How not to freeze in a crisis

A Japanese interpreter shipwrecked in Antarctica keeps her cool

How not to freeze in a crisis illustration
Image Credit: Josh Holinaty

An extended audio version of this story can be heard on Episode 34 of Work in Progress, Slack’s podcast about the meaning and identity we find in work.

Toshiko Adilman’s job as an interpreter is to listen to others, but that’s not all it’s about. Experienced interpreters know it can be just as important to listen to your own instincts. “People who become interpreters are very gutsy, very intelligent, and very experienced,” she says. “They don’t worry about small things.”

Adilman was used to taking big changes in stride. In 1965, she moved from Japan to Canada in order to pursue a master’s degree at the University of Toronto. During the several years she practiced social work, part of her job was investigating custody disputes, which required level-headed poise and sound judgment. “But then I decided that I wanted to do something to do with Japan, and I had an opportunity to pass the exam to become an interpreter,” she explains matter-of-factly. It was a major but manageable change, given her experience and comfort confronting potentially surprising situations.

Her ability to stay cool under pressure was put to the test on her very first assignment. She worked on location in Antarctica for movie director Kinji Fukasaku and his Japanese crew shooting Virus, a film about a virus that wipes out society but can’t survive freezing temperatures. When the American actors ad-libbed their lines in English, she would keep track of what they said to help Fukasaku keep continuity across the original script and film plot.

At first, though, she didn’t want to go. A month-long shoot in the coldest place on Earth didn’t hold much appeal. “The director kept saying, ‘Antarctica is gorgeous,’” she remembers. “I said, ‘Have a good time.’”

“Would [my children] emotionally not resent my being away?” she wondered. “Would my husband accept it with pleasure? Those were the only factors that I had to think about.”

Adilman thought the opportunity seemed interesting, but she was worried about the impact her absence might have on her family, including her two young children — especially since she’d be gone an entire month over Christmas.

“Would [my children] emotionally not resent my being away?” she wondered. “Would my husband accept it with pleasure? Those were the only factors that I had to think about.”

But Adilman was good at trusting her gut, and she eventually accepted the challenge. She boarded the first of several flights down to Chile, where the crew set sail to Antarctica. The director was right. The landscape was breathtakingly beautiful, and Adilman loved the journey and the job.

Adilman in Antarctica
Adilman in Antartica (Image courtesy of Toshiko Adilman)

The production had been going well until late one night. “I was lying on a bed in my cabin dreaming the airline was crashing, and at the same time, I heard a big bang,” remembers Adilman. She went to find the others and discovered the ship had run aground on an uncharted reef. The boat couldn’t move. If the water rose, they’d be easily dislodged. The alternative was much scarier. “If the water went down, it could have capsized us,” she says.

“I refused to interpret that to everybody,” Adilman says with obvious exasperation. Rather than rile others up, she had the confidence to calmly prevent the whole enterprise from going further off course.

It would have been bad enough with a ship full of film crew members. But there was another more pressing problem: the ship was also filled with Japanese tourists who purchased tickets to watch the filming while enjoying a polar cruise.

The tourists stayed calm. But the crew wanted to bail out, and one of the actors tried to cajole Adilman into telling the tourists that water was coming into the ship.

“I refused to interpret that to everybody,” Adilman says with obvious exasperation. Rather than rile others up, she had the confidence to calmly prevent the whole enterprise from going further off course.

Fortunately, the boat didn’t capsize, and eventually, a frigate boat towed them back to Chile. Adilman flew home unharmed and relatively unfazed by the ordeal. She even earned some minor celebrity after being featured nationally in news coverage of the incident.

Adilman realized how cultivating a precise blend of optimism, self-confidence and calm could further her career. Just because something doesn’t go as planned — job aspirations, an assignment, travel plans — doesn’t mean there’s any reason to panic or act impulsively. In Toshiko Adilman’s case, surviving a rocky first assignment made a lot of the work that followed in her career seem straightforward and simple.

“Not many other things could top this kind of danger. In that sense, it prepared me,” she says gratefully. “You go wherever the job is and take the consequences.”

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