Half a Kingdom

“When you wake up in the morning, you never can tell what might happen to you during the day.”

So begins one of my favourite stories from my childhood, Half a Kingdom, based on an Icelandic folktale. In it, the heroine, a young peasant girl named Signy, battles a snowstorm, rescues the hapless Prince Lini from the clutches of two evil trolls, berates the king for the unfair distribution of wealth in his kingdom (gotta love those Nordics), and plays two games of checkers.

I’ve been thinking about this story a lot lately. The message to “expect the unexpected” is one that I think every conference interpreter can take to heart, since it’s true that all too often, despite our best and most thorough preparation, we have little idea at the start of the day in the booth exactly how that day is going to turn out.

But that’s not really why Signy and her adventures have been on my mind of late. It has much more to do with all the 2011 retrospectives and New Year’s messages that have been coming my way. I have been inspired by them to look back at my own past year, and when I look back at what has happened, all I can think is that there is no way I could have predicted any of it. I’d like to amend the quote above to read “When you wake up on January 1st, you never can tell what might happen to you that year”.

A brief (and incomplete) recap of my past year reveals both bright lights and shadows. Bad news first: in 2011, budget cuts led my alma mater, the University of Westminster, to close the doors on one of the most prestigious conference interpreter training courses in Europe (read more about that here). Also, a colleague lost a major interpreting and translation tender from a long-standing client to a dubious low-cost outfit from halfway around the planet – and in the process, I lost out on the opportunity to be part of his team. Another major translation client of mine, an international federation, went bankrupt as a direct result of the international financial crisis.

On the bright side, 2011 was the year in which I began to be hired regularly to interpret at the hearings of the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. I was also invited to participate for the first time in a joint bid for a major European translation tender. On the teaching front, I started to participate in videoconferences (read more about those here), sat for the first time on an examination board, and launched my own lecture series.

On the social media front, 2011 was the year that saw the launch of the Facebook page and Twitter account for my secretariat, AIB, and the year I was asked to join the social media team for my professional association, AIIC (what an honour!). And – how could I forget? – in 2011 I started writing The Interpreter Diaries.

The funny thing is, if I look at everything I’ve just listed above, I can honestly say that last January 1st, I had absolutely no idea that any of it was going to happen. Waking up this morning, I think that it’s fair to say that the same is likely to be true of this year. There are some hints of possible new projects beckoning to me from just over the horizon, which makes me optimistic that 2012 will hold many new  opportunities. But just as in previous years, it’s likely that there will be plenty of surprises in store as well…

Illustration by Nola Langner

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Interpreting Myths: The Video

Yes, I’m still on holidays. By the time this post is published, I will have celebrated two family birthdays and engaged in some serious R&R, Canadian-style. Soon, I will be back at home and ready to get blogging again for real (just when everybody else turns off their computers for the summer and heads off to the beach – what’s wrong with this picture?).

Anyway, this week’s post looks at a video I did for Lourdes of AIB many moons ago (I’m guessing by the fleece sweater I’m wearing that it must have been filmed sometime around Christmas). In the video, I look at a number of common myths surrounding interpreter training. If you haven’t seen the video yet, then you might want to take 7:41 minutes of your time to do so.

Below, I am also including the original script that I wrote for the video. Anyone who is too busy to watch the video can skim the script for the main ideas. Readers interested in seeing how far an interpreter trainer can go off track when trying to improvise on a theme on the basis of written notes can compare the written and recorded versions of the speech. Also, students wanting to test their consecutive note-taking technique can try to take notes from the video, as it is pretty much in line with the kind of speech I would give in a consecutive class, in terms of length, structure and difficulty of the subject matter (although it might be lacking in figures).

Enjoy!

Top misconceptions about training to become an interpreter

1)   ANYONE CAN BE AN INTERPRETER

Many believe you don’t need any training at all, you just have to speak a couple of languages to become an interpreter. This misconception possibly arises from the fact that when you watch a good interpreter in action, it all appears so effortless. This may lead the uninitiated to think that anyone can do it that easily.

This is absolutely FALSE. It’s like saying anyone who can use a thermometer can be a doctor, or owning a pair of skis will make you a ski jumper. While the thorough knowledge of languages is absolutely essential to becoming an interpreter, it is not enough in itself. The reason why it all looks so easy is because the interpreter has spent years training and practicing the skills required to do his or her job.

