Interpreter Training Resources

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A first day at work!

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Starting work

The following article was published in March 1997 in the Overseas Jobs Express and is reprinted without the kind permission of the editor.  


Stepping off the bus and down onto the Stanstead tarmac I was sure there had been some terrible mistake. I was new to the world of business class flying , admittedly, but this wasn't t quite what I d expected. The plane I saw before me was the same size as the bus from which I was now alighting. I scoured the area for a proper plane but saw only propeller ones. The others from my bus where now walking purposefully across to this flying anachronism.

Once on board, just a dozen steps above the tarmac and wedged into my seat the dimensions of the craft became even clearer, this was a very small plane. The difference between Business Class and Economy was not immediately apparent either, on reflection I think it had something to do with our relative distances from the exits.

Now to the uninitiated Lux Air might sound like the kind of two bit charter company that would send you up in a hot air balloon if the need arose but I knew better, this wasn't Valujet or Fly-by-night, Lux wasn't short for luxury but Luxembourg. This was the grand Duchy' s flag carrier and yet this plane looked like it would be lucky to carry its own weight, let alone the expectations of an entire nation and 60 passengers.

So why was I flying BC (in a plane that may have been built BC), when ordinarily I would have gone to any lengths to get hold of a cheap ticket. Well, first and foremost of course, because I wasn't paying for it. The reason, well I hope I've just started a long career as an interpreter at the European Parliament in Luxembourg.

The interpreter's job is facilitate communication between people who do not share a mutual language. They deal exclusively with the spoken word and are not translators who work with the written word. While there are have obvious similarities between the two they are different disciplines which require different skills.

There are different types of interpreting but let's start with the oldest form of the art. Liaison interpreting has been around for millenia and has only recently acquired its fashionable title. The liaison interpreter works for one or very few clients, he or she (women are very well represented in the interpreting fraternity ) remains at the clients side and speaks for or to them whenever necessary. Politicians often use personal interpreters in the same way royalty has done throughout history and ideally suited to factory visits or trade fairs it is still used by many businesses today. It has its limitations though. Larger groups of people, numbers of languages etc. soon render it impractical. So liaison while it employs the same techniques it has gradually given way to conference interpreting (working for a room full of people at the same time) , which is now predominant. There are two distinct techniques involved, Simultaneous and Consecutive interpreting.

Consecutive interpreting is the delivery of a speech or intervention in a language other than the speakers after he/she has finished speaking or during an intentional pause to that end. This is done by way of notes and a very good memory and the interpreter will be sitting amongst his/her listeners. Thus consecutive interpreting is very much the same for the liaison interpreter as for the conference interpreter, face to face and not a little unnerving. In the earlier part of this century all large bi lingual meetings were served by consecutive. The problem was that any meeting would necessarily take twice as long because of it and interpretation into more than one language was impractical.

As an attempt to over come this problem the Nuremberg trails that followed WWII saw the introduction of interpreting booths. Enclosed in a soundproof room overlooking the meeting/courtroom the interpreter worked simultaneously to (or rather a few seconds behind) the speaker with the aid of a microphone and a headset, thus enabling any number of people to listen to him at once on further headsets. This also made interpretation out of and into a number of languages possible since a room can have any number of independent booths and of course it halved the time taken to conduct proceedings. Liaison interpreters also interpret simultaneously but since booths are not at there disposal they whisper into there clients ear while someone is speaking. Chuchotage takes its name from the French "chuchoter" which not surprisingly means "to whisper". Practical as it proved however Simultaneous Conference Interpreting has now become by far the most common type of interpreting.

It' s very difficult to get an idea of what simultaneous interpreting is like unless you' ve actually tried it, don' t bother with the news but having a go at a radio interview might give you an idea of what' s in store. One of the tricks to simultaneous interpreting is to master speaking and listening at the same time, while interpreting with what's left of your brain, not forgetting of course anything you've heard, taking care of the figures and acronyms and crucially never losing your cool. The end product should be calm articulate English. Hmm. I have read that interpreters are the second most stressed professionals in Europe , after fighter pilots ! Now I' m pretty sure that bomb disposal experts might have something to say about that but it is true that the work is demanding. There are at least two interpreters in the booth at one time, each working in half hour shifts while their colleague regathers their strength. Ideally the two of them will in combination "have" all the languages at the meeting but since this is sometimes impossible its often necessary to rely on the interpretation from one of the other booths. So if noone in the English booth understands Greek they'll listen to say the German interpreters rather than the speaker. "Relai" (relay) abounds in potential cockups and the more exotic your languages the more likely you are to be "pivot"- this situation where other interpreters listen to you on relay. The few English interpreters who understand Finnish and Greek have to suffer the added pressure supplying English to all the other booths all too often.

It is extremely rare for the Conference Interpreter to speak in a language other than their own mother tongue (in interpreter speak "retour"). Notable exceptions in the industrialised world being Japanese, Chinese and Finnish, languages so difficult that only the natives can be confident of what s really going on.

Once up in the air my initial pessimism subsides, the wings are still there, I should know I 've been checking every five minutes and there's even going to be some food. Things are looking up. English newspapers are passed around and while a certain amount of sharing had to go on to make them go round everyone was happy enough. I can't help thinking about the proppellers coming off but I know I'm overdoing the worrying there.

