Interpreting for Europe: the Survival Guide

The thing that springs to my mind when I think about my status in this profession is an episode in “House” where the good doctor was forced (by Cuddy, I think) to hold a lecture, for some reason. You probably remember, it’s the episode where he (sort of) reveals how he got his bad leg. The line that got stuck in my mind was one very shocking sentence that went something like this: “Rest assured, you will kill people!”

Well, in conference interpreting we don’t really have people’s lives in our hands, but that advice, in a different form, can apply to us as well, especially to those of us who take their job too seriously (I’ll get back to this someday). Even the most seasoned of interpreters make mistakes, so, the sooner you get used to that idea, the better. I’m sent aback sometimes by the overconfidence of interpreting students who contradict feedback, want to add five languages before they graduate, and imagine they have two retours). However, I am hopeful that reality will hit them in the face someday… which brings me to my first point.

1. You Will Make Mistakes

Do you know all of your experienced colleagues who can understand everything the speakers are talking about AND give every detail in impeccable language and flawless presentation? Yeah, you can’t! The sooner you get used to the idea, the better. This is one of those jobs where you get better with time, so bide your time and use it to learn.

Of course other interpreters do it better! They’ve been at this for a while, probably working for the institutions for years now. They’ve interpreted in plenty of meetings on the same subject, they know the procedure, they’re already familiar with the terminology. This increases their ability to anticipate, thereby reducing the effort they put into deciphering the message, and into searching for the right terms, leaving energy available for recoding, rephrasing, and packing the whole thing up nicely. Patience, padawan, you will get there someday, but not today.

Yes, it is frustrating to have to cut through ideas, give the bare essential, all with a pretty sterile presentation, but safety is your best bet for a while. It’s even more frustrating to miss information, not to understand what’s being said, to find new words you had never heard of in a language you thought was your B. However, you’d better make peace with the thought that there is not much more you can do, given the circumstances.

2. Remove Parasites

In an earlier post, I was talking about some of the things I’ve been getting used to since working for the institutions. According to the definition we have learned and established during our master’s programme, some of those factors, if you allow them to eat at you, are called parasites. Parasites in interpretation are imaginary issues, things that get to you, because, in fact, there are more serious problems that you haven’t dug into yet. When I say big problems, I’m referring to the ones I listed above: not understanding what’s being said on the floor or in your relay booth, not knowing the subject matter, insufficient preparation, not enough practice with one of your languages, or simply problems relating to the difficulty of the meeting, from all points of view. Naturally, when the job is hard, you need to focus even more, and any clicking of the pen, gust of wind, uncomfortable chair or extra testosterone will get on your nerves. It may sound childish, but it did take quite a while for me to figure out what the real problems were and how to tackle them. So the “getting used to” part was more of a treatment of symptoms rather than  an in-depth healing process. It felt amazing to see how, after I started learning to prepare more efficiently and to understand whatta hell is going on in that place, the “background noise” started to disappear.

3. The Bottom of the Food Chain Is a Comfortable Place

Now, while I did come to this particular conclusion myself (too), the wording does not belong to me and even an anonymous blogger should give credit where credit is due. In spite of working in teams, interpreting is, essentially, a lonely profession. Of course it would be useful to have a bit of an “orientation” course when we get there, to break the fall. It is assumed that you should have a pool of knowledge of your own when you get accredited, but you couldn’t possibly know all the inner-workings of several notoriously complicated institutions. If it takes those people a year to agree on a “milk and fruit” programme for elementary school children, then  I shouldn’t feel bad for taking a year to start feeling comfortable in the booth.

Another thing: breeding teacher’s pets the way we do in Romania is extremely damaging for anyone’s psyche in the long-run, not to mention their career. It reduces people to the status of children perpetually seeking attention and approval from the “big people”. I’m not a fan of “know your place” policies, but it’s useful to know that you are, after all, a beginner.

Your life becomes a whole lot easier when you stop trying to impress people…

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