A thrill he can’t put into words
When he heard the snap of a speeding baseball crashing into Hiroki Kuroda’s skull, his knees buckled on the dugout steps. Once he recovered, he sprinted to the mound, kneeling near the Dodgers pitcher, who lay in a heap.
“Hiroki, turn over,” said the interpreter, a former Spanish teacher named Kenji Nimura who was born in Japan and raised in Los Angeles. For two seasons he has been the pitcher’s steady hand, a linguistic link between America and Japan.
“Hiroki, do you feel nauseous?” Nimura asked, carefully translating a trainer’s English into Japanese. He saw that the pitcher was dazed. He thought back to the hardest moments in his life and remembered to be calm. “Do you feel dizzy? Where did it hit you? Don’t worry, we’re going to make sure you are OK.”
Kuroda, a key to the Dodgers’ playoff hopes, understands little English. If ever he needed help, it was in that tense moment this summer in Arizona, and the uncertain weeks that followed. Nimura was there, beside the pitcher in the ambulance and the hospital. There, days later, for the medical tests that brought comforting news: It was a concussion, serious but survivable. There, during every step of the rehab. There, a month later, for Kuroda’s return.
Few outside the team are aware of Nimura. Even ardent fans know next to nothing of the 37-year-old, a studious sort who last played baseball for his high school’s junior varsity team. This is as it should be.
“His job requires blending in,” says Ned Colletti, the Dodgers general manager. “He’s maybe the best at what he does, but not too many people really know what he does. How he cares.”
Until he was 11, Nimura lived with his family in a farming town in central Japan. In 1983, his family’s import business was struggling and his father began looking for new opportunity.
So it was that Nimura found himself transported with his parents and sister to a small home 15 minutes west of downtown Los Angeles. His English was limited to a clutch of words he’d picked up playing baseball in mowed-down rice paddies back home. The only Japanese kid in a mostly Latino elementary school, he was lonely, scared and so stressed that it was weeks before he could trudge off to school without vomiting.
“There were many painful moments, many times when I was called ‘fresh off the boat’ by the English speakers,” he says. “There was solidarity among them. And the non-English speakers? They were Hispanic. From these guys I first began to really learn another language. It turns out that ‘hola, que onda?’ [hello, what’s up?] -- those were pretty much my first words here.”
He was afraid of these Spanish-speaking strangers. They called him hermano. Not knowing that meant “brother,” Nimura assumed they hated him, so he decided to hate them back. But slowly, he began to pick up Spanish. He developed a fondness for the language, a bond with those who spoke it. Kids he once feared, many of them outsiders just like he was, became a lifeline.
The Dodgers were a lifeline too. Nimura polished his English listening to Vin Scully. He saw how people from all backgrounds would come together at Chavez Ravine. He closed his eyes and imagined being a Dodger, just like his hero, Steve Sax.
Still, acclimation was no easy road. It would be three years before he left his classes in English as a second language. Five before he could speak English in front of a group.
Six years in, however, Los Angeles had settled in his bones. In his senior year of high school he had friends in every corner: jocks, straight arrows, slackers and surfers, whites and blacks, Asians and Latinos.
Nimura would continue to embrace people and ideas vastly different from his own. At San Jose State, he studied Spanish and cultural anthropology. Then he spent five years in Madrid studying how language and identity mix.
When he returned to Los Angeles, he was married for a short time to a Spaniard. He taught Spanish to working-class students at a junior college, to wealthy ones at a private high school, to L.A.'s Japanese community on cable TV. Everywhere he went, even in his dreams, he casually wove together the three languages he loved.
In 2007, he and his father became fans of the Dodgers’ Japanese pitcher, Takashi Saito. “Saito ganbare! Saito ganbare!” they’d chant from the cheap seats. “Saito, let’s go! Saito, let’s go!”
It never crossed Nimura’s mind that he’d end up working with Saito. Before the start of last season, he heard the team was adding a second Japanese player, Kuroda, and that the pitchers needed an interpreter. On a lark, he submitted his resume.
The Dodgers called within a week. It wasn’t only that they needed someone who spoke Japanese. They’d been haphazardly relying on coaches and players to translate Spanish. He was hired after his first interview.
“One of the proudest moments of my life,” Nimura says. “The Dodgers are not just my favorite team, they’re a team with a global reach. The Dodgers represent the things I believe in.”
