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!

To Move Or Not To Move

That is… not THE question, but a burning one nonetheless.

It has been haunting me for the last year or so and it’s a very uncomfortable situation. You see, I like things to be neat, at least in my head, if not around me. That’s one annoying feature I inherited from my mother: I need a final plan like a train needs tracks; if anything comes up to change my plan, I derail…

So this train is sitting its increasingly unused ass in the station, trying to figure shit out. Whenever I am almost 99% sure that I am either to stay or to move, something always comes up and I have to change my mind. I have therefore made a mental list of some pros and cons regarding a potential move to Brussels, which I will try to put in written form here.

1. Use It Or Lose It

That would be the no. 1 argument: do I want to get more work or not? In the beginning, this was not even an issue; with eight or nine days of work in a month, freedom to take time off whenever I damn well pleased, enough practice and cash under my belt, I declared loud and proud that I am never moving to that awful city as long as I have even one or two days of work in a month. Alas, I spoke too soon. Apparently I jinxed my calendar, because in came the months with just six or seven days, then those with just two or three. Not that I don’t appreciate the time off, but when three or four weeks pass by without booth time, you start to get a bit… rusty. And when you’re at the beginning of your career and you wanna be awesome at your work and go places, you can’t really afford to let yourself rust.

[Now I know what you’re gonna say: it’s a bad business decision to have only one client. Yes, it is! However it is not entirely my fault… except a little bit. As soon as I started working for the EU, I stopped updating my CV and looking for private gigs. Any profiles I used to have on professional networking sites are currently collecting dust somewhere in the gutters of the Internetz. Plus, in my town, there is really no private market to speak of. The truth is, for smaller languages, the main market is the EU institutions, a market that, as opposed to the local one, is at least regulated and provides a regular (if trickly) amount of work.] (memo to self: circulate statement of availability to colleagues, let them know you are still available for private gigs and can still interpret, in case they forgot)

2. Empty Stomach Makes for Bad Interpreting

Now I may not want to rust, but I don’t want to starve either. Just as I was comparing prices for shipping companies and apartments in Brussels, in came more bad news: not only has the workload decreased for all interpreters, including staff, but there are rumours on the horizon regarding “interpreting on demand” and the elections for the EP around the corner mean that Romania’s probably going to have less MEP’s, as the population has dropped by a couple of million people since the 2002 census. In other words, I have very limited ways of predicting how much work I’m going to get if I move. And living in Romania with three working days’ worth of money is not the same thing as living in Brussels with the same amount (less even, because the travel allowance and the per diems would be gone). Then there’s the crisis factor: everyone wants to cut costs, and, while cutting interpreting to a minimum (yeah, good luck with that!) would save the European taxpayer the equivalent of two cups of coffee a year, interpreters and translators are still easy targets. I’ll get back to this someday.

3. Brussels

Yeah, this deserves a subtitle of its own and the question is: do I really wanna live in that place? The answer is no, always has been, I have hated that city since the moment I first set foot in it. I find it bland and conceited, it lacks charm and personality. Of course, that’s just me, because plenty of my friends and colleagues believe it’s breathtaking, exciting, full of possibilities. It may well be, and yes, it has its nice parts, but saying that Brussels has nice parts is like saying that the Hulk has pretty eyes (which, in all fairness, he does!); it doesn’t distract my attention from the rest. (memo to self: post about everything wrong with Brussels)

If I were to move, I would move out of need and not desire. I would feel blackmailed into moving there, not drawn by new (cloudy) horizons or pushed by the curiosity of discovering a new place. Almost all my friends and family are here, whereas I know few people in Brussels and like even fewer. But thinking like that will never get me anywhere and I have a feeling circumstances may force me to give that bloody city a second (ok, twentieth) chance. What’s the worst that could happen? Would I fall into suicidal depression, break down and scream for my mommy in the middle of a press conference at the Commission? Would I get robbed somewhere near Cinquantenaire because I forgot to take my badge off after work? Would I get raped somewhere in the Theater District because I’m wearing… long hair??? Or maybe, just maybe, I would adapt, I would join a book club, make new friends, go dancing, travel more, maybe even go to college again? Maybe, maybe, maybe… I hate “maybe’s” and “what if’s” and the entire conditional mood.

