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…

European Multilingual Blogging Day 2012

November 14th is European Multilingual Blogging Day 2012, an event organised by the Euonym blog as part of Internet Week Europe. This post on the Diaries is meant to mark the occasion.

The piece, which will be the first on this blog to include a language other than English, has an interesting story behind it that makes it particularly special for me.

It all goes back to summer 2011, when Raluka Sandu, a student of Applied Languages at the University of Rouen, contacted me to ask if I would like to contribute to her final project. Part of the assignment involved interviewing a language professional about their work and presenting the results to the class.

Raluka wanted to add a twist to the interview by holding it as many different languages as possible. A quick check revealed that she and I have four languages in common: English, French, Spanish and Portuguese (I don’t speak Romanian and Raluka doesn’t speak Dutch or German). We agreed that she would ask me two questions in each language. I did my best to provide grammatically correct replies (any errors readers may detect in the interview below are my fault and mine alone!).

A final note before we start: I don’t often share personal information on my blog, so I guess this post, which explains how one small-town girl from the Canadian prairies came to be a conference interpreter for the European Institutions, is an exception in more ways than one. Enjoy!

1) Which are your working languages?

I work from French, Spanish, Dutch and German (my C languages) into English (my A language or mother tongue). I am also currently learning Portuguese with a view to adding it as a C language at some point in future. I don’t have a retour or B language; in other words, I don’t work from English into any of my other languages.

2) Qu’est-ce qui vous a donné le goût de l’interprétariat?

C’était ma belle-soeur qui m’a donné l’idée de devenir interprète. Elle m’avait parlé d’une annonce qu’elle avait vue dans la Faculté des Arts de l’Université au Canada où je faisais mes études à l’époque (c’était en 1994) du « stage » ou formation interne offerte par le SCIC, le Service Commun d’Interprétation et Conférences (SCIC) de la Commission Européenne à Bruxelles. Bien que je n’aie pas fait le stage (parce que quand j’ai finalement décidé d’étudier l’interprétation en 1999, le SCIC avait déjà abandonné la formation interne), cette conversation « innocente » a piqué mon intérêt pour la profession et a fini par déterminer mon futur.

3) ¿Cuál fue su formación académica?

Me licencié en lenguas modernas (francés y alemán) en la Universidad de Alberta en Edmonton, Canadá (hay que decir que sólo me decanté por el alemán, porque no ofrecían el neerlandés, que es lo que realmente quería estudiar). Durante mis estudios, pasé un año académico en Marburgo, Alemania, donde seguí cursos del segundo ciclo (Hauptstudium) de filología alemana. Al mismo tiempo seguía con mis estudios de neerlandés – que había empezado en 1990-91 durante mi estancia de un año en los Países Bajos – y en 1994 conseguí el certificado avanzado de neerlandés como idioma extranjero (el CNaVT, equivalente al DELE para el español).

En 1999, después de haber trabajado durante unos años como traductora en Alemania, decidí intentar cumplir el sueño que me había acompañado desde aquella conversación fatídica con mi cuñada y formarme en interpretación de conferencias. Me informé sobre varios cursos, pero al final me decanté por el Máster en Técnicas de la Interpretación de Conferencias (MA en Conference Interpreting Techniques) de la Universidad de Westminster en Londres. Hice el Máster durante el curso académico 1999-2000.

4) Qual foi o seu percurso profissional?

Como já comentei, antes de ser intérprete de conferências trabalhé como tradutora, mas vou centrar-me no meu percurso profissional como intérprete. Depois de terminar o curso de formação en Londres fiz o teste de acreditação do SCIC. Passei no teste y por isso convidaram-me a formar parte do Programa dos Jovens Intérpretes (“Young Interpreters Scheme” em inglés, “insertion” em francés), que durou um ano. Depois comecei a trabalhar para o SCIC como intérprete freelance. Em 2004 as Instituções Europeias crearam uma lista conjunta dos intérpretes freelance e neste momento comecei a trabalhar para o Parlamento Europeio. Também em 2004 recibí o meu primeiro encargo no mercado privado, como intérprete no “Forum Universal das Culturas” em Barcelona. Y até hoje continuo assim, a repartir o tempo entre o trabalho para o SCIC (que agora se chama DG Interpretation) en Bruselas e Espanha, os plenos do Parlamento e alguns encargos no mercado privado. Recentemente comecei a trabalhar para o Tribunal de Justicia em Luxemburgo também.

5) If you were to characterise the profession of conference interpreter in three words, what would those be?

Always something new!

6) Y’a-t-il des aspects négatifs dans ce métier?

Pour moi, le seul aspect négatif est la nécessité de voyager beaucoup. J’habite aux Îles Canaries, mais je travaille a Strasbourg, Bruxelles, Luxembourg, Barcelona, Alicante … J’ai deux enfants qui sont très compréhensifs et ne se plaignent pas trop de sa “maman absente”, mais j’aimerais bien pouvoir être plus de temps chez moi avec ma famille. Et les longs voyages en avion sont très ennuyants.

7) Una pequeña pregunta bastante indiscreta: ¿Cuál fue su salario(sueldo?) al principio de su carrera y cuál es su salario ahora?

