Hitting 40

Blogs reach milestones all the time: a hundred posts, a thousand followers, a hundred thousand visits. Bloggers reach milestones as well, of course. This particular blogger marked a very important date over the holiday season: the big four-oh.

Just as WordPress encourages its authors to use their blogging milestones to reflect on how far they’ve come and set themselves new goals, I’ve decided to use the occasion of my 40th birthday to think back on what’s happened so far in my life and speculate on what might come next (warning: this post is more personal than most on the Diaries, and is only marginally related to interpreting, so if you’re not interested, feel free to stop reading here).

40 birthday balloon by Stuart Miles

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net


Thinking back, I try to picture myself at the age of ten growing up in small town Canada. A typical fifth grader, I spend my days at school, going to dance and piano lessons and playing softball. Like most of my friends, I speak only English, although my Mom will sometimes say a few words in French at home and my Opa teaches me Dutch nursery rhymes at Christmas. I think if you were to ask me what I want to be when I grow up, I would say an astronaut.

I wonder what little, ten-year-old Michelle would think if someone told her that ten years later, she’d not be studying physics or astronomy in preparation for her great space adventure, but instead would have learned to speak her family’s two heritage languages, would be majoring in German and French, and be busy trying to learning a few more languages in her spare time (I’ll tell you which ones at the end of this post).


Flash forward ten years. I’m working part-time at an independent bookstore to put myself through university. A few language study trips abroad have whetted my appetite for travel, and so I’m socking the extra pay away with vague plans to spend it on a trip around the world at some point (the Canary Islands are not on the itinerary, of course, as I don’t even know they exist). The astronaut dreams have long faded by now, and while no major career plans have stepped in to take their place, at this stage I am pretty sure that my future job will have something to do with languages.

I wonder what Michelle, the college girl, would think if someone told her that while she’d never get to take her round-the-world dream trip, the next ten years would see her living and studying in three countries and ultimately setting up house on an island off the coast of the Western Sahara.


By the age of 30, the original idea of finding a language-related job has led me, via a meandering route, to the position of freelance conference interpreter at the European Institutions. I’m increasingly confident on the job but still very green. My better half and I have settled into our adoptive home on the Canaries, although I still can’t get used to the constant sun, the locals’ habit of saying “yes” when they mean “no” (and vice-versa), and the complete lack of seasons. I’ve tried to learn a few more languages, and while more often than not I’ve found myself throwing in the towel after the first few months, I’ve managed to stick it out in the case of Spanish and have successfully added that string to my language bow. My learning focus is also turning to interpreter training, as I try to find out what I need to do in order to help students develop their nascent skills.

I wonder what Michelle, the young professional, would think if someone told her that by the time she reached 40, she’d be the proud mom of two beautiful kids, clocking up over a hundred thousand air miles a year in business travel, not just teaching but designing interpreting courses and writing a blog about her work that people actually read. The mind boggles.


And what does the 40-year-old me think about all this? Well, these would be the first conclusions that come to mind:

1) You really never can know where life will take you

2) The most unlikely people can end up becoming conference interpreters

3) There is not much point even trying to predict what the future might hold, as the world changes so rapidly that we simply don’t know what opportunities (and threats) might be around the corner

4) Be ready for anything, open to new ideas, and seize opportunities whenever they present themselves

5) Do not take language learning lightly (!)

And finally, I’d say that if the next ten, twenty or thirty years prove as unexpectedly fulfilling as the past forty, then I can count myself extremely fortunate.

Crystal ball time

So what does the future hold for this interpreter? I’m not sure. Maybe there will be a Ph.D. in there somewhere (I am the only one in my family without a “Dr.” on my business card and at some point I may decide to remedy that). Maybe we will arrange a long-term stay in Canada so the kids can spend some time closer to their Canadian family. Maybe, having tried and spectacularly failed to learn Japanese, Polish, Finnish, Arabic and Croatian (in that order), I will finally see it through with Portuguese and add a sixth working language to my combination. Maybe someone will finally invent Google Interpret and I will have to reinvent myself as a basket weaver (or go back to the original astronaut plan?).

As to what the future holds for interpreting, I have my own ideas about that, and may share them in a future post. Right now, however, I want to hear what readers think. Let me know in the comments section where you see the interpreting profession in ten years.

