Starting an interpreter training course? Better (not) keep your day job!

So you’ve been accepted onto a postgraduate conference interpreter training course. Congratulations! That means that you’ve made it past the first hurdle and are ready to get down to the business of learning the skills you need to become a conference interpreter.

Classes will be starting in a few weeks at most of the courses held in Europe, which means that right around now you will be putting those final details into place: packing your bags, stacking your dictionaries, kissing your mom / significant other / pet goldfish good-bye, and setting off into the wild blue yonder.

Chances are you have also already done some thinking about how you will be making ends meet while at grad school. There are probably as many solutions to this problem as there are grad students in the world. Some (like yours truly) will have taken out yet another student loan, others will be drawing on whatever savings they’ve managed to sock away (yep, did that, too!). Some may have a long-lost uncle footing the bill, or a selfless significant other willing to help subsidize their beloved’s academic venture with their own regular paycheck. And a few misguided souls may be planning to keep on working on the side while they study… Oops!

As  someone who put herself through her own undergraduate (not postgraduate) degree working odd jobs (as a bookstore clerk, tour guide, research assistant, exam marker, you name it…), it pains me to say this, but it is virtually impossible to do paid work and study conference interpreting at the postgraduate level at the same time.

The sort of course you are about to embark upon is a full-time job in itself. You’re looking at 15-20 hours per week of class time, 10-15 hours of group or individual practice outside of class, plus preparation work, studying to expand your general knowledge – and don’t forget that all-important down time (taking in a movie, going for a jog or a swim) when you are supposed to be letting your brain rest so it can consolidate all the new information it has been taking in. Not to mention those eight hours of beauty sleep … When, for goodness’ sake, is a side job supposed to fit into all that?

Generally speaking, and for obvious reasons, the paid work that gets done by an interpreting student takes the form of freelance translation. For someone who has, say, just spent the last several years building up a client base as a freelance translator, it is extremely tempting to want to maintain those professional contacts while studying – you know, just in case. Not to mention the fact that (life savings, spouses and rich uncles aside) some extra income will surely come in handy in a city such as Geneva, London or Paris.

But the one argument that should outweigh all those speaking in favor of “keeping your day job” is the fact that if you don’t focus on what you came to do – i.e. learn to be an interpreter – chances are you won’t make it. And then all your efforts that brought you this far in the first place will have been in vain.

I have seen the results of this time and again: the student who consistently shows up late for class, hasn’t done the reading, doesn’t have any glossaries prepared, or might not even show up at all for a few days running, who ends up falling further and further behind the rest of the group until, alas, he reaches the point of no return.

On small, intimate courses such as the one where I teach, this sort of behavior does not go unnoticed. On the contrary, usually within a few weeks of classes starting, the coordinators have already identified those who are struggling with the coursework due to outside commitments and have taken them to one side to have a little chat about it (assuming they can find them, that is!). Very often, the culprits for the no-shows and late arrivals are those urgent translations “that just had to be done by Friday” or “got sent unexpectedly by this really important client”.

Life, The Great Juggling Act

Just to make sure there is no misreading of my intent here, let me explain the title of this post to any readers out there who might not be all that familiar with English idioms. “Better keep your day job!” is the sort of reply you might give to someone who has just told you about some rash, doomed-to-failure project that they’ve started out on (“So, like, I’ve started night classes at this school for trapeze artists because I heard the Cirque du Soleil is recruiting”). I don’t want anyone mistakenly thinking that I am implying that students of interpreting fall into this category. My message today is quite clearly “Better NOT keep your day job!”, for the reasons I’ve expressed above.

Of course, not everyone has a choice in the matter. You may genuinely need the income that your side job generates, or really not want to risk losing your business contacts. If you are one of those students who does plan on keeping your day job while studying interpreting, then all I would ask you is that you realize what you are getting yourself into. Obviously, nobody – not me, nor your teachers, nor your concerned course coordinators who only want the best for you – can dictate how you will spend your time while pursuing your interpreting degree. But do think about all the hurdles you’ve overcome so far (and all the ones you have yet to deal with on the road to becoming a conference interpreter) and please make sure that you make the most of your training by using your time wisely.


17 thoughts on “Starting an interpreter training course? Better (not) keep your day job!

  1. I couldn’t agree more with you, Michelle, a postgraduate degree in Conference Interpreting is, indeed, a full time job!
    To those students who are planning on taking translation assignments to keep their clients “just in case” I would say this: I took a 2 year break from translation to focus on my masters in Conference Interpreting and when I resumed my career as a freelance translator (and interpreter!) most of my former clients where happy to hear back from me and ready to send me work.
    Also, when thinking about how to finance your postgraduate studies, don’t forget about the plethora of bursaries and scholarships out there!

