Guest Post: What they didn't teach me at School

This week, LifeinLINCS is pleased to host a guest post from a well-known interpreting blogger. Michelle Hof is well-known in the interpreting community as the editor of the wildly successful blog, The Interpreter Diaries. Here she gives us her insights into the epiphanies she had after she left her interpreter training.

Not too long ago, I was asked by Jonathan at the LifeinLINCS blog to contribute a guest post looking at what I wished they had taught me in interpreting school. As someone who was actually very pleased with the training I received on my postgraduate conference interpreting course, at first I didn’t think I would be able to give a satisfactory reply. After all, the typical complaints about interpreter training programmes – “too much theory, not enough practice”; “they don’t prepare you for the real world”; “no help with voice training or stress management” etc. – simply didn’t apply in my case (for the record, I was part of the Class of 2000 of the M.A. in Conference Interpreting Techniques at the University of Westminster, London, a top-class program that was discontinued in 2011 as a result of UK government cuts to higher education).

As a satisfied customer, I wasn’t going to be able to trot out any of the usual comments about what is lacking in interpreter training, and so I decided to turn the exercise around and focus instead on the various epiphanies or “aha!” moments I have had since graduation. You know what I’m referring to: those moments when you discover something that may be glaringly obvious to the rest of the world, but which simply had not crossed your radar until that point. Seen from this angle, I have managed to identify four key lessons that they did not teach me in interpreting school.

1 There is life beyond Brussels. Considering I attended a school whose stated purpose was to prepare conference interpreters for accreditation at the European Institutions and United Nations, one could argue that it wasn’t the job of my trainers at Westminster to expose me to career opportunities outside of the EU/UN circuit. And indeed, for the first few years of my career at least, this gap in my training didn’t matter: within weeks of graduation, I had been accepted onto the SCIC’s Young Interpreters Scheme and basically spent the next four years working full-time as a freelancer in Brussels.

All this changed when I was approached in 2004 to work a large job on the private market in Spain. The experience opened me up to previously unknown professional opportunities and broadened my horizons beyond Brussels. The fact is, I had been so focussed on consolidating my experience with the European Institutions that at no point in those first few years of working did I even consider that there might be other options out there.

2 Conference interpreting in international political contexts is a niche market. Again, it is probably to Westminster’s credit that the trainers there focussed primarily on preparing us to work as conference interpreters in international political contexts – after all, that’s what we were paying them to do. And let’s admit it: in Europe, this type of interpreting clearly gets the most press, not least due to the presence of the European Institutions, the biggest employers of conference interpreters in the world. With that in mind, perhaps we here in Europe will be forgiven for not realizing that this type of conference work is only one of many kinds of interpreting out there.

My second epiphany therefore came the day that I read some statistics describing the North American interpreting market, which showed that work at international events and in government settings makes up only about 15% of all interpreting work there, with the remaining work consisting mostly of healthcare (30%), legal/judiciary (23%), business (14%) and community (11%) interpreting. Suddenly, I realized that the default image of an “interpreter” here in Europe (=an EU wonk who speaks eight languages and spends half his life on the train between Brussels and Strasbourg) is a far cry from the image of an interpreter that reigns in many other parts of the world. Say “I’m an interpreter” to a North American, for instance, and they are as likely to picture you in a police station or a hospital as in a booth at the UN.

3 Retour interpreters are not a rara avis. I said earlier that Europe is home to the largest employers of conference interpreters in the world. The DG SCIC (European Commission) and DG INTE (European Parliament) need to provide interpreting services for insanely large language combinations in most meetings. Your average meeting of national experts may use “only” five or six working languages, but the European Council meetings or Parliamentary plenary sittings require full coverage of all of the EU’s 23 official languages, and so it’s clear that what is needed are multilingual interpreters with a strong A (mother tongue or active language into which they work) and several Cs (passive languages from which they interpret).

To meet this need, interpreter training programmes in Europe tend to focus on training students in the A-C-C(-C) combination. This focus on “one active plus many passives” neglects the requirements of most other interpreting markets, where it is much more useful for interpreters to have two active languages (their mother tongue or A plus a “retour” language or B) so they can work back and forth between the two. Think back what I said earlier about most interpreting outside of Europe being in courts, hospitals, business meetings and the like, and you will see my point: these communicative contexts tend to involve only two languages. [Editor’s note: Heriot-Watt offers a retour stream in its postgraduate interpreting courses.]

As an interpreter with one A, four Cs and no B in sight, my third “aha!” moment came the day I heard that as many as 90% of all respondents to a global online survey of interpreters had reported working regularly into a B language (sorry, no link, as I can’t recall the source!). Living in my “Brussels bubble”, I had of course been aware that retour interpreting existed – in the European Institutions, it has become increasingly common since the 2004 wave of accession of new member states – and yet I had no idea that the vast majority of interpreters around the world worked into a B. This, again, is arguably not something that needs to be included on the curriculum of a training programme preparing students for A-C-C work, and yet it might have been useful to know that what we were learning was not what the wider world is doing.

