Interpreting: The Formative Years

Having experienced the trauma of (blog) birth in my first post and discussed childhood aspirations in my second, it is only fitting that my third post address the next stage in the growing process. And would you believe it, I’ve got the perfect excuse to do so.

You see, I’ve been asked to speak to a group of local high school students about my job, as part of a careers initiative aimed at young people who are graduating from high school this June. Ever since I received the invitation last week, I have been lying awake nights thinking about what exactly I want to communicate to these young people.

This is no trifling matter. After all, I’m sure we all remember the moment when we (or our parents) asked the question: “What do you want to do with your life?” (I’ll spare you the gratuitous musical reference this time). I, for one, was so at a loss for a vocation as a teenager that at one point, I even considered becoming an actuary, simply because it was the first entry on an alphabetical list of careers that my school counsellor handed out. Really.

Now they’re going to accuse me of accountant-bashing

Anyway, all that nocturnal ruminating has led me to an answer to this all-important question, at least when it comes to conference interpreting. In my talk with these kids, I will tell them what interpreters do, how to become one if they decide it’s for them, maybe even do some memory games and consecutive exercises (this is going to be fun!) … But if there is one message that I want these 16-year-old kids to take home , it is this: “Take your time deciding if you want to be an interpreter. There’s no rush!”

Say what?

It’s true. Since interpreting is best taught at the post-graduate level (consult the full list of AIIC’s best practices for training courses here), there is no need for these high school students to decide now whether they want to become interpreters or not.

When I made this point at a public talk recently, one member of the audience commented that he had always been told that languages should be learned as early in life as possible, and that what I was saying appeared to contradict this. I explained to him that the two claims aren’t at all contradictory. Languages are indeed best learned when you’re young – as anybody who’s ever tried to learn one can confirm – but interpreting skills are an entirely different matter. And anyway, interpreting degrees aren’t about learning languages. By the time students enter into a post-graduate interpreter training program, they are expected to already possess the language skills required for getting through the course (more on language skills and admission requirements in future posts).

High School Confidential

Back to our high school students now: if they really are thinking about pursuing conference interpreting as a career, they will probably be happy to know that they should feel free to study whatever undergraduate degree strikes their fancy. You like politics? Fine, do that. Medicine, engineering? That’s okay, too. Theoretical physics, comparative linguistics? Sure, why not?

I would go even further and argue that, in addition to the necessary academic training, a wide range of life experiences will add to students’ chances of success when they ultimately decide to tackle conference interpreting. For instance, time spent living and working abroad will improve their ability to speak foreign languages and expose them to other cultures, while at the same time helping them acquire valuable life and coping skills that will serve them well when the going gets tough on the interpreting course (again, more on that in upcoming posts). Specialised training, internships and job experience can also add to the mix.

This is a great message for young people . They can feel free to pursue their interests while keeping the door to conference interpreting wide open. In fact, the expertise they acquire in other fields is bound to serve them well when they actually hit the interpreting market and are trying to stand out from the crowd (what medical congress organizer doesn’t want to hire a qualified interpreter who also happens to have a medical degree?).

And your point is … ?

Now, all this might seem so self-evident that you may wonder why I would dedicate an entire post to it. But I can’t tell you how many times I get interpreting students coming in from other fields who feel like they have to apologise for not having studied languages. Like being a mechanical engineer or a molecular biologist is a bad thing? Or older students (by “older” I mean, say, over the ripe old age of 27) who think they have a competitive disadvantage, because at that age, they’re “over the hill”. How thrilled these students are when I tell them that their outside experience and “advanced age” are actually plus points for them!

Now before anyone starts accusing me of making wild, uncorroborated claims, I’d argue that the circumstantial evidence bears me out. When I look at the 180-odd students I’ve worked with over the past 10 years, the ones I recall having passed with the most ease and who reached their professional goals most quickly are the ones who meet the above description. And anyway, the guidance provided by AIIC backs me up on this.

Of course, there have also been a handful of “child prodigies” who whizzed through the course at the tender age of 22 and went to work for the international institutions or on the private market straight after graduation. But generally speaking, the results I see, year on year, are the ones that confirm my message for today’s post: “take your time!”

