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.