Even though you may not expect it when first looking at him, Jalen Cox is prolific in Japanese. He recently began working in Maebashi as a translator and interpreter, and already he has helped connect the city with the rest of the world.
This week I joined Jalen to hear all about this work, and I found he had a lot to say about it. If you don’t speak Japanese, fret not. Jalen will be able to translate.
Come meet this week’s Gaijin, Ambassador Cox.
Getting to Know Ambassador Cox
Give me an Elevator Pitch for yourself
I am a fabulous translator, and as a matter of fact I graduated from the University of Texas Austin, which is a very good school, and I was told by very many people I would very good at what I am doing because I’m a great student a really hard worker.
And I have been to Japan for the JET Program, and literally everyone tells me I am going to be successful. I never really know how to respond to that, so I just take it with grace.
Side note: He actually said all of that in a single breath. To say he committed to the concept of the Elevator Pitch would be an understatement.
Where are you from and where have you been?
Even though I grew up in Texas, I was actually born in North Carolina. I think I lived there for maybe five years of my life, but that was not consecutive. Besides that, I grew up in Houston, and then I attended college in Austin.
For places I have been, the list is actually kind of short. Of course Japan is the big one, since I studied abroad for a full year and now work here. But back in America I didn’t travel too much.
Maybe I went to Florida once, and I visited my grandfather in Boston once, which was pretty cool. I saw Salem while I was there, which was cool, even if I couldn’t see a witch trial. The rest of the list just consists of Georgia and somewhere in Virginia, but it was never too long in those places.
Japan was definitely the biggest on the list though.
And where do you still want to go?
Well, I really like nature, so I’d love to see places like Arches National Park and the Grand Canyon. But what I find funny is that all the places I want to see I have discovered through the Windows Screensaver.
Europe also has a few places I’d like to see, for now mostly Spain, Germany, and Iceland. During my study abroad I met some people from Iceland, so I really like the idea of a reunion in Reykjavik.
Along with those destinations, Taiwan or somewhere in China also sound good. I studied Chinese in college, so I would love the opportunity to use it in a real-world setting.
Even though my Japanese is remarkably better than my Chinese, I would love to use my Chinese skills someday.
An Ambassador Starting his Studies
How long have you studied Japanese?
The spring semester of 2014 was when I started studying Japanese, so it’s been about five years now.
To backtrack a bit, when I was younger my step-dad was stationed in Okinawa for a bit, so my mom and I went over there to be with him. Because of that, I have always felt an interest in Japan, at least that is how it feels.
But I didn’t really pursue my interest in Japan until college. Of course I had watched anime growing up, but I never made a real effort to study the language or the culture.
So what made you finally study the language?
My older sister, who was a Junior when I started my Freshman year, started taking Japanese classes. We went to different colleges, but I really liked the idea of being able to speak with her in a different language. I also though it would be fun for us to practice and learn the language together.
So I took the class, and then I found I was really good at it. After the first class I decided to continue studying Japanese, and I had to since I needed a language for my degree anyways. Eventually my sister stopped studying, but I kept going and even made it my major in college.
And I have been studying it ever since.
What kind of Japanese do you usually use for work?
When I’m writing or translating, I just about always use Keigo, but when I speak I use standard Polite Speech.
Side note: For the unaware, “Keigo” is an extremely formal style of Japanese that has no proper equivalent in English. It even has its own specific grammatical syntaxes.
My coworkers understand how difficult Keigo is even for native Japanese people, so they are very considerate of me not using it often in my speech.
Every now and again, I have discussions with my coworkers about how difficult it can be to translate a Keigo-ridden piece of writing. Since English doesn’t have Keigo, I can translate the general meaning, but a certain level of politeness will be lost in that translation.
I remember a comparison that was made between translation and music. Essentially, translation is like playing the piece of one instrument on a different one.
Yes, you will be playing the same notes in the same rhythm, but the sound will always be different. It doesn’t necessarily sound bad, but it is not the exact same as the original.