So, now that I know what I will say when I stand up in front of those teenagers in a couple of weeks, I hope I will finally get a good night’s sleep – at least until it’s time to write my next blog post, that is …

10 thoughts on “Interpreting: The Formative Years

  1. I agree that students should feel free to study other fields at the undergraduate level. I did exactly that and never felt it hindered me at at all when I went into my MA program – quite to the contrary. We always say that interpreting is not just about languages anyway, and if the language competency is there and/or to come, all the better to pursue other areas of study. And let’s not forget, language competency includes the mother language.

    I also approach the question “What do you want to do with your life?” from a slightly different angle: “How do you want to live?” In my mid-20s I came to the realization that I didn’t want a steady job – freelancing was for me and interpreting offered that option.

    But how you want to live embraces more than that. I still view interpreting as a great profession for a generalist (OK – a specialist in interpreting if you like, but a generalist in all other things). Having a bit more than superficial knowledge of many areas is a pleasure, and I love looking at the morning paper, travel, reading books and much more as part of both job and life. It may not be a message that parents want to hear, but they’ll have time to come to grips with it. I remember taking my father to a conference (with permission of course); his view of my profession changed from mere acceptance to enthusiasm – he wore a huge smile for the rest of the week.

    One last thing: I also find that the mix of backgrounds adds a lot to class dynamics.

    • Thanks for the insights, Luigi. I agree that “how?” is just as important as “what?” when it comes to making decisions that will affect the rest of your life. As you of course know, AIIC has an interesting questionnaire about how the interpreter’s lifestyle will fit you in its guidance for students (for readers: it’s under the guidance link given in the post above, just scroll down a bit).

      Here comes my confession now :): I’m one of those interpreters who studied languages as an undergraduate degree. And while I don’t regret having learned about 18th-century French poetry and the grammar of Middle High German and everything else that goes with a degree in modern languages, I do sometimes wonder what it would have been like to pursue other interests first before coming into interpreting. I think I probably would have studied geology or physics. Maybe I still will – it’s never too late!

  2. Nunca es tarde si la dicha es buena, Michelle. Yo también estudié Traducción e Interpretación antes de realizar el MIC de La Laguna. Para nada me arrepiento de ello, pues era lo que quería hacer. Pero como bien dices, yo también aconsejaría a los “interpreters-to-be” que se formaran en cualquier disciplina que les apetezca, pues el mercado es más receptivo cuando tienes una especialidad. Por ello sigo formándome, como bien sabes 🙂 ¡Feliciades por el post y por la charla de dentro de dos semanas!

  3. Las aportaciones que he leído hasta ahora las conozco pero de oirlas en muy pequeñas porciones dispersas en pasillos y otros encuentros informales. Está muy bien que aparezcan aquí mejor articuladas y con más detalles. Agradezco que se hayan plasmado en los comentarios reflexiones que pertenecen a períodos anteriores a la formación como intérprete como también reflexiones que sólo puede tener el intérprete formado y en activo. Muy enriquecedor.

    • Thanks! I value your opinion highly, as you know. When you say “aportaciones mejor articuladas y con más detalles”, I’m hoping that’s not just a nice way of saying “obsessive-compulsive / nitpicking” 😉 ! I’d be the first to admit that my method might seem a bit plodding and overly thorough, but I feel I just have to tackle these topics one-by-one if I want to do them all justice. — Thanks again!

  4. Pingback: Portrait of a Conference Interpreting Course « The Interpreter Diaries

  5. Is 35 too old to consider interpreting? After 2 years in travel publishing and 9 in the UK government (in passive languages and other rather more specialist disciplines)? I would need to get my B and C languages up to scratch they are rusty and my Italian was never quite good enough – it was suggested years ago I improve that and consider it as a career as I had an aptitude – I did a module in Italian-English-Italian interpreting while doing my MA (Westminster) in Technical and Specialised Translation – taken in 2000.

    • Hi, Ruth, and welcome to the blog!

      I would say that 35 is definitely not too late to think about studying interpreting. As a matter of fact, this year there are 5 students (of a total of 19) over the age of 30 at on the MA course at La Laguna where I teach. Read more about the course here:

      Of course, you will need to make sure that you have at least two languages other than English at the level required for studying interpreting, so if you say your languages are a bit rusty, you’ll want to do some intensive courses and/or spend some time where the languages are spoken *before* you think about starting your studies. But there is no reason at all why your age should limit your access to the profession. On the contrary, your life experience will most likely count in your favour ;).

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