The accidental translator: Japan turned Geetha CT from reluctant expat to language maven

Travelling begrudgingly to Japan in the 1990s, little did Geetha CT know that it would be one of the biggest boons in her life. Sitting at her restaurant, Hatsuhi, in Bangalore’s Indiranagar, the 64-year-old opened up to Connected to India about her fascinating journey through three decades as a translator.

Geetha CT at Hatsuhi. Photo: Connected to India.
Geetha CT at her restaurant Hatsuhi. Photo: Connected to India

Located at 100 Feet Road, Hatsuhi is an authentic Japanese restaurant that doubles as a melting pot for Indo-Japan cultural aficionados in the city. The property plays host to Japanese calligraphy classes every month. It has also hosted a Konjac jelly tasting session and was the venue for an anime-themed cosplay event organised by Japan Habba and Bangalore Anime Club in December 2023, establishing itself as the go-to venue for a taste of Japan — in more ways than one.

Hatsuhi in Indiranagar's 100 Feet Road area. Photo: Connected to India
Hatsuhi in Bangalore’s Indiranagar is an authentic Japanese restaurant. Photo: Connected to India

While Geetha is now a hospitality entrepreneur and a much sought-after translator-interpreter, thanks to her time in Japan, the beginning was tricky.

Travelling to Tokyo

“Through that one year in 1989, we were sure we would go to San Francisco in the United States,” she says. Geetha’ husband, Parameshwaran, was a Bank of India employee who had to move to Japan to assume duties as the Deputy Manager in the bank’s Tokyo office.

Once the transfer order came, the family had a month to pack their belongings and move to the Land of the Rising Sun.

Rocking the Kimono look. Photo credit: Geetha CT
Geetha CT (front row- first from left) rocking the Kimono. Photo credit: Geetha CT

A polyglot, Geetha now speaks seven languages — Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Hindi, English, and Japanese — with full proficiency. However, she had no time to prepare before her move to Tokyo. “I did not know a word of Japanese when we moved there. There was no social media, the exposure was limited, we did not know anything much about Japan,” she says.

Recalling an anecdote, she says, “We were in a taxi, and I was taking my son for his school admission. The driver was a Japanese gentleman. Neither could he speak English, nor could we understand Japanese. My husband’s secretary had given me the address on a piece of paper, and the driver couldn’t read that as well. We had to abort the ride midway. But he was sweet to return the money.”

Learning Japanese the hard way

It took her about three years in Tokyo to get a grip on the local language.

“You know, it helped that I was surrounded by Japanese people all around. There were just 300 Indians in Japan at that time. So, I had to learn the language, to survive,” she says.

The cost of living in Japan in the 90s was skyrocketing. People tried to save every bit of money, and educating two kids in an international school was an expensive affair.

Geetha CT facilitating Japanese calligraphy classes. Photo credit: Geetha CT
While she learnt Japanese the hard way, Geetha CT facilitates Japanese learning with calligraphy classes at her restaurant. Photo credit: Geetha CT.

“I couldn’t afford to send my sons to a Japanese medium school. They wouldn’t have learnt English then, and what if we had to go to another country? So, we got them enrolled in an international school, where the medium was English. It was expensive and I couldn’t waste money on my Japanese classes,” Geetha says.

That left her to learn Japanese “the hard way”.

“TV bulletins in dual languages came to her aid. The Japanese programmes would have English subtitles and vice versa. It helped a lot. I would also listen to locals at the grocery store and, after a while, I started picking up the language.”

Studying an unusual subject

Geetha had learnt enough Japanese to get by on a daily basis in Tokyo, but she wanted to do more with the language. This desire had its roots in her college days in India.

“I graduated in Social Psychology, which was such an unusual subject at that time. I wanted to do something for society,” she says. But it took her a while to harness her education into something substantial.

Geetha was the eldest of three daughters in the family, and she was married at 18. Her father, like her husband, was a banker and the family moved around a lot.

Geetha CT during a workshop for women. Photo credit: Geetha CT
Geetha CT interacting with participants at a workshop. Photo credit: Geetha CT

“My mother wanted to get rid of me,” she says jokingly. “What could she have done? She had three daughters to marry off, and I was the first. So, I got married early.”