4 We could all use a magic ring. The fourth lesson I want to share is not directly related to interpreting, and yet it has proven to be an important life lesson for me that I think could help all interpreting students in one way or another. It serves me well both in those moments of freelancing desperation when it seems the phone will never ring again and when I am feeling on top of the world because of a new contact or job opportunity.

The story of the magic ring, which some accredit to the Sufi poets but which I give below in its Jewish folktale version, goes something like this:

One day Solomon decided to humble his most trusted minister. He said to him, “There is a certain ring that I want you to bring to me. I wish to wear it for Sukkot, which gives you six months to find it.”

“If it exists anywhere on earth, your majesty,” replied his minister, “I will find it and bring it to you, but what makes the ring so special?”

“It has magic powers,” answered the king. “If a happy man looks at it, he becomes sad, and if a sad man looks at it, he becomes happy.”  Solomon knew that no such ring existed in the world, but he wished to give his minister a little taste of humility.

Spring passed and then summer, and still the minister had no idea where he could find the ring. On the night before Sukkot, he decided to take a walk in one of the poorest quarters of Jerusalem. He passed by a merchant who had begun to set out the day’s wares on a shabby carpet.

“Have you by any chance heard of a magic ring that makes the happy wearer forget his joy and the broken-hearted wearer forget his sorrows?” he asked.

He watched the grandfather take a plain gold ring from his carpet and engrave something on it. When the minister read the words on the ring, his face broke out in a wide smile.

That night the entire city welcomed in the holiday of Sukkot with great festivity.

“Well, my friend,” said Solomon, “have you found what I sent you after?” All the ministers laughed and Solomon himself smiled.

To everyone’s surprise, the minister held up a small gold ring and declared, “Here it is, your majesty!”

As soon as Solomon read the inscription, the smile vanished from his face. The jeweller had written on the gold band: “This too shall pass.”

Now if only they had taught me that in interpreting school.

 

 

Michelle Hof is a conference interpreter and trainer. You can find her at her blog The Interpreter Diaries or on Twitter at @InterpDiaries.

Upcoming Event: Language Education Policies for Deaf Children

We are delighted to confirm our next EdSign lecture by Dr John Bosco Conama from Trinity College Dublin, on Tuesday 6 November, 6.30PM, at Deaf Action:

Who decides? – Language education policies for Deaf children
Selected findings from a comparative analysis of Finnish and Irish policies on signed languages

John will talk about comparative language education policies in Finland and Ireland. He will present his research discussing different components that influence language educational policies. Showing excerpts from interviews and commenting on the situation in Finland and Ireland, John highlights equality issues around language education policies in general.
Date: Tuesday, 6 November 2012
Time: 6.30pm-8.30pm
Venue: Deaf Action, 49 Albany Street, Edinburgh EH1 3QY

Language: The lecture will be presented in International Sign, and there will be interpretation into English and BSL.

The event is open to everybody and you do not need to book in advance, but spaces are limited, so arrive early.

On a different note, the consultation on the proposed British Sign Language
(BSL) Bill in Scotland is still open, but the deadline is approaching soon: 31 October 2012.
Please take a look at the BSL documents. Responses and petitions should be sent to Mark Griffin MSP, Room M1:20, Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh EH99 1SP.

We look forward to seeing you all soon,

The EdSign Lectures team

Public Service Interpreting: How hard can it be?

In the following guest post, Pierre Fuentes, Convenor of ITI Scotland and Heriot-Watt graduate, lets us know about an exciting event taking place here at Heriot-Watt.

The Scottish Network of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting will hold its autumn workshop at Heriot-Watt University on Saturday morning, 29 September 2012.
ITI Scottish Network is the Scottish representative body of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI), the foremost professional body in the UK for practising translators and interpreters.
The Network’s autumn workshop will be about public service interpreting. The first half of the session will discuss the landscape and challenges of public service interpreting in Scotland, setting the scene for the day. The second half will discuss what it is like working as a public service interpreter.
The current landscape of the sector is a hostile environment. The workshop speaker will share her insights into the key challenges the sector faces and what can be done to “turn the tide”.

The Speaker
Ms Jeanice Lee is the executive director of Elite Linguists, a social enterprise committed to strengthening Scotland’s public service interpreting and translation provision, thereby addressing some of the root causes of inequality and injustice in our society where language can be a barrier.
Ms Lee will share her experiences using a rich mix of facts and case studies to explore the challenges and rewards of life as a public service interpreter, and touch on some ethical dilemmas and traumatic encounters.
This workshop will be useful to those studying interpreting, those who already work or are thinking about working as a public service interpreter, as well as all those with a more general interest in the interpreting industry.
This workshop is free.
To register apply here:
http://www.itiscotland.org.uk/diary/View/51/Public-service-interpreting.html
Editors note: The opinions expressed in guest post solely those of the writer of the post.