So how does one go about becoming an interpreter. Or at least a conference interpreter since I'm not in position to talk about anything else. Well, an excellent understanding of a useful combination of two languages and an ability to express oneself in your mother tongue are a good start. I say useful because if you are, for example, half Indian and speak fluent Gujarati you may have problems finding a market for your skills, particularly if you have since learnt say French and want to work from both languages. Meetings where French and Gujarati are both spoken are very rare. Language combinations make a difference. French and German is the most common for English speakers and also the most in demand. French and Russian might be useful, Spanish and Russian probably not. If you understand Finnish by the way there is almost certainly a job waiting for you at the European Parliament where no one else does.

Before anyone lets you start working they will want you to do a test for them, This will usually involve interpreting 4 short speeches, two in each language, one simultaneously and one consecutively in each language. Getting a test is easy, most bodies will test you any time. Passing and thus being registered on their freelance list (the prerequisite for getting any work from a given organisation) is a little tougher. Some people do literally just walk off the street and make the grade but they are exception to the rule. The rest of us passed through one or other of the institutions that train interpreters.

Courses are few and far between. Bradford' s relatively good course was closed down last year. Of the others in the UK Bath University' s course is the oldest and has the besttrack record, Westminster University also produces good interpreters and the Heriot Watt course in Edinburgh is relatively new. All offer translating and interpreting side by side and you get an MA or Diploma for your troubles. Some maintain that this is an incongruous an pointless combination but since less than 20% of any year are interpreting two years later translation is a very handy fall back to have. For gamblers the European Commission offer a six month course in interpreting only in Brussels and SITI offer a two year interpreting course into and out of French in Paris. La Laguna University in Teneriffe also offers courses. None of these come cheap unfortunately as grants are very hard to come by for Post Graduate studies these days and the courses all UK have funding problems. If you' re paying your own tuition fees don' t expect much change from 7000 for the year. Considering the commitment and cash that the students put in the UK courses are poor, allegedly. Alleged repeatedly by all alumni from all the different courses. The fact that it is very difficult to "teach" interpreting has been used in the UK as an excuse not to try and come up with a constructive methodology. The best of the bunch is actually Teneriffe and it probably works out cheaper than the UK too!

Wherever you end up, though, you'll be working with other intelligent and motivated students and whatever one might say about the UK courses they do offer some of the very few opportunities to get into a demanding but rewarding profession.

I applied for a place on the 1995 Post Graduate Diploma in Language Studies, as it is known, at Bath relatively late (September 1995), I didn't know much about interpreting or translation and it was luck rather than judgement that helped me avoid some of the most serious pitfalls awaiting those looking around for a course. Translation theory, for example, is not the same as translation and interpreting into a foreign language is of dubious value. Both these possibilities exist at universities in the UK and while they won' t render you entirely unemployable it' s better to know these things in advance. I started the course in October with 23 other would- be interpreters.

One of the things that keeps the Bath course running is that ex-students, both translators and interpreters come back as guest speakers, give classes, tips and comment on how little the equipment has changed in the last 20 years. The important thing is that they do come back and their contributions are an invaluable part of the course. Interpreting is vocational and as such its essential to have input from people who have real experience. Two other old boys who make the trip back are the current Heads of the Commission and Parliament's English booths who are among the examiners at the end of the year and since between them they are responsible for a hefty proportion of all English language interpreting contracts in Europe making a good impression might get you more than a good mark. Of all the English interpreters that I have met in my fledgling career so far all but a couple are the products of the Bath, Bradford or Westminster courses. Indeed the roll call for the English booth at the European Parliament reads like an Old Boys mailing list. Bath, Bath, Bradford, elsewhere, Bradford, Westminster, Bath.. . .Almost all got their foot in the door by impressing at this end of year examination.

Anyway, back to me and my plane. It ' s been three months since I left Bath, time I've spent brushing up my French in Aix en Provence. However the holiday's over and my first days ' work are now desperately close. We land in Luxembourg OK which is a relief but now I 'm worrying about something just as terrifying as dropping out of the sky in a twin engine propeller plane. Tomorrow I have to simultaneously interpret for real. Not practice, not an exam but for real. People who don't understand French and German are going to be tuning into me on channel 2 to see what the hell they're listening to. Getting straight back on the plane looked strangely attractive.

I have since suppressed the memory of that awful day so thoroughly that I 'm not sure even the best of regressional hypnotists could coax it back into my conscious mind. I do recall the intense nausea brought on by fear and that I had been was hoping that my colleague for the day would be able to offer some encouragement in this my hour of need. After all they too had been through this first day torment as well. With great misfortune this turned out not to be the case, interpreters can be very amenable but life can be very hard if they decide not to be . I didn't really understand what was going on in English and I was terrified of the French. Indeed the only other recollection I have is of the moment which saved my day and quite possibly the career I was ready to pack in there and then. With my colleague loitering in the loos I was alone in the booth when the French chairman chose his moment to put a direct question to the UK delegate. I understand the words but not what they mean. This is a one of those crunch moments. What is he talking about ? I spit out my best version of the query and look distraught at the UK delegate. She takes off her headphones. She' s going to ask him to repeat the question. How embarrassing, there's only me in the booth, they're all going to turn round and look at me. She flicks on the microphone, looks at the chairman and says, " Well that' s a very good question, Mr Chairman." Neurosis, as well as high blood pressure, are part and parcel of the attractive employment package offered the conference interpreter. 170 net per day (increasing to 220 if you make it to 100 days) may or may not compensate for hair loss, paranoia, headaches .... I'll have to wait and see. I'm gradually beginning to believe that I can indeed do job and stay sane. Well 3 months later and I'm still in Luxembourg. It 's a start ! .

Andrew Gillies


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