Postcard from Toronto: An Interview with Andrew Clifford

I’m a big fan of postcards. Who doesn’t love their images of exotic, faraway lands and insights into unknown ways? Sadly, in this virtual day and age, the art of sending postcards is being lost. In an attempt to counter this, I have decided to revive the postcard tradition here on The Interpreter Diaries.

 To do this, I asked a colleague to send me a postcard telling me about his life and work. The result of this effort is the following interview with Andrew Clifford, AIIC Conference Interpreter and Chair of the School of Translation at Glendon College, Toronto, Canada. It may seem a bit odd to readers – or at least anything but exotic – that I would ask to be sent a postcard from the homeland, but as someone who left Canada to pursue a career abroad, it was fascinating to hear about what the life of a conference interpreter is like in my home country. And I’m pleased to be able to share Andrew’s story with readers here.

What’s a postcard from Toronto without a glossy photo of the CN Tower?

You’re sending this postcard from Toronto. Tell me briefly what links you to this place.

Greetings from Toronto, Canada! I’m proud to call this bustling and very multicultural city my professional address. I’ve lived for a time in countries like Germany and Brazil, and in other Canadian cities like Quebec City and Ottawa, but I always wind up boomeranging back to Toronto. I guess the attraction for me is the fact that this city offers you the world at your doorstep. Here, you can take in the art, music, dance, and (most importantly) food of nearly every country, all without ever stepping on a plane. Oh, and the abundance and variety of interpreting-related work opportunities doesn’t hurt either…

Describe for me a typical week in your working life.

In my working life, I get to have a very interesting balance. As the Chair of the School of Translation at Glendon College, the bilingual (English and French) campus of York University, I oversee a number of professional training programs in written translation. But most of my time at the University is spent working on an exciting project that could see us mount a new Master of Conference Interpreting. If all goes well, ours would be only the second such training program in Canada. We are also committed to working with practicing conference interpreters, through our Professional Development Series, which will debut in August 2012.

What’s more, my work has me very busy off campus, as I collaborate closely with people in our industry in many ways. I am part of a number of organizations that try to promote the professionalization of both court and healthcare interpreting, and I also stay connected with professional practice as a conference interpreter.

What opportunities would you say exist for conference interpreters in Toronto?

There is a lot happening for conference interpreters in this city, both in the public and private sectors. As I say this, I can reflect on the work that I did in another Canadian market, that of our capital, Ottawa. For a time, I was a staff interpreter at one of the Government of Canada’s two in-house interpreting bodies, the unfortunately named Conference Interpreting Service. (This body provides interpreting for the whole of the Canadian public service, while the other, the Parliamentary Interpreting Service, supports the House of Commons, the Senate of Canada, and their committees.)

Like Ottawa, Toronto offers a steady diet of assignments for our federal government, which seems to always be organizing meetings and events here, perhaps because we have so many conference venues to choose from. Federal assignments are incredibly varied, and they can cover any topic that the Government of Canada has purview over, such as international trade, immigration, matters of justice, national strategies to combat HIV/AIDS, and aboriginal affairs, just to name but a few. Toronto is also the seat of the Government of Ontario, and our provincial ministries and agencies regularly call upon conference interpreters. In particular, interpreting is frequently needed for matters related to education and of course in the operations of our provincial legislature.

Where Toronto differs from Ottawa, is in the abundance of work that you find in the private sector. Nearly all of Canada’s main banks, insurance companies, financial houses, and accounting firms have head offices here, and they need interpreters every time they organize country-wide events to discuss policy changes, new HR strategies, or staff education and brand awareness. Many major multinational corporations also have a presence in Toronto, and they make use of interpreters to communicate with employees coast to coast, for example, when developing new merchandising strategies, or to interact with financial analysts and shareholders, once a quarter, when they release financial results. In short, any national entity that needs to hold an event for the public or even its own people will probably have to hire a team of interpreters at some point.

What would you tell a new conference interpreter on the scene to look out for?

Like many other cities, Toronto does struggle a bit to maintain a professional market. In other words, conference interpreters with recognized credentials (AIIC membership, a confirmed pass on one of the Government of Canada’s accreditation tests, or certification from a professional order like the Association of Translators and Interpreters of Ontario) do hear from clients who question why we have to work in teams of three for a day-long assignment, why we need to have established equipment like standard-sized booths and quality sound systems, or why we charge by the day and not by the hour or minute. These same clients will sometimes opt to hire others who don’t hold the same credentials and who don’t uphold the same standards, interpreters from the so-called “grey market”.

Long story short, any new interpreters that arrive on the scene need to commit to working on the professional market. This largely means taking assignments from the Government of Canada, and from the handful of local interpreter-run agencies that work in the professional market. Only in this way, can we ensure that conference interpreting in this city remains a strong and viable profession. 

What are the main languages used on this market?

Without a doubt, English and French are the most important languages here. More specifically, most of the work is from English to French, with only occasional snippets in the other direction. This fact has an interesting impact on interpreters’ skill sets over the years. For example, English booth interpreters develop a VERY strong French B, but even the most self-assured among us will admit to feeling a little twinge of uncertainty when we are called upon to work into English, even though it is our dominant language. This is because most meetings take place predominantly in English, with only a handful of clients listening to the French interpretation. However, when those francophone clients take the floor, it is generally to make a short and decontextualized comment, and yet the rest of the room – seemingly in unison – puts on their headphones to listen to your sudden and somewhat rusty work into English. Pulses quicken at the mere thought!