Lessons from America

In this guest post, LINCS graduate Claire Grant talks about her experiences after she won the Fiona Watson Memorial award, which pays for a student to work as an intern for the UN or a similar international organisation.

From an early age I was interested in the work of the United Nations and aspired to work for them one day as an interpreter. My undergraduate degree in Interpreting and Translating at Heriot-Watt University, which I completed in June 2011, was my first step towards the future realisation of this dream. Thanks to Heriot-Watt and the Fiona Watson Memorial Award which I was presented with upon graduating, I have since been able to take a step closer by completing an internship at the UN Headquarters in New York City from September to December 2011.

During my internship with the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), I was introduced to a wide variety of work. I conducted research and analysis of reports relating to UN Peacekeeping Missions; attended high-level conferences, such as the General Assembly and Security Council and produced reports on Member States’ reactions to policy developments. Putting the skills acquired from my degree to good use, I also translated and proofread various policy documents. Undoubtedly, these tasks provided me with a great, first-hand insight into the work of the UN. However, the most valuable lessons I learned during my internship were from the people I met.

My DPKO colleagues were keen to share their experiences of working for the UN, both in the field and at HQ. I was particularly fascinated by one colleague’s experiences of working with field interpreters while on mission in South Sudan. As an intern, I joined a group of over 200 young professionals from across the globe, from different cultural backgrounds and from various prestigious educational establishments with qualifications in subjects ranging from international relations to sustainable development. I believe this will prove to be a very useful network for the future.

I was lucky enough to live with a UN interpreter while in New York, who introduced me to her colleagues, invited me into a live booth with her on several occasions, and provided me with frank, valuable advice for pursuing a career in interpreting. I also met with the Head of the English booth and sat a mock UN interpreter’s test which allowed me to realise what my next steps should be and which skills I need to work on. Thanks to all of the advice I was given in New York, I now have a clearer understanding of the profession, the dedication it requires, and, most importantly, the life experience required in order to be a good interpreter, and I’m hopeful that I’ll be back in the UN English booth someday.”

Claire works as a freelance interpreter and translator. For more information about the Fiona Watson Memorial Award and to read Claire’s internship report and New York blog please visit: https://www.alumni.hw.ac.uk/NetCommunity/Page.aspx?pid=344.

Work experience that will help your career in translation

Taking those first steps from finishing your degree to getting your first paid job can be daunting. In this guest post, professional freelance translator and Heriot-Watt graduate Paul Kearns gives us some useful tips on how to gain experience that will ease the transition.

I recently received an e-mail from a second year student that got me thinking about the importance of career planning for new translators. The enquiry was along the following lines:

I’m a second year student and hope to work in translation once I graduate. Do you have any advice on summer jobs or work placements that would help me to improve translation skills before I head off on my year abroad?

My advice was that he should spend the summer working in a non-translation environment and that might sound strange but here’s why:

During their year abroad students develop their language skills more than they can ever imagine possible, so over the summer it’s enough to maintain their existing skills by reading, watching and listening to stuff in their foreign languages – and by the end of second year they should be doing that anyway! (To work professionally it’s not enough to scrape by as a linguist, you need to excel as one.)

Neither do they need to worry too much about their translation skills. During their 3rd and 4th years their translation technique will get better anyway, helped along by peers and tutors – and if they do translation classes at university during their year abroad, they’ll learn about different translation styles, CAT tools, linguistics and so on.

However, professional translators get work because they are also subject specialists – they are technical translators or legal translators or specialise in marketing or biotechnology etc. The biggest challenge after leaving university is that students might be language specialists but they’re not necessarily subject specialists, and that’s what makes the transition from student to professional difficult. That doesn’t mean they need to be a technician or a lawyer but it does mean they need to know about their chosen speciality – and that’s where the summer job helps.

Students should start to think about the type of translation that might interest them professionally (their specialist subject) and try and get a summer job in that area so that they can start to build up their specialist knowledge. So for example, if you want to get into technical translation, a summer job working in an engineering firm’s office would be a bonus. It might not have the same allure as teaching kids at summer camp in the south of France. While it might seem that you’re wasting the summer making tea and photocopying, you are actually learning industry-related terminology, finding out how the industry works, who your clients might be, what sort of documents they might need to translate, you’re learning about document types, genres and linguistic style, you’re creating networking opportunities – exactly the things you’ll need when working professionally.

For students in today’s economic climate career planning has to start early, and being a passionate linguist is only half the battle. You need to take practical steps that will make you stand out from the crowd. Developing a translation specialism is a step in the right direction and getting the right summer job is a good way to achieve this.

Author: Paul Kearns