“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)

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)