An All-American Ambassador
What kind of work have you been doing now that you have graduated?
Right now I am working in Maebashi as a Coordinator of International Relations, or CIR for short. It sounds very fancy, but in a nutshell it means “person who speaks Japanese well enough to interpret and translate.” Generally speaking.
My job is definitely translation-heavy, and it’s what I do the most of day-to-day.
Additionally, I do a lot of work with the International Association here, especially when they are hosting an event of some kind. During the Maebashi Matsuri, I was the person in charge of making sure all the foreigners involved remained in contact with the Association.
Though my work with the International Association is also very translation-and interpretation-heavy, so I guess it just comes with the territory.
When you’re doing these translations, do you feel like an American Ambassador of sorts?
Very much so. People will regularly come in and ask me where I’m from, to which I reply “Texas.” Then they usually where that is, so I have to explain that. For the most part I feel like I explain American geography more than anything else.
I’ll also get questions about American culture, and I always answer them to the best of my ability, though that is not easily done. Because America is so much larger and diverse than Japan, my answers just reflect the culture of where I grew up.
I can tell people all about where I lived, but my answers don’t speak for American as a whole.
How many of the people you interact with are government officials?
Surprisingly, I interact with the Mayor of Maebashi a lot. He really likes me, and I don’t quite understand it.
The mayor has been to America a couple times though, so I have never really had to explain much about America to him. Sometimes the other officials around him will have questions, but I really don’t meet with them that often.
Most other people I see tend to be workers in the city hall. Though I did meet the Lieutenant Governor of Gunma once.
For some reason he came into the Foreigner Aid Division of the office, but I wasn’t able to talk much with him. He’s definitely the highest status person I have met though.
How international in nature would you say your work is?
Well my work is very frequently with our Sister Cities. When I translate received communiques, they are routinely from other countries like America, Italy, China, and France.
Strangely, those messages are usually in English, since its the lingua franca of the companies we receive them from. My job with those is to translate them into Japanese.
We communicate often with an Italian friendship city, and I work as the middle-man in the equation. We receive an English message which I translate into Japanese, and then I translate the Japanese response into English and send it back to the Italian side.
Birmingham, Alabama is also one of our sister cities, and next week for the Maebashi-Shibukawa Marathon a group of runners will be coming to Maebashi. I will be their American guide and interpreter, and my fingers are crossed that their accents won’t be too thick.
With so many sister cities, do you get to travel for work?
There are certain work-related conferences that I attend in Japan, usually in Tokyo, but those aren’t too often. But as for travel overseas, I don’t get to do much. Unless the mayor plans to visit a Sister City, I won’t have the chance.
However, I actually think I may have a chance during the summer. The mayor may visit a Sister City in Italy and a Sustainability Partner City in France, and I would work as an interpreter for him in that case.
The Last Word
So what is next for you?
Originally I was planning on only doing JET for two years, but now that I’m more than halfway done with my first year, I really think I may stay longer. Not 100% sure yet though.
After JET, I think I may go back to school to get officially certified in translation and interpretation. I haven’t been properly trained, so I will need to be certified if I want to pursue this profession further.
If not that, I may just directly apply for a company, either here or back in America, and work for them as an interpreter/translator.
Any final comments before we part?
I’m a great person, I promise. Full stop.
In many ways I admire Jalen and his Japanese abilities. Seeing he started learning the language a year before I did, in his own Freshmen year of college. He had access to a greater variety of classes than I did, so his growth has far outpaced my own, but that does not discourage me.
Seeing him be able to use the language so naturally motivates me to keep working at my own studies, in the hopes I may someday be able to match him. I know I’ll get there sooner or later.
It was because of this that I decided to interview him this week, and I hope you found his thoughts as interesting as I did!
Song of the Week
“Blue Train” by Asian Kung Fu Generation
If you would like to listen to this song or any of the other prior Songs of the Week, check out the Spotify Playlist linked above!