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Found in Translation


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Written by Jake Stump

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Shun Nakasone makes his living hanging out with tennis champs and Major League Baseball legends.

“Sports have always been a big interest of mine,” said Nakasone, BA ’87, Spanish. “When I was presented an opportunity to watch sports and get paid at the same time, I thought, ‘Why not?’”

But it’s not that simple. The Tokyo, Japan, resident gets to watch sports, but there’s also a lot of work.

In the last 20 years, Nakasone has served as a translator for sports figures ranging from former Major League Baseball player and manager Bobby Valentine to one of the top women's tennis players in the world, Naomi Osaka.

When Osaka competed in the Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo last September, Nakasone was right beside her for every press conference and media interview. It marked his fourth year translating for Osaka.

Osaka, who grew up in the United States, is not fluent in Japanese. When Nakasone started interpreting for her, Osaka was only 17.

“When she started, she was ranked somewhere around 100,” Nakasone said. “Overall, her tennis game wasn’t refined. Then all of a sudden, she started winning tournaments last year. When she came to Japan in 2018, it was a very big thing here.”

Originally from Kamakura, Japan, a seaside city south of Tokyo, Nakasone grew up wanting to learn English – inspired by his father who spoke fluent English and worked for an American oil company.

While in high school, Nakasone said he learned about West Virginia University through its former affiliation with an English school in Tokyo. He spent a summer taking classes in the Intensive English Program and then enrolled in the fall of 1983. About 50 Japanese students came with him.

“When we first arrived in Morgantown, I felt I was in a remote town,” he said. “Lots of trees. Very mountainous. We weren’t familiar with the term ‘Mountaineer.’ Our first  impression was, ‘We are actually becoming Mountaineers now because of the mountains around us.’

“We stayed at Summit Hall back then in the middle of Sunnyside. We were raised in Sunnyside. We found out immediately how to order American beer and American pizza.”

After graduating from WVU, he returned to Japan for short stints at a travel agency and a market research company. He then spent a few years working at a hotel in Micronesia before returning to Japan.

He would casually ask an acquaintance if there were any jobs available in translating and interpreting in sports though he had no prior experience.

“A friend was working with NHK [a broadcasting company in Japan],” Nakasone said. “I asked her if there were any openings and she helped me negotiate with her boss. So I started with NHK in Tokyo to work on a program that covers American sports.”

At NHK, Nakasone would translate content, primarily from MLB, the NFL and the NBA, from English to Japanese. For broadcasts, he goes into a studio and listens to the English broadcasts of games and relays information to the Japanese commentary team.

“I’ll listen to the host TV station, for example, the YES Network for Yankees games,” Nakasone said. “I translate what I hear to the Japanese announcers because while they’re watching the broadcast, too, they might not pick up on other things happening within the game that are being discussed by the broadcasters on site.”

In 2000, MLB held regular season games for the first time in Tokyo, requiring the use of several translators. Nakasone got paired with Bobby Valentine, who was managing the New York Mets. The two struck up a friendship, leading to Nakasone interpreting for Valentine again when “Bobby V” became the manager of the Chiba Lotte Marines, a pro baseball team in Japan, from 2004 to 2009.

“That was quite a chapter in my life,” Nakasone said. “I always loved baseball but getting to know it from the inside was quite an experience. I was with the team from spring training through the season. You have to be as passionate as Bobby Valentine to relay his messages to everyone, including the players, coaches and associates on the team.”

Translating requires much more than listening and repeating, and while Nakasone narrows his job down to “watching sports and getting paid,” there’s an art to interpreting.

“You want to get to know the speaker as much as possible before you interpret for them,” he said. “I look up their past interviews on YouTube to see how they speak, what terms they like to use, their pronunciations, how fast they speak, those characteristics. You have to be willing to research ahead of time as much as you can. That eases your job at the site.

“One thing I learned from Bobby Valentine is that he taught his players to be well-prepared. He reiterated the five Ps to his players – perfect preparation prevents poor performance.”

That mindset has afforded Nakasone the opportunity to meet and translate for a Who’s Who of modern pro baseball, including the likes of Robin Ventura, Ichiro Suzuki and Derek Jeter.

Nakasone hasn’t been back to Morgantown since he graduated. But he’s just as much a Mountaineer and is active in the Tokyo chapter of the WVU Alumni Association, which boasts nearly 100 members who host an event at least once a year.

“We’re trying to stay connected with the Alumni Association in Morgantown,” he said. “We try to be good Mountaineers here in Japan. We’re still here with Mountaineer spirit.”