repeated words are not misunderstood.
For me, it’s case closed.
I understand the complaints that are out there. But hopefully, after reading this, some of you will see that a lot of the anger I hear daily about this issue is somewhat misdirected. There is nothing wrong with expecting people who come here for jobs to learn the language. Ichiro has done that. But again, there is a difference between chatting with your co-worker at the hotel, restaurant, or office, and speaking for the consumption of millions.
So, something to think about.



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