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.

General Knowledge: The Quiz

Several weeks ago, I wrote a post on general knowledge, looking at what a candidate to a conference interpreter training course might be expected to know. In that post, I promised to share with readers the questions asked at the aptitude tests held in June for the Master’s in Conference Interpreting at the University of La Laguna. Today, I’m going to keep that promise.

In total, about 50 different questions were asked over the course of the day that I was present at the aptitude tests (there were four days of testing in total – one on Tenerife and three in Madrid). I hesitated for a long time about whether I should publish all of the questions that were asked on that day, or just a selection. I finally decided on the latter approach, since it seemed to be closer to the actual test given on the day.

In the following quiz, you’ll see that there are two questions given for each language being tested. This is in keeping with the approach used at the aptitude tests: each student was asked only two questions for each passive language for which he or she was being examined. Candidates didn’t get 50 questions to show off their knowledge of the world with, but four, or at the most six.

Also, in the actual test, the questions were asked in the language being tested, and replies had to be given in that language as well. Here, I’ve translated them all into English, to give everybody a shot at them. (By the way, there were other languages tested on other days, but these were the only languages involved on the day that I was present.)

Time to take the test!


Who is the current Bundespräsident (not Bundeskanzler!) of Germany? How is the Bundespräsident elected?

What is celebrated on October 3rd in Germany? What does the date commemorate?


What do you think when you hear “Lorca”? (Note: there are two possible, completely unrelated answers to this question, and both are right.)

What can you tell me about the “Movimiento 15M”?


What happened on 25 April, 1974 in Portugal?

What were the results of the recent Portuguese elections?


Name any two newspapers published in France, and give me their general editorial line.

Name all the French overseas departments.


What are the BRICS countries and what unites them? How about the PIGS countries?

What’s the origin of the name “Tea Party” and what is the term used to refer to these days?


There you have it! Don’t worry about providing me with the answers in the comments section or anything like that, as this test is for readers’ personal edification only. I am pretty sure all of the correct answers can be found in Google without too much difficulty, although if anyone gets stuck on the Lorca one, let me know and I’ll be happy to explain.

My final holiday post is coming next week …

C is for … – The Interpreter’s Languages (Part II)

Last week, I left readers hanging, having explored the A and the B of the interpreter’s language combination as defined by AIIC and beyond, but not the C. I’m going to try to make up for that today.

We all know what “C” stands for to the Cookie Monster. For interpreters, “C” refers to “the language(s) of which the interpreter has a complete understanding and from which she or he works” (AIIC definition). These languages are also referred to as “passive languages”, since interpreters are not expected to work into them from any other language.

Passive, my foot!

Now, no-one should get the impression that passive languages are the poor cousins of the interpreter’s combination, or that since a language is “only” a C, it doesn’t require much effort to maintain. To an interpreter, passive knowledge of a language can often seem very active indeed! At least that’s how it feels to me at times, when I think about all the work I have to put into learning and maintaining my various passive languages.

To be able to classify a language as a C, an interpreter must have a full understanding of that language in all of its different forms. This means what? Well, to me at least, it boils down to three things.

1) You should be familiar with dialects and regional variations – so if, for example, the only French you understand is français de France, then you will have to start tuning your ear to the twang of Québécois and the distinct rhythm of African French (and don’t forget Belgium and Luxembourg and all the other places where French is spoken). Austrian vs. German vs. Swiss, Flemish vs. Dutch, the various versions of Spanish spoken around the world … Few languages are spoken in a single, standard version, and an interpreter must really know as many variants of his C as possible.

While I’m on the topic of language variants, it’s also worth remembering that anyone who wants to work from English will all too often find themselves working from Globish instead – that international version of English spoken around the world by non-native speakers, each in their own special way. A Finn does not speak Globish the way a Korean will, and interpreting from these and other non-native speakers of English will at times require the interpreter to develop special skills (like mind-reading, maybe?). Bootheando, interpreting blogger extraordinaire, looks at the term in her post entitled Preparados para el Globish, which includes a cartoon and a video on the subject.

Interpreting students who plan to work from English will really have to try and make sure they understand a broad range of  accents in English – from regional dialects to Globish and beyond. (N.B. there is a politically incorrect, expletive-riddled but highly illustrative YouTube video on the subject of English accents that went viral a few months ago. I’ll refrain from giving you the link so as not to injure any sensibilities. However, if you want to get an idea of what you’re up against, you’re free to try to track it down yourself.)

