Three Easy Steps to F**king Up Your Retour

Wake-up calls are always welcome when you’re overwhelmed by the importance of your own profession. The fact is, though, sometimes we interpreters are, through no fault of our own, slightly less necessary than the chairs our clients sit their asses on in the meeting room. Have you ever noticed how people with bad English always have a way of understanding each other no matter where they’re from? At best, in those cases, we’re just walking dictionaries.

That, however, doesn’t bother me anymore. One of the stupidest inventions of the modern world is working when you don’t need to be. I would honestly prefer to have less contracts than to work for an empty chair or to give my colleagues gossip material. I would rather my potential client take his/her secretary along for a business meeting than torture an interpreter s/he doesn’t really need. The secretary knows the subject matter, is used to their boss’s accent or way of speaking and is a more useful partner in a negotiation than an interpreter could be.

Even so, as you might have guessed, unnecessary recruitment is less frustrating than misrecruitment. In these cases, you’re not only wasting your time and the client’s money, you’re also butchering your skills. It’s those gigs when your clients need you, but you can’t help them. Let’s calls these wtf gigs [insert hand gesture here].

Step one: It frequently happens that my foreign clients don’t speak English very well. That is an understatement; more often than not there is no predicate in the sentence (“Can yu plis mor saund?”); if there is a verb, it’s invariably in the infinitive (no conjugation, no tense), their nouns don’t have plurals, their subjects are a series of “this” and “than”, very limited vocabulary, all coupled with ample gesturing, and self-assured mouth and guttural noises. If ever they actually realize they don’t know the word they’re looking for, they replace it with a hearty “well, you know, eh!” (No, I really, really don’t!), and then look at me with trusting eyes while everyone waits for a rendition, and I, in turn, stare back in despair.

After a little while, however, provided you’ve done your homework before the gig, things usually fall into place. You get used to the clients, you figure out what they’re looking for, maybe you’re lucky enough to work with a more experienced colleague, so you pull through somehow. Plus, there’s invariably someone on the Romanian side whose English is equally bad, so this person manage to communicate with my client better than my fancy ass ever could. It’s quite magical if you pay attention, really. It’s like they read each others’ minds, their worlds come together, they even finish each others’ sentences. One of the most persistent mysteries in Linguistics and Cultural Anthropology!

Step two: Great! So you managed to somehow understand the client. Now you have to use your hard-earned retour to give them what they want… aaaaaaaand it’s their turn to stare at you blankly, uselessly repeat questions that were answered a few seconds before and interpreted into some pretty decent English and say that they don’t understand when the answer comes again, this time in a simplified form (not to mention make the interpreter look like an idiot in the process).

The word “installment” seems to be particularly problematic. They prefer “trench” instead and get confused if they don’t hear it from me. Sometimes they make no difference between “purchase” and “procurement“, so I have to use them together for them to know which one it is I mean. But ok, I’m there to help people communicate, not parade my English. Any effort to give grammar and vocabulary lessons is going to be counterproductive (not to mention dickish), so I dumb it down (you don’t practise that when you prepare for your interpreting exams, do ya?), and I use my hands; it seems to help. What’s that, Thierry? You don’t know what a welding machine is? It is a machine that brings metal pieces TO-GE-THEEEER [insert ample hand gesture here]. The driver says we have to go around the potholes, Francesca, AH-ROUND the holes in the ROAD [insert ample hand gesture here]. Also, I have to speak slowly. No getting cocky with actual honest-to-God English idioms either. Mixing in words from a couple more languages doesn’t hurt. Plus, I have to try not to sound as condescending as I do now.

Step three: repeat!

This is how it happens, folks. Good as my English may be, I will never speak it as a native does (hence the difference between A language and B language), nor will I use it as comfortably and as flexibly as I use Romanian. Prolonged exposure to a badly spoken language will affect any interpreter’s mother tongue or A language, let alone their retour. Not irreversibly, but it will leave him or her with some pretty bad habits for the future.

