Photo Information

Lance Cpl. Westley Contrata, right, an interpreter attached to the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, and native of Westlake Village, Calif., trains with a combat rubber raiding craft here Feb. 16. The unit's Marines and sailors are training with soldiers of the Japanese Ground Self Defense Force, Western Army Infantry Regiment, in Exercise Iron Fist, a bilateral training exercise to build amphibious capabilities and advance military interoperability.

Photo by Cpl. Brandon Rodriguez

One voice connects two nations

2 Mar 2011 | Cpl. Salvador R. Moreno

When training between militaries of two of the world’s major industrial nations commenced in February, so too came the need for interpreters, as one lance corporal found out.

Language barriers are common during training between two countries, and in the case of Iron Fist, the annual exercise to enhance amphibious capabilities and increase interoperability between the U.S. and Japan, Lance Cpl. Westley Contrata was the solution.

Contrata was born to Honami and Walter in the suburbs of Illinois.

At a year old, he and his family moved to Kyoto, Japan, where he grew up for 13 years knowing a small amount of English and little of America. At 14, he and his family moved back to the U.S. where Contrata, speaking only Japanese, found himself in an English-speaking country.

“I learned Japanese first, so when I moved to the states knowing almost no English, it was tough,” said Contrata.

He overcame, and in 2008, he graduated from Westlake High School in Westlake Village, Calif. Shortly after, he decided to become a Marine.

“I joined because I wanted to travel the world,” said Contrata.

After graduating boot camp in the fall of 2008 and completing his occupational specialty school in April 2009, he was assigned to I Marine Expeditionary Force, Camp Pendleton, Calif., to serve as a motor transport operator. As a lance corporal, Contrata did what most other motor transport operators do day in and day out: He drove.

Interpreting as a Marine never crossed his mind, he said.

“The MEF looked up my service record from my defense language proficiency and pulled me for the exercise,” he said.

The DLP is a language aptitude examination which determines fluency in other languages.

He was able to help 180 Japanese soldiers connect with the Marines of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit.

“I think it’s a great opportunity,” said Contrata. “I’m enjoying it. I don’t really get a chance to use my Japanese outside of what I’m doing right now.”

Some of the military terminology can be difficult to translate for the Japanese, but with Contrata being fluent in both languages, the process is easy, said 2nd Lt. Saito Shiotomai, a Japanese interpreter serving with the Western Army Infantry Regiment, Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force.

“I envy him because I am an interpreter too, but my English skills are raw,” Shiotomai said.

The Japanese soldiers participating in the exercise have less than 20 interpreters, so any help is greatly appreciated, according to Contrata.

Smoothing the learning process for all involved in the exercise, Contrata may just be doing his job as a Marine, but to the Japanese, his translation has been the difference between going home more knowledgeable or just going home.

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11th Marine Expeditionary Unit