2) You must also be familiar with a range of registers. By register, I mean (more or less) a variety of a language used for a particular purpose or in a particular social setting. This is probably easy enough for somebody who has lived for extended periods and/or studied or worked in a country where the language is spoken, who will have had exposure to the language in a range of registers, but might not prove so easy for others. When I started studying interpreting, for example, I found that my “kitchen Dutch” had to be brought up to speed quite quickly – something I tackled by reading Elsevier and the financial pages of De Standaard, and by participating in an exchange to the EMCI course in Antwerp, among other things.

From the kitchen to the classroom

On the other side of the register spectrum are those students who have taken a more “book-learning” approach to a language who often find that they can’t understand street slang or other less formal versions of a language as spoken in different social settings. This may not be a problem if you only ever work in Parliamentary Committees, but will definitely be an issue if you end up at a public hearing or a trade union conference, or any other meeting where participants may not be so concerned about using the formal register to express themselves.

3) Your knowledge of a language needs to cover a broad range of fields. It’s not all just politics and the evening news. As I said in my post on general knowledge, an interpreter’s knowledge needs to span many subjects – and by extension, their knowledge of their passive languages must also cover these subjects.

I’ll have chocolate chip, please

Expressed in this way, the learning of a C language might sound a bit daunting, and might make aspiring interpreters reading this right now wish they were back on Sesame Street. One thing is clear, and that is that language proficiency to the layman (which some might equate to level 2 or 3 on the ILR table) is not the same as language proficiency to an interpreter (for listening or passive knowledge, I’d put it at level 4).

Not too  long ago, I found myself explaining this to a friend who had said that she thought that I would soon be ready to take an interpreting exam for Portuguese, since, as she saw it, my language skills had advanced to a point where I was relatively fluent (I’ve reached B2 on the Common European Framework, or so my Portuguese teacher tells me!). Sure, I can read a Portuguese paper just fine and hold my own in an intermediate-level conversation. To many non-interpreters, this equates to fluency in a foreign language, and for a large number of real-life situations, this degree of proficiency  is indeed more than enough. But as I think I’ve just illustrated, it is not enough in my line of business. So I will keep plugging along happily with my Portuguese lessons until that faraway day when I feel that I have a fair shot of convincing an interpreting examination board that my level of knowledge meets the three criteria I’ve listed above.

After all, I would hate to think what would happen if I was in the booth and the Portuguese speaker I was working from decided to stray from European affairs or the financial crisis – about the only two subjects I can currently follow with any confidence in that language. And if he did that in an Azorean or regional Brazilian accent and then proceeded to throw in some slang, I’d be até o córrego in no time (Portuguese speakers, feel free to cringe).

C is (finally!) for Conclusion

This last point brings to me why I have decided to spend so much time looking at the whole questions of the language ABCs in the first place.

One of the main reasons why I have devoted two full posts so far to the topic of an interpreter’s language combination is that all too often, I see that the concepts are not fully understood by the general public. And since this general public includes our users and clients, it is worthwhile trying to set the record straight, if only so that they know what to expect when they hire us.

Possibly more worrying to me as an interpreter trainer is the fact that the same lack of awareness would appear to exist in some applicants to the interpreting course where I teach. One possible reason for this might be the use of different language classification systems at the universities where they come from. If they have just done an undergraduate degree where “B” was used to designate the language they were majoring in and “C” was used for their minor, then it is understandable that there might be some confusion when the post-graduate course uses a different classification system.

Applicants also often unintentionally misjudge or overestimate their own language skills. They might state that they have double As or Bs when they don’t, and in some cases even claim a language as a C when they don’t actually know the language very well at all (in such cases, I’d call this a “D” – a language you have some knowledge of, but which you can’t yet interpret from).

This is not a criticism of applicants or students by any means, it is simply a reflection of the fact that passive and active language requirements for an interpreter are often so much higher than what people think, even students themselves. Very often over the course of a training program, and sometimes even before the year begins, students’ language combinations will be modified from what they originally indicated on their application form in order to reflect more accurately their language proficiency. Of course, this goes both ways: there are also cases of students who underestimate their language skills, who end up getting a D upgraded to a C, or a C to a B.

So there you have it: my two-part take on the ABCs. Part III of the series on the interpreter’s languages will be coming soon …

Related Posts

Learning your ABCs – The Interpreter’s Language Combination (Part I)

“Which languages should I learn?” – The Interpreter’s Language Combination (Part III)