“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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Learning your ABCs – The Interpreter’s Languages (Part I)

The Interpreter Diaries has now been around for about two months, and by now many readers might be asking themselves how it is possible that in all that time, this blog on interpreting has not yet done much talking about languages – aren’t languages what it’s all about, after all? To make up for it, I’m going to dedicate the next three posts to exploring the ins and outs of the interpreter’s language combination.

Every interpreter works with a number of different languages – at least two, often as many as five or six, and sometimes even more. An ABC classification system has been developed to describe the different categories of working languages that interpreters can have, and how they will work with each.

Let’s start with the official definitions of an interpreter’s working languages as provided by AIIC, the International Association of Conference Interpreters:

            Active languages

A: The interpreter’s native language (or another language strictly equivalent to a native language), into which the interpreter works from all her other languages.

B: A language other than the interpreter’s native language, of which she has a perfect command and into which she works from one or more of her other languages.

           Passive languages

C: Languages, of which the interpreter has a complete understanding and from which she works.

So far, so good – it all seems quite straightforward. So what’s there to talk about? Well, unfortunately, there is often a lot of confusion about interpreters’ working languages amongst the general public, and sometimes even amongst aspiring interpreters as well. That’s why I’d like to go beyond the official definitions and look at the ABCs in practice.

This week’s post will look at the active languages (A and B), and next week’s post will tackle the passive languages (C). Part three of the language combination series will look at … something else.

A – The Mother Tongue

This is the easy one, you’re probably thinking right now. Everybody’s got a mother, so everybody must have a mother tongue (except for bilinguals, of course, who have two). Right? Well, yes and no. Virtually everybody grows up with a mother tongue, it’s true (more on the “virtually” in a moment). But sadly for many interpreter hopefuls, the quality of their native language does often not meet the standard required for working as an interpreter.

This is probably one of the main problems faced by people who would like to become interpreters – and even by interpreting graduates trying to get jobs at international institutions or elsewhere (for an excellent blog post on this, read Aida’s post entitled Con la lengua materna hemos topado, which looks at this problem as faced by applicants to the UN).

As an interpreter, you need to be able to express yourself well in many different registers and have access to a broad active vocabulary covering different fields. Just growing up speaking a language does not automatically mean you will have these skills. I see it all the time in the early days of a course, when students can’t seem to stop themselves from talking like they do to their friends in the bar and start sounding like interpreters.

That’s the bad news; the good news is that these skills in one’s native language can usually be acquired through much diligence and application. This is one of the objectives of an interpreter training course – it’s not just about learning how to speak and listen at the same time!

One mother tongue or two … or none?

Still on the subject of A languages, I want to look briefly at two possible cases: that of the person with two As, and that of the person with no A at all. Let’s take the second one first: the case of the alingual (author’s note: for a closer look at this term and how it should be used in the context of interpreter training, read the comments section for this post). This term is used to describe a person with no mother tongue. Now before you go raising your eyebrows at me, let me illustrate this apparent impossibility by means of an example.

Some years ago, I had the good fortune to work with a student who, for reasons of upbringing and education (this guy had a killer CV!), had a near-to-perfect command of three languages. I mean it – there was nothing you could put past him in French, English or Spanish! Almost all students have gaps in their language knowledge of some sort – say, certain regional accents, registers or fields that they’re not familiar with – but not this student. He understood it all.

However, when we started working at developing his interpreting skills into two of these languages (he had started the course with two As), we started to realize that his three languages were interfering with each other. Although his accent was flawless in both of his active languages, he would often come up with turns of phrase or expressions that proved jarring to the ear of a native speaker. And he had a lot of trouble with false friends across the different languages. What we had on our hands was an alingual – a multilingual person who speaks several languages, but none at a native level.

There is a happy ending to this story. The student dropped one of his As, and by focussing on developing a single active language to the level required for the booth, managed to “clean up his act” in time for the exams. I’m pleased to say that he is now working as a freelance interpreter in Geneva – and if I’m not mistaken, about to take a certification exam for his second A as well.

Unfortunately for other alinguals out there, there’s not always a happy ending. The fact of having grown up in a bilingual environment sometimes proves more of a curse than a blessing to people – at least if they have aspirations to become interpreters.

This brings me to the next bit I wanted to deal with: the bilingual interpreter. It does happen that some people have two mother tongues, although it is quite rare. In this case they are said to have a “double A”. Much more common among interpreters is a combination with one A language (native) and one B (near-native but not quite).

Time for some figures: a brief perusal of the listings of AIIC interpreters in Germany (the country has been selected at random) will reveal a total of 15 interpreters with double As, as compared to literally dozens with an A and a B, from a total of 289 interpreters throughout the country. Although I haven’t actually checked the statistics on language combinations for all world regions (maybe they’re out there somewhere, but I haven’t been able to find them), I would think that this trend is repeated elsewhere.

My own region, Spain, might be a bit of an exception, since a sizable minority of interpreters here have two mother tongues: Spanish plus a regional language such as Catalan. Of a total of 100 AIIC interpreters in Spain, a full 24 have two A languages – and one colleague even has three!

B is for Bilingual

Now that we’ve dealt with the definition of an A language, it’s time to look at the B. This is probably the slipperiest of the three language categories. What, indeed, is a B language in practice? And what is the difference between a B and an A in a bilingual interpreter?

For those interpreters who work into their B from all their languages and in all modes (simultaneous and consecutive), the question is little more than academic, since nothing will distinguish their B from their A on a practical level. But most interpreters with a B are not like that – almost all interpreters place some restriction on how they work with their active language that is not their mother tongue. Either they will only work into it in consecutive mode but not in simultaneous, or they will choose to work only from their mother tongue into their B and not from their other languages (this is probably the most common form of B out there).

In case this is all starting to get a bit head-spinning, let’s use an example to show how the difference between A and B works. An interpreter with Spanish A, English B and Italian C will work from Italian and English into Spanish, and from Spanish back into English, but NOT from Italian into English (i.e. from a language that is not their mother tongue into their B).

This distinction may sound a bit ridiculous to a layman, who might tend to think that if you speak a number of languages well, you should be able to work equally well between them all and in all directions, but I can assure readers that interpreting into a language that is not your mother tongue is a good sight more difficult than doing it into your native language, which is why this distinction between A and B exists in the first place.

Okay, so what about the C?

At this point it would be logical to go on and define the interpreter’s C language. However, I think I’ve got readers sufficiently confused for one week. Next week, we will look at the last of the letters on our list. And at that point hopefully readers will be able to say they’ve learned their ABCs.

Related Posts

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

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