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.

Why Legal Protection Can’t Save Translation and Interpreting

You don’t have to go far to find out what is worrying those in the translation and interpreting professions. Crowdsourcing, machine translation and large-scale outsourcing could easily make people fearful that the future of translation and interpreting consists of low-paid, low status work, offered by uncaring providers.

But hold on, cry a few voices, we can stop all this madness. All we need is some form of government protection. If there were only a law (or several) that limited who could translate and who could interpret, all of these issues would go away in the blink of an eye.

Alas, in the real world, things aren’t that simple. Leaving behind the whole issue of how to get legislative support for this idea in a single area – never mind an entire economic sector – the problems with relying on legal protection are legion. For a start, given that there is no way of tracking every single document translated or conference interpreted in even a single city, policing such a law would be impossible. Someone would always manage to get their work to slip through the net and in time, things would probably return to the way they are now, with a few possible exceptions in highly visible work, such as court interpreting and international tenders.

There is also the inconvenient truth that certification, which often goes hand in glove with legal protection, is not in itself an indicator of quality. It was, after all, certified auditors who allowed the Enron scandal to go undetected. And there is, as yet, no proof that “certified translators” produce better work than those with equal amounts of experience but no certification.

This, of course, does not mean that certification is worthless. It implies accountability and a professional approach to work, which are assets in themselves. It also implies a readiness to submit your work to outside scrutiny, which again, is worthwhile. When tied to membership of a professional association, such as MITI or MCIL or Chartered Linguist status here in the UK, it also implies a commitment to the good of the profession as a whole. It does not, however, mean that every translation produced by every certified translator will be of an equal standard. Restricting translation to those who are certified would therefore be no good to clients.

Protection, at least as it is commonly described, might even be detrimental to the professions it was meant to safeguard. How are people supposed to get into translation or interpreting if only existing professionals can do the work?

Perhaps we might be better seeking to emulate the practices of those in the medical profession. (Of course, this isn’t my idea, Heriot-Watt PhD student, Robyn Dean, thought of it before I did). The point is that, nowadays, anyone can be their own doctor. The internet offers a variety of different tools and sites, each of which can give medical advice of some sort or another, much like there is a range of ways you can get translation done.  What sets the proper doctors apart from the amateurs is not just training and passing exams but their part in a system which puts accountability and scrutiny at the core of career advancement.

What can and should set the “real” translators apart from the cowboys and amateurs then is not simply a certificate or a title – as good as these things are – but an entire approach to work. Setting up and promoting a system of checks and continued accountability is worth more than legislation. If the system is robust enough, it will justify limiting certain kinds of work to those who are within it. It would be much easier, for instance, to argue that those interpreting in courts should be independently checked and continually monitored by an entire system than that they should have passed a one-off exam. Similarly, it would be easier to argue for clients to use translators and interpreters within this system on the basis of added value rather than simply screaming for restrictions to be placed on the market.

At the end of the day, any system that is set up has to benefit clients and professionals alike. It’s this goal, not simply pushing for higher rates or restrictions on trade, that is worth pursuing.


Author: Jonathan Downie

Why Bother Doing A PhD?

Two weeks ago, Jonathan wrote and posted To PhD or not to PhD, a short post on the merits of doing research. Given the reaction on social media and the obvious interest in the subject, we thought we would follow it up. This week, Professor Jemina Napier, lets us in on what motivates her to do research herself and help others.

By nature, translators and interpreters are inquisitive. We need to be in order to critically analyse the languages and cultures we work with, and to determine the best linguistic and cultural choices we make in the translation/ interpretation process. Being inquisitive lends itself very well to doing a PhD!

I am a practising interpreter and chose to do a PhD as I was curious to explore my own practice, and the practice of others, in more depth to help me better understand interpreting as a situated activity. I’ve never looked back and I now have the pleasure of supervising others’ PhD projects.

I believe that doing a PhD is a collaborative activity between student and supervisor(s). The student has an idea and its my role to be a mentor for them along their research journey, but also for us to work together to achieve the thesis at the end of the journey. This means lots of talking, identifying relevant literature, assisting with research design, reading and commenting on drafts, and generally giving constructive guidance throughout all the milestones of a 3-4 year project. But the bottom line is that we need to work together as a team.

The satisfaction for both student and supervisor on completion of a PhD is immense. It’s almost like giving birth! Something new has been brought into the world, and you both had a part in creating it.

I am still a practising interpreter, which informs my research and my teaching. And I think I’m a better interpreter because I’m a researcher. So if you’re thinking about it, I’d recommend it, as you’ll benefit from it on a whole lot of levels!

Author: Jemina Napier







Conferences: What are they good for?

(with apologies to Edwin Starr)

Conference season is in full swing. As I write this, ITI have recently had their annual conference, BAAL will soon be having a conference in Edinburgh and I am preparing to co-chair a panel at EST conference in August. It’s that time of year when people look out their business cards, dust off their elevator pitches and get ready to travel to a foreign country, before spending almost all of their time there inside hotels and conference halls.

But why bother? Why go to the trouble of travelling, registering and even presenting? What do conferences give you that staying at home, playing about on social media can’t?

Oddly enough, looking at the reasons why people go to conferences is part of my PhD. It would seem sensible that, if we want to know what people want from interpreters, we should start with why they are at the conference in the first place.

The real answer might be troubling for interpreters. As Daniel Gile put it “the great majority of delegates … state that gaining new information is not their primary motivation for coming to meetings … . Instead, their responses include: making new contacts and renewing contacts they have already made, exchanging information outside of the sessions, the chance to take some time out for themselves, tourism (!) and other motivations that have nothing to do with exchanging information.” (1989: 659, my translation)

No matter the conference, delegates will mention that having time to network and get to know new people figures high on their list of reasons for coming. Sure, they might learn something in the presentations but the real added value seems to be found in the times between the sessions. It’s little wonder then that most astute speakers recognise that keeping people’s attention has to figure high on their list of priorities. There is just so much else going on.

This means that it is entirely possible that the interpreters could spend a week preparing for a conference, only to realise that their “clients” are paying little attention to them and are more interested in who they can chat to in the coffee break. Ever been there?

What is interesting to note, though, is that there is some evidence that the clients who do pay attention tend to want something different from those who don’t.

Ask clients who don’t rely on interpreters what they want and “tell me what they said” will be their basic (and possibly complete) view. Ask clients who are fully reliant on interpreters and engaged in the session what they want and things get complicated. You might find, like Ebru Diriker, that clients start to explain that they want interpreters to coin new terms or to re-express the gist of what the speaker said. You might find, like Şeyda Eraslan, that clients want the interpreter to bridge gaps arising from cultural differences. You might even find, like Jill Karlik has seen and as I am discovering, that some clients actually want the interpreter to partner with the speaker, sharing at least some responsibility for the success of the talk.

If conferences are as much about networking than gaining information then speakers have to think hard about how to make their talks worthwhile. If speakers have to work hard on making their talks worthwhile, interpreting might just involve a lot more than “saying what they said”. We might just have to rethink what it means to interpret at an event. Are we ready to rethink interpreting? Over to you.