Marriage did not hinder her studies, but it did force her to give up on the dream of working for society, at least for a few years, as family responsibilities came to the fore.

Her stay in Japan gave Geetha the chance to revive that dream. Becoming fluent in the language, she started taking odd jobs.

“I would translate songs for Japanese Bharatnatyam dancers,” she says with a smile. “These people wanted to know the meaning of the songs they were dancing to, and I started translating for them.”

As word got around, more translation jobs came her way and soon she was translating pieces in Indian languages as well.

Saving Sri Lankan Tamils in Japan

Her language skills helped Geetha save people who entered Japan illegally to escape strife in south Asia.

In the 90s, with Sri Lanka being plagued by the LTTE movement, many chose to go to Japan illegally. Once caught, the fate of these Sinhalese Tamils would be hanging in balance. They had trouble communicating with Japanese officials to plead their case. This is where Geetha stepped in to help.

“I had to make sure that the Japanese officers and the Sri Lankans they had arrested were on the same page and understood each other well,” she says about her role as a translator-mediator.

Translating for Rajinikanth movies

From translating songs to being an interpreter for asylum seekers, Geetha expanded the scope of her work to write subtitles for movies featuring south Indian mega-star Rajinikanth.

This was in the latter half of the 90s, following the liberalisation of the Indian economy and the opening up of an international audience for popular Indian cinema. Japan was one of the countries where Indian films were exported.

Geetha with actress Meena. Photo credit: Geetha CT
Geetha CT (middle) sharing the dais with actress Meena (right) during the latter’s visit to Japan. Photo credit: Geetha CT

“I was approached by a local TV station in Tokyo for the subtitling and transcribing of Rajinikanth’s movies. So, I took it up.” One of the many films on which she worked as a transcriber was Muthu — it was released in 1995 and had Rajinikanth and Meena as the leads.

Geetha missed meeting the Tamil superstar by a whisker. “Rajinikanth was invited to come as the film gained prominence in Japan, but he did not visit. Meena came to promote it,” she says.

During the promotional tour of the actress, Geetha acted as the interpreter for Meena in Japan.

Meeting Dr APJ Abdul Kalam

By the year 2000, the family had moved back to India. While Parameshwaran had resigned as a banker and taken up another profession, Geetha worked with software companies trying to make a name in Japan. This was when she met the rocket man of India, President Dr APJ Abdul Kalam.

She had been approached to translate a book written by Japanese architect and author Kamiya Takeo. Sponsored by Sajjan Jindal, industrialist and MD of the JSW Group, the book — titled The Guide to the Architecture of the Indian Subcontinent — received endorsement from Dr Kalam.

Those involved in the publication of the translated book, were called to Rashtrapati Bhawan for a chat with the then President.

Geetha CT met with APJ Abdul Kalam at the Rashtrapati Bhawan. Photo Credit: Geetha CT
Geetha CT (second from right) with Dr APJ Abdul Kalam. Photo Credit: Geetha CT

Dr Kalam, famously down-to-earth, charmed Geetha. “Once he knew I speak Tamil, he spoke to me in that language, leaving the others aside,” she says of that fond memory.

“He even asked me if I had a child, and when I told him about my son, he signed a personal note for him. It was sweet.”

Building cultural bridges

In continuation of the work that she started in Tokyo more than three decades ago, Geetha wants to build more cultural bridges. Not only does she bring Japan closer to Indians, but she also wants to bring India closer to the Japanese.

“I want to promote our culture to them as well,” she says. While the Japanese restaurant symbolises her love for a culture that Geetha gradually embraced, there is still a lot more to be discovered, as 21st century Japan is quite different from the country she knew in the 90s.

Japanese cosplay event at Hatsuhi. Photo credit: Geetha CT
Cosplay event at Hatsuhi. Photo credit: Geetha CT

“The last time I visited Japan, it was 2017. The world has changed vastly,” she says. Certainly, cultural borders are blurred — many Japanese people have taken a liking to Bollywood and Indian classical art forms while Indian kids have immersed themselves in Anime.

As the two great cultures of Asia create meeting points, with social media playing a facilitator, Geetha CT hopes to be a part of this process.