I’d like to suggest we all check back in ten years’ time to find out if our predictions have come true, but something tells me that WordPress will no longer be around in 2023…

31 thoughts on “Hitting 40

  1. Happy birthday! And ‘gefeliciteerd!’ to all your family and friends too 😉

    I wonder what’s with aspiring astronauts, all of you seem to end up in the language industry; you’re the second one I hear about in the past few weeks (the other one being my friend and colleague Carmen).
    I especially agree with point 1), life takes you to unexpected places, and it’s so much fun! 🙂

    • Thanks for your comments, Amaia. Would-be astronauts turned language professionals, I wonder what the connection is… In my review of Found in Translation I talked about how much I wish I could have been an interpreter for NASA. That would have been the best of both worlds! 😉

      As for where life can take you: if I’m not mistaken, it’s taken you away from my dear Canary Islands to a number of different destinations recently (yes, I read your blogs 🙂 ). Like I said, it’s a question of seizing opportunities where they arise, and my guess is you are an expert at that!

  2. I’m another conference interpreter who wanted to be an astronaut at one point, until I realised I’ve have to study physics and maths!

    • Dziękuję bardzo! I actually tried twice: once during my studies in Canada and then a few years later while living in Germany. The first time around, I was surrounded in class by Polish-Canadians who semed to know all the answers already, so I became discouraged. The second time, I had an excellent teacher and actually learned a thing or two (including the names of the best Polish vodkas ;)). I managed to get to the point where I could get by on the street during visits to Poland.

      But that was long ago, and life has taken me in other directions since then. Still, every once in a while I wish I’d stuck with it (especially back in 2004, when Poland joined the EU and interpreters with Polish were all the rage 😉 ).

      I’d encourage anybody reading this who is thinking of learning Polish to go for it – it’s a fascinating language and the country is full of wonderful people.

      • This is a very nice comment Michelle, I am Polish too but it happened to me more than once to think “everything would be so much easier if French or English were my mother tongues” I wanted to do my masters in conference interpreting in Spain precisely at your university or even in Rome but there are no such language combinations…as for the future I was supposed to start my masters next year but my university (paris sorbonne) is sending me to South America next year, this is such a great opportunity, I just cannot say no and I have to postopone my masters in interpreting…anyway what is mean is that we cannot plan anything concerning our future and this definitely is exciting ! May I know how old were you when you started studying the interpreting please ? And was it difficult to get a job?
        I really admire that you manage to be an interpter, a mum and a blogger at the same time. Gratulacje !! 🙂

      • Hi Justine,

        Thanks for your questions. I started my interpreter training in 1999, the year I turned 27. I had been planning to do an MA in conference interpreting since about 1995, but life got in the way ;). In the end, I am very glad I waited the extra few years, for reasons both personal and professional.

        As it turned out, I passed the SCIC accreditation test just a few weeks after graduation, so I never had trouble with finding work at the beginning. And I was lucky starting out on the private market, as well, as by the time I started working privately in 2004, I was already an AIIC member and had many professional contacts who were happy to hire me.

        With respect to schools with your combination, have you checked out AIIC’s School Finder? http://aiic.net/directories/schools/finder/lang/1

        Good luck with your travels!

  3. Happy birthday, Michelle! 🙂
    An interesting read you prepared for us. I have wanted to become an interpreter/translator since forever, I would say, probably when I started learning Italian by spending time with my relatives on the other side of the border (at 7) and found it fascinating how an entire (different) world grew from another language and its expressions. After passing ACI in nov, I feel I’ve reached a new milestone, but I still have to wait for contracts to really start living it! 😉
    In ten years time, I will hopefully have finished my PhD and start interpreting more, maybe continue teaching as I find it more and more attractive (never thought of that in the past). If Google Interpret kicks in, well, I might turn to growing bio-vegetables, even farming (beekeeping included 😉 and learning new languages just for the fun of it …

    • Yay! You passed the accreditation test! Congratulations. (I knew you were due to take it, but I was afraid to ask how it went. Well, that’s one less hurdle to worry about…)

      You’ve been doing things the logical way around – finish the education first, then get working. If I do decide to take time out to complete a doctorate, it will be hard. But I’ve been thinking about the idea more and more lately, who knows what will happen.