    • Silly me, you are right, of course! I also got the SCIC bursary, which was worth 3000€ at the time and was only a drop in the bucket when compared to what ones needs to survive for a year in London. But every little bit helps!

      I should also mention that my significant other generously offered up his monthly salary to pay our exhorbitant London rent – without his help and support, then and now, I would never have become a conference interpreter, that much I know!

      Here are the links to the information on DG Interpretation’s bursaries:

      p.s. Enjoy the Hague! Have you tried bitterballen yet? The most disgusting Dutch pub grub ever invented. Although they are nice when dipped in a bit of mustard…

      • More like 2000 €, unless you did your training (these days it’s an MA) later than me. Some things might have changed, I do not keep track of things that are no longer of interest to me.
        I am not as eloquent as you, albeit we are colleagues. The thing is, I don’t work into EN. Nevertheless, I would like to refute two things in your post above.
        1) I studied at a programme where courses began at 18H00. Exactly because most of us if not everybody had a day job. I am sure 95% of us wouldn’t ever have been able to study if we were supposed to drop the day jobs.
        2) Movies, swimming, jogging (not that I do swimming or jogging)… Forget about it! Be happy if you get 4 hours of sleep. Which excludes the luxurious 8 hours of “beauty sleep”. But then, I’m a man. Even though I like to look good (rested and radiant, perhaps, even receive compliments), I can do a year or two without compliments for the complexion of my skin. I must however admit, that I didn’t have a boyfriend when I studied, and I’m single now.

        To resume, I think it is hard to study and work at he same time, but if the arrangements suit, it is possible. But there is one thing where I agree with you completely. Don’t go va banque! The failure rates at EU accreditation tests are way too high to risk your future. I know some fellow students who never dared to take the EU test (rightfully so) and a couple who tried it the infamous 3 times and kept failing (and now continue to blame the “bogus” jury who conspired against them). It is what is though.

  2. Humm, a very hot issue here, unfortunately this is true. I myself and many other classmates are very concerned. Here in Mozambique there’s a EMCI postgraduted taking place and here nobody can go postgraduated without any income to subsidize the course. So, some extra income is always capital. Thus, postgradiated course are mainly attended by people who keep on working while they study and so on. The majority of them keep their old interpreting and translating contacts and it is always (very) hard to conciliate such jobs and studys, but in our case this is not a choice. You may either gain some income to subsidize the course but not perform as expected or end up not attending the courses due to lack of funds to keep on with the training. What to do then?
    As it ways strongly stressed here; make a better and wise use of your time.

    • Thanks for contributing to the discussion. As you say, it’s a tough decision. And as I said, there are probably as many solutions under the sun as there are grad students.

      I would hope that where you are studying, there is the option to repeat the courseif things don’t work out the first year. That way at least, if you can’t dedicate all your time to it the first time around, you get another chance at it. At some courses in Europe, this is not the case – you only have one chance, so you have to give it your all!

      • other comments suggest bank loans and scholarships. imagine having tried all that and didnt succed, that’s the case here (you can only count on yourself and nobody else, plus, the whole family looking at you, you either try to swim maintaining your old contacts or sink). so we do our best and try to make a better use of our time (but i can assure you, its a very hard way of life). it might not work but we need to survive.

        actually in my case im doing a 2 years master in conference interpreting (EMCI) and by the end the first year we do exams that allows us to go for the second year. thats when we will be able of making a better evaluation and see if things worked out or not.

        I found this topic very interesting and i could realise that this is does not happen only in Mozambique, its common in many institutions even in europe and i could learn good lessons here. thanks all.

  3. Interesting post and comments. I agree with Interpreter Diaries, it is the advice we give to our students in Stockholm too. Let go of your job and focus on the interpreting studies. I did too, supported by my very significant other. Just as youI would never have become an interpreter had he not offered to take all our living costs. And in Sweden and Belgium the tuition fee is very low, so that wasn’t the issue.

    A handful of students have managed to work student jobs and pass the interpreting exam, one big exception took another course parallelly.

    Of course, there are many countries where it is probably impossible to allow oneself the luxury of student loans or support by others (especially if you’re the bread winner). The only way I can see around it is to adapt the curriculum.