In addition to Canada’s Official Languages, some interpreters here use Mandarin, Spanish, and other languages. At the moment, it can be a challenge to make ends meet if you work exclusively with these other languages. This is because there are not a lot of these “multilingual sector” conferences, and contracts come from clients who use interpreting services infrequently. This means that these clients are tempted by the prices offered by grey market interpreters, unaware these people are normally ill prepared to offer a quality service. Still, I can’t help to think that things are changing for the better as increased globalization and international financial cooperation bring more “multilingual” events to Toronto, with the end result that clients become more aware of the quality they can have by hiring interpreters in the professional market.

How about training? Are there established interpreting schools? Where will conference interpreters working in Toronto have trained? Where do graduates of the schools go?

At present, Canada has only a single conference interpreter training program, housed within the Universityof Ottawa. It is an excellent program that has made a tremendous contribution to the Canadian industry over the years. However, few would deny that it does not produce the number of graduates needed to meet the current demand for conference interpreters. There has been a spike in the demand for interpreting services at the exact moment when most working interpreters are taking retirement. The end result is a serious problem with succession planning that a single training program cannot hope to solve alone.

As a graduate of the Universityof Ottawa program, I would also point out that it enjoys a very close relationship with the Government of Canada. Almost all of the instructors in the program are staff interpreters with the government, and almost all of the training materials used come from the government – and more specifically parliamentary – context. This is a tremendous advantage for those who want to work with the Government of Canada, in particular with its Parliamentary Interpreting Service. The transition from school to work is often very smooth, and people who graduate from the program are ready to hit the ground running, as they have both demonstrated skills in interpreting generally, and also a great deal of detailed knowledge about parliamentary procedures and realities more specifically.

However, for interpreters who want to work in other markets, I would argue that the University of Ottawa is less suited to their needs. As someone who has never worked in the parliamentary setting, I can honestly say that I have not had to call on the specific knowledge of that context that was the focus of my studies. What’s more, there were both elements of background knowledge and specific skills related to work in other settings that I had to learn the hard way, by making some very embarrassing mistakes in the booth! It’s unfortunate that the program I graduated from was not able to help stop me from falling on my face with non-parliamentary interpreting.

In light of this, it’s perhaps not surprising then that a good number of the conference interpreters working on the professional market in Toronto did not come through the University of Ottawa program. Some of our local colleagues trained in Europe, while others simply wandered into a booth one day and discovered that they liked the work. Over the years, as they were given the opportunity, they developed their own skills and techniques on the fly, and this self-training was good enough for them to pass the exams and meet the other criteria that serve as the entry to the professional market.

How about AIIC? What AIIC region are you in? How many members are there in Toronto? What sort of AIIC activities happen there?

Toronto is part of the AIIC Canada region, and 24 of the region’s 124 interpreters have professional addresses in this city. Collectively, we are a very interesting group, and generally, we work well with one another. As members of AIIC, we take part in two regional meetings per year. While these have traditionally been held in Montreal and Ottawa, where there are larger numbers of AIIC members, the Toronto group hosted our colleagues for a regional meeting in April 2011. It was an exciting and highly interactive get-together. Eschewing the traditional meeting format, we instead took part in an innovative, almost educational exercise, one that gave the interpreters present plenty of opportunities to share their thoughts on the future of their profession in Canada. The Toronto contingent will certainly be asking to host another such meeting in the near future, in the hopes of recreating the successes of our April event.

What features do you think define the Toronto interpreting market? Are you familiar with any other markets that you could compare Toronto with?

The dominance of work into French – with the effects that it has on English booth – is certainly an interesting feature of theTorontomarket. When I speak with European English booth colleagues, they seem impressed that we do so much of our work in “retour”. (In return, I will admit that I am envious of their opportunities to do so much work into their A language.) Still, this feature is not exclusive toToronto. Indeed, because of our official, yet asymmetrical, bilingualism inCanada, there are other markets in this country where interpreting looks similar in this regard.

So what does make Toronto stand out as a place to work for conference interpreters? For me, the answer is two-fold. As I noted above, conference interpreters in this city generally get along with one another. We’re not all the greatest of friends, but we are normally good colleagues. I’ve worked in some places and heard of others where there was a great deal more bitterness and ill will among interpreters. By comparison, Toronto is a very nice place to be.

In addition, the sheer variety of topic areas is a life-long learner’s delight. Conference interpreting tends to attract people who are interested in continually challenging themselves and in constantly expanding their horizons, and opportunities to do so abound in the Toronto market. The Government of Canada is a constant presence here, and in that respect we get work that resembles that of our peers in places like Ottawa and Montreal. Yet because our city is the largest in this country, the fourth largest inNorth America, and Canada’s financial and economic engine, we get working opportunities that colleagues elsewhere do not. Interpreters in the Toronto market get a front-row seat to witness some of the key developments in economic planning, public policy, and business strategy unfold before them. It’s a spectacle that has you, more often than not, sitting on the edge of your seat.

Note: The Glendon School of Translation is on Facebook and Twitter (@GlendonTransl8).