However, this goes much further. In September of 2013, the General Secretariat of the European Court of Auditors published a report called “Misused English Words and Expressions in EU Publications” comprising an index of a few dozen red-tape English delights that are constantly used and abused by the EU in its documents and meetings. A very smart and funny colleague (who chooses to remain anonymous much to everyone’s chagrin, but I understand why) even proposed the creation of a Globish booth, perhaps to match the reality linguists must deal with every day.

The power of the English language has become its curse and ours. Its expansion all over the world has lead to countless local, regional and continental forms, even pidgins and creoles, which are in fact legitimate, and sometimes official, forms of communication, as much as that may frustrate purists. Many people predict that in about a millennium, if not less, English will suffer the same fate as Latin.

That’s not what I’m complaining about, though. What was I saying? Oh, yes, misrecruitment! Why, you may ask, are we forced to work in English for people who don’t know English? Well you know and I know that they don’t know, but they don’t know that they don’t know, ya know? And who are they going to admit that they don’t know to? That would be embarrassing. So they ask for interpreters with Romanian and English. But these people, you may also ask, must have other languages they speak better, right? There must be interpreters available out there somewhere with a more suitable language combination! Yes, there are, very good ones, and they are now looking for work, because someone is trying to save money by putting it in the wrong place. Economie de bouts de chandelle…

Insert ample hand gesture here. Come on, use both those fingers!

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Things I’ve Been Getting Used to

Do you know that expression “if you can’t take the heat, then get out of the kitchen”? I’ve always used it in one form or another, but I now find that it is a bit conceited. Of course! It always is when it starts to apply to you.

So if we start from the premises that the kitchen is a hot place, but it pays well to be there, there will be quite a lot of people willing to take a lot of sh… excuse me, heat! Nobody prepares you for the kitchen though, you just go in, find the ingredients (Oh, you thought you had them?! Silly little thing!), start cooking, screw up, figure out what’s missing, burn the food, under-cook it, and, eventually, do a half-decent job.

I’ve been working in Brussels almost every week for a little over a year now and progress has been slow, but steady. I had very few chances of working on the private market until I became accredited as an interpreter with the institutions so I guess it’s safe to say that I went up two levels in difficulty very shortly and abruptly after graduation. When you start working on the market after the master’s programme you feel as if you’ve never learned interpreting in your life and that feeling settles in again very quickly after you start to work for the institutions. I have lost count of the times in my life when I felt I didn’t know anything about anything… to build on that nothing and then move up another level and start from scratch again. It is my new normal 🙂
So here are a few of the things I’ve been getting used to since working in Brussels:

1. Commuting

The “new booths” still get flown in mostly (with the notable exception of the Polish booth, but that’s an entirely different story), so us, Easterners, the Baltics and also the Scandinavians, I believe, who are not staff, mostly fly into Brussels and still get a fair amount of work. There has been a rising trend of “deserters” (people who moved to Brussels) whose ranks I am thinking of joining. Of course you get more work if they don’t have to pay for your travelling and accommodation costs, what with everyone there complaining how expensive interpreters are (we’re not; interpreting costs are hardly 1% of the EU budget).

Luckily, I’ve had a constant flow of work, which means I travel quite frequently. For every contract I have, I can count in two inactive days just travelling or recovering. The thing is starting to take its toll on me. Commuting is really quite exhausting, and even in the time I have to myself I am mostly useless, as I just wanna sleep all the time. I’m late paying the bills, late with my taxes, my place is a mess, manis, pedis, haircuts, hair-dyes, dentist appointments, gym hours, hobbies, lunches with friends and visits to the parents’ get postponed to infinity. Add this to the back pain and the random diet and you have yourself a pretty serious pro for moving to Brussels. I’ll get back to this point someday.

2. Working with new people in the booth

On the market I had worked only with people I knew, mostly former master’s colleagues and/or friends. Upside: great atmosphere in the booth, you create a dynamic very easily, you read each other’s signals, you are able to prepare together before the event, and there’s the inevitable get-together afterwards (or during; yeah, during too). The downside? Working with people who are as inexperienced as you are tends to keep you revolving within the same patterns, greatly needed advice is hard to come by, as are tips and tricks, not to mention, as a newbie, you need to steal smarts from someone who has them (or more of them than you do, anyway).