    In Sweden the curriculum for the conference interpreting course is very intensive. We have just gone from one year to two year master. Students used to have interpreting lessons every morning and lectures of different interpreting related topics in the afternoon + time scheduled for excercises. Now we have gone to interpreting classes 2-3 mornings/week, but on the other hand they have to follow master related topics (i.e. Translation Studies theory, writing academic English etc). They have the same amount of interpreting hours as with the old course but now spread over two years.

    On the positive side there are alot of contact hours for the students (time when you are face to face with their teacher), expensive course for the university, but so far they’ve been positive. And for the students – it is exhausting.

    Sorry for making this extremely long comment, but as usual your topic is good and worth discussing.

    • Thanks for the comments. I agree that the universities could possibly do more to make their courses more accessible. For instance, there is a postgraduate community interpreting course in La Laguna that holds its classes in the afternoon/evening to cater to the “day job” crowd (although actual class time is very close to what the conference interpreting course offers, the fact that classes are later in the day make them easier for many to attend). This same course has also introduced a virtual (online) component to try and make content more accessible as well.

      However, I think it would be wrong to try and package a conference interpreter training course as a part-time option. It really does require 100%, full-time dedication from students.

      Two years sounds nice, of course, since you get more time to let it all sink in. However, I remember that back when I was looking at courses, I actually consciously chose the shortest one (Westminster) over the longer versions (ESIT, ETI), because I was already a working professional (in the translation business) and wanted to get this interpreter training business out of the way as quickly as possible so I could get back to work (as an interpreter this time) :).

      You could spend days discussing the best format for a training course (and I’m sure there are people out there who do!). Maybe we can look at that in future posts?

      • I had spent years translating texts too, before I took on the interpreter studies. Yet I still remember clearly my first days at EU institutions when I left the building after work, was “crying in the rain” (I mean it litterally) and thinking what I was doing there. I didn’t have much experience back then, and now — a few years later — I am part of the high-level teams. So it’s doable (is this even a word?).

  4. Excellent article, I couldn’t agree more! But I find the title dangerouly misleading… At first sight you get the impression there are arguments for and against keeping your job…

    • You’re right, of course. I initially was going to do a pro/con article on the subject, but then when I got down to writing, I realized that I just felt too strongly about it to try and take a neutral stance. I guess the title reflects my original idea more than what actually came out in the post.

      Maybe instead it should read “Better NOT keep your day job!” 🙂

  5. I think it depends on many factors, the student, their time management skills, the course, its demands. I saw many students over prepare, spending an unrealistic amount of time before class. Likewise, we were told to practice targeted training, rather than aim for flying miles. Burn out is a major risk factor to interpreters and isn’t something that should be encouraged early on. As with everything in life some moderation is required.

    Personally, I had prepared to spend more time on interpreting and had brushed off all but my most valued clients (including prestigious Swiss private bankers) but found myself twiddling my thumbs by the second or third week of the first semester. Many an interpreter will never work a full week in their entire career, especially not in the first few years after they graduate, so it seems counter-intuitive to tell them to put all their eggs in one basket. In fact, most will not earn their crust from interpreting for some time.

    I took on a full-time job, albeit freelance, to add to the five or six hours I had maintained and even then still had free time on my hands. I know one other student who decided to take on another Masters degree at the same time, and have heard of others doing the same.

    • Wow, two Masters at the same time. I am suitably impressed, especially if one of those was a conference interpreting degree. But surely that must be the exception …

      I agree with many of your points – such as the one about the risk of burnout, for instance. I actually tend to recommend to students to try and factor some non-interpreting activities into their schedule – movies, fun, beach, scuba diving, whatever, since many will be so focused on studying only that they tend to forget about the importance of striking a balance. But that sort of healthy diversion, for me at least, is different from holding a side job, where you cannot disconnect and give your brain a well-deserved break, but rather are forced to refocus it on some other sort of performance (e.g. producing a good translation).

      The bit about the eggs in baskets is the clincher, as I see it. You’re quite right that many working interpreters need a sideline, and indeed, many will take years to fully break into a market – so what are they meant to do in the meantime, if they have burnt all their bridges with their past clients? It really is a judgment call in the end, because if you end up keeping your job and then wind up failing your course as a result (a real possibility when you consider that conference interpreting MAs tend to have average 40-50% failure rates), then you really will have wasted all your efforts.

      Thanks very much for your views, in any case. Would you mind telling me if the course you did was a full-time 8-month intensive such as the one I am describing here? If it was structured differently, that might also account for the different approach and workload.

  6. Pingback: Weekly favorites (Sep 12-18) | Adventures in Freelance Translation

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