2)   INTERPRETERS ARE BORN, NOT MADE

Here, the idea seems to be that some people are born with a “knack” for interpreting and others don’t. It is true that a certain number of “in-born” traits will make it easier for one to learn the skills required to become an interpreter. For instance, it helps to:

– be a good communicator
– have a quick and well-organised mind
– have the ability to concentrate and focus, especially in stressful situations
– have strong nerves
– have intellectual curiosity
– be adaptable to new situations
– be a people person (although not all interpreters are extroverts)
– be a team player
– show personal integrity

However, even having all of these things won’t automatically make you a “born interpreter”. In the ten years that I have been training interpreters, I have seen many a promising student show up on the first day with all of these traits, and still not make it as interpreters in the end. The fact is, if you don’t apply yourself and work hard to learn the specific skills related to interpreting, you will never make it.

Which brings me to myth number 3…

3)   INTERPRETING CAN’T BE TAUGHT

This one is actually a bit mystifying for me, since most people seem to agree that pretty much every other profession requires training. You want to build a skyscraper? Go and study architecture. You want to run a multinational? Sign up for an MBA. You want to become an interpreter? Apply to a postgraduate interpreting course.

The idea here behind the myth that interpreting can’t be taught would appear to be that since the whole interpreting process all happens so quickly inside one’s head, there is no way to actually figure out what’s going on in there and then teach the techniques required. This is particularly the case for simultaneous translation, where observers see the interpreter listening, mentally analysing and translating the message, and speaking all at the same time.

I’m pleased to say that this belief is also FALSE:

Decades of theoretical research into interpreting have led to well-developed theories of interpretation which show that interpreting is not just an instinctive activity that can only be “learned by doing”. Hundreds of academic articles and dozens of books have been published on the subject. All this has led to a theoretical and practical understanding of just how the interpreting feat is accomplished – and this is what is taught to aspiring interpreters.

During an interpreter training course, the interpreting process is broken down into different phases and skill sets. Each is tackled separately first, and then brought together to create the final product. I liken the process to learning how to juggle. It’s a matter of first learning to throw the balls separately, and then gradually managing to keep them all up in the air. Inevitably, a lot of balls will end up on the floor as the learning takes place, but the end result will be students who are able to do all of these skills apparently “at once” and perform the act of interpreting.

The whole process of becoming an interpreter, far from being impossible to learn, is actually very long and painstaking, and students themselves often complain that one year is not enough (this is the usual length of a postgraduate degree in conference interpreting). This stands in stark contrast to the views of laypeople, who seem to think that no training at all is required, or indeed, even possible.

If you are going undertake training as an interpreter, you had better make sure that you are at the right place, where the job is going to be done right.

Which brings me to my fourth and final myth about interpreter training:

4)    ALL INTERPRETING COURSES ARE CREATED EQUAL

This is simply not true. Just as I’m sure you would do a lot of research before applying to an executive MBA, I highly recommend prospective students research various interpreting schools before making their choice. They shouldn’t necessarily just pick the course closest to home, or the one at the university their friends plan to attend.

What to look out for? According to the AIIC (the International Association of Conference Interpreters), which has drafted a list of best practice for conference interpreting training programmes, a course should be at the postgraduate level, be at least one year long, be taught by conference interpreters, include an aptitude test, and teach both consecutive and simultaneous interpreting techniques.

The AIIC’s recommendations, as well as a number of other tips for prospective students of interpreting, can be found on the website of AIB, along with a lot of other useful information about the profession. AIB offers objective, useful information and debunks a lot of myths, including the four I have talked about today.

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The Long Dark Summertime of the Soul

“That’s it for this season! I won’t be back in the booth until mid-September.” These words were spoken by a colleague of mine almost a month ago now (on June 17, to be exact). Her comment got me thinking about one of the things at the top of freelance conference interpreters’ minds around this time of year: the dreaded summer break.

Now, don’t get me wrong: freelance interpreters like their summer holidays as much as the next person! The problem, really, is that we tend to get far too much of them. Take my colleague, for example. Let’s assume (reasonably, I think) that she, like many freelance interpreters in Europe, won’t be getting back into the booth until the second Strasbourg session in September, which starts on the 26th. That gives her a whopping one hundred days of summer vacation between interpreting jobs.

That figure, while falling just short of the 104 days that Phineas and Ferb made famous, is still considerably more than most other professionals would consider necessary to recover from a busy spring season. This year, my own summer break will start tomorrow (which explains why I am writing about holidays today) and will last until my first fall contract on September 12th. That gives me a total of 65 days to do … what?

I know it’s from the wrong book, but still, it fits here, don’t you think?

Well, first I’ll spend some time recovering from a grueling spring season that saw me travel 83,599 km and spend 62 nights away from home (I know this for a fact, because I have this little app on LinkedIn that actually keeps track of my travel times and distances – depressing, really). I also plan to refamiliarize myself with where everything is kept in my kitchen and bathroom at home, not to mention reintroduce myself to my kids.

