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QZ&A

Marie Kondo’s brilliant interpreter is the unsung hero of the KonMari phenomenon

By Anne Quito

To love Marie Kondo is to love her interpreter, who incidentally is also named Marie.

For the past three years, 35-year-old writer Marie Iida has been trailing the winsome tidying guru and helping explain the philosophy of mindful decluttering for English speakers the world over. Iida, who is a year older than Kondo, beams warmth and professionalism in person and on-screen. Her appearance as Kondo’s sympathetic, self-effacing sidekick on the Netflix series Tidying Up with Marie Kondo is winning fans over.

Even native Japanese speakers marvel at how seamlessly Iida relays Kondo’s sometimes quirky, long-winded invocations and her ability to somehow mirror her subject’s buoyant energy without parody. “It’s honestly amazing how well she catches all the nuances of the Japanese language,” says Jay Sethi, a native Japanese speaker living in New York. “There are phrases that I’ll hear Marie say, and in my head I’m thinking, ‘No chance the translator can convey that in English,’ but she does it almost perfectly. Kondo sounds as sweet in English as she does in Japanese.”

Self-taught, Iida learned the skills of professional interpretation by reading voraciously. “I think in our daily conversations we generally use about 700 words, but in interpretation you encounter so many obscure or abstract language that you need a very extensive vocabulary,” she explained in a 2016 interview. “Understanding not only specific words but context, both linguistic and cultural, is so crucial when interpreting and translating. There’s no better way to do that than reading.” Iida says she also practices by listening carefully to radio and TV programs and translating the words in her head.

Consecutive interpretation wasn’t exactly Iida’s original ambition. A graduate of New York University’s literature and cinema studies and Columbia University’s American studies masters program, her heart, she says, has always been in creative writing. She’s translated books for Rizzoli, Soho Press, and numerous Japanese publications. She’s written screenplays, film reviews, and YA fiction. Her latest short story, entitled “Mr. Yunioshi,” is a gentle corrective to Mickey Rooney’s unfortunate caricature of a bucktoothed Asian archetype in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Anne Quito / Quartz
Marie and Marie at a 2018 press event in New York City.

Iida’s initial foray in live interpretation happened while working with Ethan Hawke during the promotional tour for his 2006 indie film Hottest State in Tokyo. “My first a client as an interpreter was this huge Hollywood actor, which was nerve-wracking!” recalls Iida, who was then working as a translator for a Japanese film production company. “I only did it for the first day until the real interpreter came and just watching her really mesmerized me.”

She has since established herself as a go-to conduit for Japanese arts–oriented programs and publications. Now based in Los Angeles, Iida has worked for institutions such as the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, the Cannes Film Festival, HBO, and New York’s Japan Society, where she first met Kondo in 2016.

“[She] has a great energy and stage presence, but she manages never to upstage the speaker,” says Tomomi Sekiya, director of the Japan Society’s public talks series. “We’re thrilled to see her on Tidying Up, where she has a unique opportunity to share her skills with millions of viewers around the world.”

Some viewers even argue that Iida is an unsung hero of the KonMari franchise and deserves more of the spotlight. But in an interview with Quartz, she explains why the true joy of being an interpreter lies in disappearing in the background.

Quartz: How did you train to be an interpreter?

It was really never my intention to become a spoken interpreter. I just started to seriously study interpreting after graduating from Columbia [in 2011]. There are so many accomplished interpreters in New York City and they just kind of took me under their wing. I learned by shadowing them. They taught me to read voraciously in both Japanese and English.

There are so many types of interpreters—UN interpreters, medical or corporate [specialists]. I tried different ones, but I think because of my natural interest in art and culture, I gravitated towards working with creatives and artists. I love interpreting for artists and creatives because there’s something so idiosyncratic about the way they speak and the words they choose.

You’ve said that you spend about two weeks researching each subject before working with them. How did you prepare for Marie Kondo?

I read all of her books. Cathy Hirano was the original translator of those books, which I loved. I also went back and read as many of her interviews. I also searched for any videos of her lectures so that I could get a sense of her diction and style.