Alas, gone are the days when the masters took in apprentices. The market in Romania is pretty much full. When I was working on the private market, I would get one gig a month (counting volunteer work and “go-interpret-for-free-because-the-rector-said-so gigs), and I was one of the lucky ones. However, with the opportunity to learn from better and more experienced interpreters comes a downside. Not knowing people leads to unnecessary self-consciousness and tension. You are (probably unintentionally) excluded from conversation, it takes a long time to connect with colleagues you only see once every few months, and that leads to… let’s call them misunderstandings: those awkward moments when you don’t know whether you should take over or hand over the mic (that is some delicate shit!), not knowing how the things you say or do will be interpreted, getting snappy replies for harmless remarks (“The French delegate is speaking!” “So, can’t you wait until I sit down?!”).

This makes performance more difficult than it already is. You end up excluding yourself from conversation when all the gossip starts to pour in (and who gossips about others, gossips about you, you can be sure). Many colleagues are reluctant to giving feedback and hardly ever listen in when it’s not their shift (or don’t appear to anyway). Basically my strategy is watch/listen and learn, do tons of research (which is never enough, anyway) and wait for the day when I’m fully equipped for whatever a meeting can throw at me. In all honesty, though, it would be mean of me to say that I don’t get advice and answers when I ask for them. Many colleagues are also nice and helpful, but essentially this is a lonely job. When the only context you ever see people in is a box, that makes it difficult to make a genuine connection. That’s why I like missions and working at the CJEU, they give you the chance to get to know people outside of the box too.

(Someday, I’ll be sorry I wrote that…)

3. Working with your teachers

As if I didn’t have enough reasons to be self-conscious in the booth. When I work with them, I always get the feeling, they’re still… my teachers and they listen critically to everything I say and I’m sorry to say that makes me under-perform. They’re kind enough to leave their teachery ways at the airport when they fly in, but paranoia knows no reason; it takes the obvious and flushes it down the toilet, so I just imagine they’re only pretending not to be horrified at the things I say.

4. Working with men

Does this sound weird? I’m sure it is. I’m generally confident around men, but for some stupid reason, it makes me nervous to have to work with/around them. In my master’s programme, we were an all-girls group and we had only one male teacher. His opinion of course mattered most to us, probably for the same stupid reason that I find it difficult to overlook male presence in the booth. It may also be habit (as I had never worked with men before) or the rare bird factor (still a very female-dominated profession) or some Freudian quirk in the back of my head (oddly enough, the presence of gay men does not affect me as much). I’ll get my head shrunk and get back to you on this.

5. The 46 official languages of the EU

This one is so vast, it deserves a post of its own, if I ever bother to write anything so boring. The main difference between the private market and the institutions, I think, is the fact that, on the market, people talk in more concrete terms and play less with words. Administrative lingo revels in ambiguity and political correctness. When specialists at a conference talk about agriculture and the CAP reform for instance, they know first-hand how legislation affects the field, what farmers can and cannot do, how the animals live, how parcels are divided and they consequently speak in very concrete terms. Not so when it comes to government officials and public servants describing essentially the same things, but in a manner that is extremely far removed from reality, either in very general terms or in very specific legal technicalities the end of which are very difficult to envisage for an ordinary person (i.e. me). Whenever I prepare for a meeting, I always get the impression that the institutions have somehow come up with a parallel language for each of the official languages of the EU and it’s the interpreters’ job to decrypt the message. I don’t have a research strategy that helps me get everything and more experienced colleagues tell me it will be three or four more years until I almost fully understand what in the world those people are talking about. When I get there, I’ll write a post about it.

These are just some of the things I’ve been struggling with over the last year or so. I’m not dead yet 🙂

Part 2 and maybe 3 to come…