A big highlight of my summer will be the trip I’ll be taking back to the homeland to see my family and celebrate both my mom’s birthday (the big 65) and my Oma’s birthday (the big 100). That trip, which starts this weekend (yay!), will take up what’s left of July.

Then what? Well, it would be great, having fully recharged the ol’ batteries and caught up with my family, to be able to get back down to work upon my return home on August 1st.

Of course, we all know that’s impossible. I can hear my readers laughing uproariously already. Everybody knows the entire European continent shuts down for the month of August while its population heads for the beach or the mountains, and there’s nothing that you or I or anyone else can do to change that. This is where the bright, happy summer break starts turning into a very long, dark summertime indeed.

Wowbagger, eat your heart out…

A conference interpreters’s working life – being concentrated, for obvious reasons, into the periods when people hold conferences – is highly seasonal. In Europe at least, the busy seasons for interpreting are surprisingly short, with one peak from March to May and another from October to November. The Germans have a good word to describe the lengthy bit in between: they call the dip in activity seen in many industries in August the Sommerloch. For interpreters, I’d say it’s not so much a “hole” as a gaping chasm.

The Long and the Short of It

Despite the seasonal nature of our work, interpreters, like all other people, have to pay the rent or mortgage, the car loan, and all the other bills on a monthly basis. So what does this mean? Well, for me at least, it means working like even more of a madwoman in the short high season so that I have something left over to make it through the long summer. For others, it might mean taking on other types of work to bridge the gap.

The good news here is that the translation industry seems to work in reverse to the interpreting industry. Companies seem to tend to get their big jobs ready to ship out for translation just before they shut down for the summer – and expect to have the translations sitting on their desks waiting for them when they open up shop again on September 1st. This summer translation peak is manna from heaven for those interpreters who also translate. They get to spend those empty days actually earning money instead of just watching it disappear from their bank accounts. A bonus here is that many full-time professional translators also choose to take some time off over the summer, meaning that companies are more likely to call upon “standbys” to fill the gap.

Of course, not all interpreters can or do translate (I touched briefly upon this point in my recent article for IAPTI, Confessions of a Conference Interpreter). Similarly, not all interpreters are lucky enough to be able to work “overtime” in high season to compensate for the lack of earnings during the rest of the year. I guess everybody has to find their own way of coping with the lack of income over the summer season, and there are probably as many solutions as there are interpreters in this world.

Busy, Busy …

Now, I don’t want to give the impression that conference interpreters sit around doing nothing at all during their extended summer break. On the contrary, interpreters are notorious for finding ways of keeping themselves busy, and so I suspect there are precious few out there just sitting around all summer bemoaning their underoccupied fate.

One excellent way to fill up those long summer days is to use them for professional development. Learning new languages or brushing up on the ones they already speak are probably among the favorite summertime occupations for interpreters. This can be done in any number of ways: by arranging stays in countries where the language is spoken, ensuring their summer reading list includes books in those languages, or signing up for extra language classes.

Professional development can also come in the form of one of the many summer courses targeted at conference interpreters. This year, there are refresher courses for practicing interpreters being offered at Cambridge, Lisbon, Heriot Watt University in Ediburgh, Germersheim, York University in Toronto, the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg,  and probably some other places I’ve missed. There was supposed to be a refresher course this summer at the University of Westminster, too, but we all know what happened to that plan. Also, there is a Training for Trainers seminar scheduled for early September in Budapest and run by the incomparable Dick Fleming. The UIMP summer school is not specifically targeted at interpreters, but is a popular summer destination for colleagues planning to add Spanish. And there are probably many more courses that I haven’t heard about.

Anyone looking to network in person this summer might want to check out the FIT’s XIX World Congress in San Francisco on the topic of “Bridging Cultures”. Conference interpreting highlights on the conference agenda include keynote speeches by Olga Cosmidou, Director General of Interpreting for the European Parliament and Benoît Kremer, President of AIIC. Funnily enough, the World Congress is being held in August. I don’t know whether this is an admission of the fact that interpreters have nothing better to do at that time of year, or if it is because other unwritten rules apply to the U.S. conference season that I know nothing about.

As for my own long, dark summertime of the soul, I imagine that I will be forced to spend much of August emptying my inbox, which currently boasts almost 2000 unsorted emails and is sure to have doubled in size by the time I get back from my three-week-long, largely internet-free holiday (just for readers’ information, I have prepared and scheduled blog posts throughout the month of July, so there will be something coming out every week while I am away). Also, my Portuguese teacher has come up with the brilliant idea of holding a test in the first week of September, an event for which I am woefully unprepared. Well, I guess I’ve got 65 long, summer days ahead of me to remedy that …