What do you write down in that notebook you always seem to carry around with you.

Over time the notebook has become a security blanket or just a good luck charm. I always try to write down key words to jog my memory. The act of writing itself helps me remember what has been said. During the filming of the show, it was really impossible to write everything down and use my notebook in the way that I regularly do. It was just such a different environment. Just holding it allowed me to be in the mindset.

Japan Society
A page from Marie Iida’s notebook.

Do you try translate Marie’s words literally or do you soften some snarky remarks, as some viewers have noticed?

I wouldn’t say she was ever snarky. She’s very respectful of not only her clients but also their belongings. No, I don’t think she would ever be snarky, but she’s a very funny person. It’s very unexpected sometimes—like the time she said that her childhood pet was an eel. It takes me aback sometimes, like, that just came out of nowhere. She’s charmed by little cultural details, like how an American trash bag smells.

As with any interpretation, accuracy is of course paramount. From my experience on stage, I know that the tone of voice and maybe even facial expression can be just as important. Creatives and artists have such unique energy. I try to make sure that character and personality doesn’t get lost in translation. I knew going in that relaying the emotional aspect is also an integral part of communicating the message. I tried very hard to focus not only on what she was saying, but also her tone of voice, hand gestures, and posture when she was speaking to the families [on the show]. But of course this is easier said than done when we’re speaking and there are cameras, lights and even sound to consider.

Netflix
Mirroring.

The mirroring between you and Marie is uncanny. It’s an effect, especially given that you have the same first name. Did the show’s producers ask that you dress a certain way or get a similar haircut? 

My husband [comic-book writer and filmmaker Dennis Liu] always says it’s interesting that we’re both named Marie and we’re of a similar height! It’s a complete coincidence. In the show, I didn’t want to waste any time trying to explain our names so I just started introducing myself as “Iida,” just to make it more efficient.

During the production, I try to not talk too much to the families because I didn’t want it to be about me. I wanted it to be very much about the connection between the family and Marie. That was really important to me. As an interpreter, you’re doing a great job if people forget that you’re there.

What I wear is just a reflection of how I want to approach my role in the TV show: professionally and seriously. It’s the same as I always dress when I’m interpreting. And the hair? Marie’s hair is just immaculate and beautiful. I can never make mine like that.

How would you characterize your relationship with Marie today?

During the filming of the show, I think we were really emboldened by each other’s presence. At least for me, knowing that we were going into each home together really gave me courage.

I remember that before we stepped out of that black van to walk towards the family’s home, we would always say to each other: yoroshiku onegaishimasu. It’s one of those intangible Japanese expressions that cover many different emotions. Depending on the situation, it could mean anything from “nice to meet you too” to just “please.” But in this context, I think that what we were saying was that we were entrusting each other to do our respective work well and that we were counting on each other. That always puts a smile on my face when she said that, because it’s just so polite and made me think of our shared roots.

What’s the biggest misconception about Marie Kondo and her philosophy? Does she really want us to throw out books?

It’s easy to think that her method is about how much you can throw away or let go of, but actually the focus is on what you want to keep in your life.

For instance, I really love reading and books are very important to me. I’ve talked to Marie about that and she said, “If that’s your passion, you should keep what you love confidently in your home.” So yeah, I think people tend to tie her too closely to minimalism. But her message is very much about learning who you are and what you like.

Have you done the KonMari method in your own home?

I’ve always been pretty organized, but if you looked in my drawers the clothes are definitely folded in her method.

If not decluttering, what’s the most valuable things you’ve learned from Marie Kondo?

I’m relatively on the shorter side and I’ve always thought that was a disadvantage working in the United States. I’m sure there are some people out there who just see her as very cute and sweet, and there is that, too. But for me, just seeing how confident and true she is to herself is inspiring. Like maybe I don’t have to feel like I’m hindered by my height. It’s about how you carry yourself, and she very much has that poise.

I’ve lived in both Japan and United States since I was very young, and sometimes I tend to focus too much on what makes people different or what cannot be translated. But watching Marie interact with so many different families, and a diverse production crew, helped me realize how great she is at focusing on the universal.