Cuando empecé a trabajar para el SCIC en 2000, el sueldo diario para un freelance rondaba los 425€ (o el equivalente en francos belgas), aunque como principiante o “intérprete de categoría 2”, sólo ganaba el 72% de esta cantidad. Después de 100 días (que hoy son 250) en la categoría 2, pasé a categoría 1 y empecé a cobrar el sueldo íntegro. Hoy en día el sueldo para un día de trabajo en las Instituciones Europeas es 548,59€. El sueldo aumenta cada seis meses siguiendo unos criterios de indexación establecidos. Las condiciones de trabajo (el sueldo incluido) son objeto de un convenio colectivo negociado entre las Instituciones Europeas y la Asociación Internacional de Intérpretes de Conferencia (AIIC) actuando como representante de los intérpretes en las negociaciones.

8) Que conselhos você daria a um jovem que quer ser um dia intérprete de conferência?

Eu diria que antes de decidir-se para a interpretação, é importante informar-se sobre as realidades da profissão, porque nao é tão romántica como as pessoas acreditam. É preciso averiguar a situação do mercado para a sua lingua, porque é possivel que nao haja muito trabalho. Também é possivel que tenha que aprender mais linguas antes de estudar a interpretação.

Se depois de te ter informado ainda desejas ser intérprete, é interesante saber que não é preciso estudar filología o tradução antes de comecar com a interpretação. Pode-se estudar direito, medicina, engenhería ou qualquer outra coisa.

Os interesados também deveriam ter em conta o facto de que os intérpretes costumam trabalhar em situações de estrés, entao se nao manejes bem o estrés, tal vez nao seja a profissão ideal para ti.

Finalmente, é conveniente ter uma forte curiosidade sobre o mundo, porque a vida do intérprete é uma aprendizagem contínua.

So, there you have it. Thanks again to Raluka for giving me the opportunity to share my story, and congratulations to her as well for the magna cum laude she was awarded on her degree! See you all next week…

Reliving Past Trauma

Last night, my four-year-old daughter had an accident. Playing in the living room before supper, she tripped, fell against a hard corner of the couch and knocked one of her front teeth loose.

Once the flow of blood had been stanched, the tears dried and the ice pack placed firmly against her swiftly swelling lip, I shared with her the story of a similar accident I’d had when I was about her age. I’d been fooling around near the TV when I tripped and landed hard against the edge of the TV stand, pushing one of my teeth through my lower lip. I told her I could still remember the shock, the pain, and especially all the blood.

I also shared with her the story of how her big brother, just a few years ago, had scraped his nose on exactly the same part of the couch where she had just left a smear of blood. I told her how he’d cried, and been scared, and how it had taken most of the rest of the summer for the mark to fade.

While these little stories didn’t make the pain go away or put her tooth back in place, my daughter seemed to derive considerable comfort from hearing them.

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Last week, my students at the MIC had their final interpreting exams. As I sat there in the examination room and listened to the proceedings, I was reminded of my own final exam experience.

I recalled the dreams I’d had in the run-up to exam week, in which the booths were falling down around me, there were students crawling in and out of the windows of the (fifth floor) exam room, and the sound was coming through my headphones all muffled, and yet I managed to soldier on (I guess that’s the power of positive thinking at work!).

I remembered how I’d felt so light-headed before going into my first consecutive exam that I’d had to squat on the floor in the room next to the exams and put my head between my knees so I wouldn’t pass out. I remembered desperately trying to recall those deep breathing exercises that our voice coach had drilled into us over the previous weeks and months, and wondering where everything I had learned about stress management had gone.

I remembered hearing the sound of my voice coming through the microphone, about three octaves higher than usual, during my first simultaneous exam and wondering if the examiners could make out any words in all that squeaking.

And finally, I thought back to the topics of the speeches given at my exams. As I listened last week to speakers giving exposés on the evils of Lactobacillus casei and the benefits of letting your kid play with a power drill (not in the same speech, of course), I remembered the speeches that had been served up at my own finals.

In one speech, I got to hear about the Bosman ruling (a heady mix of football jargon and EU regulations on the free movement of workers).  In another, it was the recent IPO of a promising German tech start-up that took center stage. Another speech was about the Elgin Marbles (which a classmate misheard as “les fraises du Parthénon”, leaving her wondering why all the fuss about a bunch of fruit). Yet another speech discussed the Maltese duck hunters’ opposition to joining the EU. And there were a few more that I’ve completely blocked out.

Last week, as I remembered all of this, I decided it was important to share my own traumatic exam experience with students and readers. Because let’s face it: even when you pass your interpreting exams, they’re still traumatic. One dictionary defines trauma as “a deeply distressing or disturbing experience”, and I think that just about sums up how I felt.

So yes, I suffered through my exams. Yes, I was nervous and stressed. Yes, I had crazy exam dreams. Yes, I had a few of those black-out moments when I thought the speaker was speaking Chinese (which is not in my language combination, in case you’re wondering). And you know what? Every single other conference interpreter I have ever discussed this subject with did, too. And we all lived to tell the tale.

So what’s next?

Now that the final exams are over, students may hope that the worst is behind them. Unfortunately, that’s not true. Equally, if not more, traumatic experiences may await them as budding conference interpreters. If they plan to work at an international institution, they will have to go through the stress of a formal exam situation all over again, and then withstand the pressure of regular peer reporting. If they plan to work on the private market, they will have to prove their worth over and over again, every time they get into the booth or pull out their notepad for a new client. So it’s not all smooth sailing from here on in.

Just like my daughter is likely to get a few more bumps and bruises as she navigates through her remaining childhood years, my former students, most now graduates with a diploma under their arm, still have their share of interpreting-related trauma to undergo. Hopefully, knowing that they’re not the only ones to go through it will make the journey a little more bearable.