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

To conclude my series on the interpreter’s language combination, I’ve decided to tackle the question that I find myself being asked more frequently than any other by student interpreters. I often find myself being approached in the corridor after class or cornered in the university canteen by students who want to know what language I think they should learn next. Incidentally, it seems to me that this is also the question raised most frequently by followers of Interpreting for Europe on Facebook. With so many people asking it, I’d say this question merits an answer.

I’m sorry to say that the fairest, most honest answer to this question is no answer at all. It may not be the one that my students want to hear from me, but almost invariably, it is the one that they get.

Budding interpreters want to know – quite rightly, I’d say – how they can expand their language combination in order to maximize their chances of professional success. After all, everyone is telling them that Spanish booth interpreters with passive English and Italian have no chance of finding work (just to give one example), and they want to know what they can do about it.

Why do I refuse to answer this very valid question? Because I think that the decision to learn a language is one of the most personal decisions a person can make, with wide-ranging ramifications, and it should not be influenced by helpful teachers, well-meaning colleagues, or anyone else, for that matter.

What would happen, for example, if I told a graduating student that Estonian was all the rage in Brussels, and he then went off to Estonia to learn it? In the best-case scenario, he might proceed not only to learn the language and get a job interpreting with it, but also fall in love with some Estonian girl, settle down, have kids, and the rest of it. Happy ending, right?

But what if this student had a rough time of it in Tallinn, never quite found his way in Estonian society, struggled with the language for years and then finally gave up, only to find out that his interpreting skills had gone rusty in the meantime and that he was no longer employable to anyone?  Then he’d be likely to start cursing that well-meaning trainer who put him onto the idea of learning that stupid language in the first place (no offense intended to Estonian readers, obviously). And I don’t want to be that trainer.

You might think I’m overdoing it, but I’ll give you two stories from real life to illustrate that this sort of thing really does happen. In the first story, I’m the bad guy; in the other, I’m the (willing!) victim (author’s note: the colleagues in question gave me permission to publish these stories.)

The Big Chill

About two years ago, shortly after the start of the financial crisis, I was sharing a booth with a colleague I’ve known for years now. We were chatting about how Iceland had suddenly started warming to the idea of EU membership, after so many years of giving Brussels the cold shoulder (double pun intended). It then occurred to me that this colleague, having dabbled in Scandinavian languages some years previously, might take to Icelandic quite easily, and so I dropped the offhand comment that if he were to take up the Icelandic, he’d be sure to find himself in very high demand indeed when Iceland ultimately joined the EU, as it was sure to do quite soon.

Well, this guy liked the idea so much that by the end of the day, he had ordered two textbooks from Amazon and signed up to an online Icelandic course!

We all know what has happened in Iceland since (and I’m not referring to volcanoes). I still see this colleague regularly, and although initially it was fun to joke with him about the whole venture – asking how the lessons were going, how his last holiday to Reykjavik had been, and the like – lately I’ve been finding that I have hard time meeting his eye, because, contrary to everyone’s initial expectations, Iceland has now decidedly moved back away from EU membership. He insists he still enjoys his lessons – and indeed, has become quite advanced in his knowledge of Icelandic – but still, I’ve found myself apologising to him time and again for having put the idea in his head in the first place.

Be careful what you ask for …

The second story also starts with a benign chat, this time over a cup of coffee. An interpreter friend of mine, having just passed the exam to add German at the Parliament, said that she was looking for a new challenge (interpreters are like that!). She mentioned that a colleague of her husband’s had sent round an email with an offer of Portuguese lessons, and asked whether I would be interested in joining her in learning Portuguese.

It took my friend all of three seconds to twist my rubber arm – and the next thing I knew, I was sitting in a local language school being told why the accents aren’t put in the same place in Portuguese words, and trying to remember how I’d got there.

Initially, I thought I would just sit in on the lessons for fun, without taking the whole thing too seriously. But now, almost two years later, things have got very serious indeed: I recently found myself trying to plan a family holiday to Madeira so I could familiarise myself with the regional accent! 

I should add that I am very thankful to my friend for having put the idea into my head, because I have since grown very fond of the Portuguese language and the people who speak it.

Oh, The Places You’ll Go

This brings me back to my initial point, i.e. that the decision to learn a language is an intensely personal one. To be able to interpret from a given language, you have to not only learn the language as it is taught in books, but get up close and personal with the culture and people that go with it as well (see Part II of this series for more information on passive language knowledge).

In order to do this, you will most likely end up spending considerable amounts of time in the country or countries where this language is spoken. You might find yourself, like me, arranging family holidays to these places (I can’t resist this tip: pick a country with a nice coastline!). You might end up seeking out job opportunities that take you in that direction. One way or another, you will end up going places where you can have first-hand contact with the language you are learning (author’s note: if you only click on one hyperlink today, make it that last one – or this one).

In order to be able to interpret well from a language, you will also have to get into the heads of its speakers. You will have to learn to curse with them at their politicians, follow their society scandals, watch their crummy sitcoms, laugh at their jokes, cry when their team loses the big game … okay, maybe not this last one, especially if they’re playing against your team in the final, but still, I think you get my point.

Most interpreters will say that all this is what makes up the joy of being an interpreter, and I would wholeheartedly agree. But who am I to tell students that they should be doing all this with Italian, or German, or Mandarin Chinese? They really have to decide this for themselves.

Of course, it is another thing altogether for an interpreting employer to inform future interpreters of the profile that they would find interesting in applicants. This is essentially what the EU’s interpreting service does through its Interpreting for Europe page on Facebook. They advise aspiring interpreters on language combinations and interpreting schools, and it is up to those receiving the information to decide what to do with it.

It should be said, of course, that learning Italian just because you have been told on Facebook that it is needed in Brussels is no guarantee that you will ever be called for “the test, let alone end up working for the EU as an interpreter. But as I see it, Interpreting for Europe doesn’t make any promises it can’t keep, it simply informs interested parties of their current needs. Ultimately, the decisions – and the consequences thereof – lie squarely with the individuals taking them.

Having just argued my case so convincingly against advising interpreting students on language combinations, I will now incriminate myself by admitting that I have been known in the past to say to students with neither French nor German in their combinations that they would be well-advised to learn one (or both) of these languages. It’s true, and it’s wrong of me. I find myself guilty as accused.

Of course, I could say in my own defence that this view is less of a personal opinion than a God-given (or at least EU-given) truth. But that’s all anyone will ever get out of me. Except for the statement that Portuguese is great fun to learn, and that Icelandic, well …

 

Related Posts

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

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

 

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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)