  4. Happy belated birthday, Michelle, and thank you for sharing your past and future goals!
    I guess life is like a box of chocolates…you never know what you’re going to get. But you can choose the brand. I’m all for Belgian chocolates these days 🙂

    Have a great day,

  5. Great post, Michelle! Congratulations on all the great milestones you have reached and conquered by 40! I am also going through the pre-big birthday questions (3-0) and wondering where I will be in 10 years time, still in Brussels, still interpreting? What new languages lie ahead? So many questions!

    • Nice to hear from you, Miren. What languages have you been considering? So many to choose from ;).

      You know, the DG INTE intranet has a section with interpreter reviews of language schools. You may want to check it out before you decide.

  6. Happy birthday, Michelle!!

    I for one am hitting on 30… And by the time I’m 40 I want to be an interpreter for the EU – if Leeds University ever get enough students with Portuguese that is:(

    Congratulations on your progress with Portuguese – it’s beautiful! Maybe I will try to add Russian or Greek in the near future. I used to speak Russian when I was little and Greek, well, I fell in love with the country when I was 10 and was reading about all the gods and heroes from a big fat book! It was one of those places that I knew I will love forever even before I visited it. And now my significant other is Greek 🙂

    Thank you for your blog. As a EU interpreter wannabe, I couldn’t do without it 🙂

    • Thank you for your kind comments, Diana. I hope your plans come to fruition. One thing is clear to me at 40, and that is that at 30, I was just hardly starting out professionally. Many interpreters I know didn’t start training until well after 30, and far from being a handicap, the extra life experience worked to their advantage.

      By the way, my 7-year-old son’s favorite book right now is a big, fat, illustrated book on Greek gods that his auntie gave him for Christmas. Will he learn Greek as a result? Who knows? 😉

  7. Happy birthday, Michelle! I hope in ten years we’ll still be following your blog, be it on WordPress or elsewhere. And I’m sure in ten years there will be more need of interpreting services, the globalisation will increase the demand for intercultural communication, and nope, there won’t be any Google interpret to take away human jobs. Because one thing that Google will never learn is combining logic and creativity. It can be logical more often than not, it can even be creative from time to time, but there is no way for it to combine these two because there’s no algorithm for doing this.

    • Thank you for your predictions! I hope we’ll have a chance to meet in 10 years and discuss if you were right :).

      I agree that the complex skills required for interpreting will be hard to replicate by a machine, but the way things are advancing with voice recognition, automatic translation, and related technologies, you never know. Also, it will depend on how client expectations change over time. They may lower to be more in line with what technology can provide (for free?).

    • No idea, and I certainly wish the people at WordPress well, but the way things change in the online world, who knows what will be around in ten years. Blogging will probably be considered a quaint, yet outmoded, early 21st-century pastime ;).

  8. Happy Birthday, Michelle! I would have never ever imagined that you wanted to be an astronaut!

    I am glad that life took you to the Canary Islands and I am glad too that life took me to the same islands too 🙂

    All the best!

  9. Thank you for this post.

    I’m a French young graduate working in a company abroad and planning to focus on my first dream: becoming an interpreter.

    However, no matter how enthusiastic and confident I am about it (at least, thinking that it is worth trying), my relatives and friends do not feel the same way. Going back to school at 27 seems odd, especially when you have a “secure job” as myself.

    I’ve been reading you for several months now, and you are definitely bringing me a support whenever I have the blues thinking about my future. I didn’t know about your background, ie, your personal life, and I’m now even more excited about fulfilling my objective.

    Thank you !

    Also, don’t give up on Japanese. It just takes time ! (took me twelve years to learn it to a level where I can say “hey, I can become an interpreter with that level”)

    • Thanks for your comments, Vincent. I don’t think going back to school at age 27 or later is odd at all! That’s exactly the age I decided to do my MA at. And now, at 40, I’m thinking I might like to go back and do my PhD some day. I actually find older students much more prepared to deal with the training and make the most of it. There may be many arguments against not becoming an interpreter, but “you’re too old” is definitely not one of them, as far as I’m concerned.

    • I had a lovely birthday, thanks for asking :). I spent it in Canada with my family, frolicking in the snow on a perfect winter day. Almost exactly the way I spent my 30th birthday, come to think of it. Maybe things haven’t changed so much, after all… 🙂

  10. Pingback: Weekly favorites (Feb 4-10) | Adventures in Freelance Translation

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