The job took a little getting used to. Nimura would be with the team, and away from his girlfriend, every game, night and day, starting in spring training, ending with the season’s last pitch. And he was expected to be invisible. Stick out, add drama, act like a big shot as some big-league interpreters have done? Prepare for a pink slip.
One of the biggest challenges was the American baseball clubhouse, where swearing is common. English obscenities defy translation into Japanese. When translating salty language, Nimura resorted to filling in the blanks with facial expressions, changes in tone, even the use of regional Japanese accents stereotypically thought of as earthy and less refined.
He recalls translating an emotional address last year by former manager Tommy Lasorda, known for soliloquies that could sting the leathered skin of a beat cop.
“You just can’t use standard Japanese when Tommy Lasorda is in there getting the guys all pumped up. I had to scramble. I had to use the regional dialect from the area I am from to get across the kinds of things he was saying. I remember when it was over Saito asking me: ‘Hey, Kenji, what’s going on? Does Lasorda speak Nagoya dialect?’ ”
This season, Saito pitches for Boston. That means most of Nimura’s energy is spent on Kuroda, 34, a player who tends more toward the somber nature of the samurai.
When Kuroda pitches and the game is done, there underneath Dodgers Stadium stands his interpreter -- short, wide-shouldered and utterly inconspicuous in his wire-rimmed glasses, crisp blue polo and pleated khakis.
Reporters swarm. Questions fly.
“Kyou wa choushi ga yoku nakatta desu,” Kuroda says in Japanese.
“I had a bad game,” Nimura says in English.
“An lucky datta desune,” Kuroda says.
“I wasn’t lucky today,” Nimura says.
It goes like this for nearly 10 minutes, the interpreter speaking in the first person to reporters as if he were the pitcher, smiling slightly when Kuroda smiles, frowning slightly when Kuroda frowns.
It helps Nimura that many baseball terms used in Japan were borrowed from America. Baseball, for example, is besuboru.
But the languages, and the cultures, differ in ways that present a firm test. It’s not only the myriad differences in grammar. It’s that in Japan, communication is deeply influenced by the relationship between speakers, by social status, by the context in which a conversation occurs. Kuroda can say “yes” but actually mean “no” -- leaving his interpreter to divine the meaning from hair-thin clues.
The two are near-constant companions. At the ballpark, Nimura shadows Kuroda everywhere but on the mound during games. On road trips, they regularly dine together. Nimura relates to the pitcher with an arm’s-length formality he refers to as a “Buddhist-influenced” show of respect: for Kuroda’s culture, his stolid nature and his decade of superb play in Japan.
Early in their relationship, it was not uncommon for them to spend an entire day working together at Dodger Stadium, then part ways with nothing more than a stiff businesslike nod.
It’s often different with the team’s Latino players, who are outwardly warmer and looser. Nimura’s help ranges from interpreting for the few who speak primarily Spanish to simply being a confidant and friend.
“With them,” he says, without a trace of irony, “I feel the solidarity of being Latin.”
Recently, in the team’s cramped clubhouse, Manny Ramirez passed balls around for everyone on the team to sign.
He handed a ball, along with his pen, to the interpreter.
“Kenji,” he said. “Here, we need your signature.”
“I’m not a player,” Nimura quickly responded.
“Kenji,” Ramirez said. “Sign it. You are a part of us.”
Nimura has a favorite saying. “Make the exotic familiar,” he intones, “and the familiar exotic.”
“I want to know the deeper way that things work. It might sound silly, but I want to be truly cross-cultural. To connect, with open mind and open heart.”
On that mid-August night in Arizona, this happened in a most meaningful way.
After an anguished ambulance ride, Kuroda lay on a bed in a small room at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix. He woke every half hour, foggy and fearful. But each time he focused, his eyes fell on the interpreter calmly propped on a cot a few feet away.
That night, Nimura was more than an arm’s-length interpreter.
In Japanese, he’d become a kyodai.
In Spanish, an hermano.
In English, a brother.
“If you try hard enough, you can reach where words can’t reach,” Nimura says. “It’s something I picked up growing up the way I did: You can have understanding, even without words. It’s what I live for.”
Times staff writer Dylan Hernandez contributed to this report.