4. Fake It until You Make It?

There is ONE way to foresee the amount of work I may get as a local. I could pretend to move there, I could be a fake local. After all, everybody’s doing it ;). The reasons may vary from “don’t wanna live in Brussels” to “husband can’t get a job here” to “not enough work to support myself”, and they are all… reasonable. With low-cost flights available and cheap accommodation at hand, paying the price for my own commute wouldn’t set me back that much. However, there are risks. When you are local, for instance, you may get a contract for the very next day, so you would have to check your calendar all the time to block days when you know you can’t make it. As careful as you may be, though, there will still be surprises: changes in flight schedules, flight cancellations, nowhere to stay…

Let’s presume, on the other hand, that I would get at least as many days as I do now. What would be the point of faking it then? After all, am I not trying to be rid of the tiresome travelling that paralyses me for days on end? And if I get as many days as I have now, what would be the point of faking it or even moving all together, when I could just stay home and actually NOT pay for my flights and accommodation? Either way, being a fake local would be a temporary measure followed by one of two things: moving there permanently or deciding to change my domicile back to my beloved Transylvania.

Or I could live somewhere else, some place cheap and sunny, and hip and cool, with a direct low-cost connection to Brussels. A place where people are always smiling and the police force isn’t fascist, where the buildings are painted in colours other than the various shades of “gris soviétique”, a place with more fresh fruits and vegetables than fries, with beaches and tasty food, with more brick and stone than glass and steel… Or I could move back in with my mother. Or I could dust off my CV and see what else is out there until I decide…

I have decided I hate modal verbs, too.

The Immobile Interpreter

Not sure if travelling a lot is a pain in the ass when you’re suffering from motion sickness or if motion sickness is a pain in the ass for someone who has to travel a lot, to make a living.

Either way, it took me a fairly long time to figure out that I am not actually deranged, I am one of 30% of the population of the planet that suffers from motion sickness. And, for a nerd like me, knowing the science behind stuff does make such annoyances less of a bitch. Growing up, I couldn’t go anywhere without being sick and throwing up. First 100 yards in a car and I would puke my guts out. I would get sick on amusement park rides, swings, trips to the seaside and short rides to the market. Of course lack of proper roads (bendy and bumpy), smoking drivers, fumes, 30-year-old cars, closed windows (cos the draft is the biggest danger to human health, according to Romanians), buses crammed full of schoolchildren didn’t help either. Also, back then, in elementary school, I didn’t know enough to tell the unsympathetic adults around me that motion sickness is a common condition for anyone with a fully functioning vestibular nervous system. And that children between the ages of four and twelve are particularly prone to it.

What is it exactly? Well, it’s that unpleasant sensation of nausea and dizziness you experience when you’re in a moving vehicle. It’s also called travel sickness, sea sickness or car sickness, but these names don’t really capture it completely. That’s because, for one thing, motion sickness can be brought about not only by travelling in cars, boats, submarines, airplanes or trains, but also, as I mentioned above, by riding a carousel, for instance, or even a swing at a playground. For the next, sometimes motion does not have to occur for the sickness to set in. I’ll explain.

Contrary to what people used to tell me when I was a kid and contrary to popular belief, motion sickness is not just your imagination at work and it doesn’t start anywhere in your digestive system. All of the symptoms (general feeling of unwellness, headaches, nausea, hyperventilation, excessive sweating, weakness, dizziness, pallor or redness in the face, vomiting) are results of what happens in your inner ear (so it is all kinda in your head, if you think about it).

Inside your inner ear, there is a series of semi-circular canals (the labyrinth) filled with fluid. Now, when your head is moved, the labyrinth tells your brain how far, how fast and in which direction your head is moving. This information is passed on to the brain via the vestibular nerve. If your brain knows the position of your head, it can work out the position of the rest of your body. However, your brain also has to rely on other sensory information it gets from your muscles, joints and eyes in order to pinpoint the position of your body at all times.

So this is when it’s presumed that motion sickness sets in, when there is conflicting sensory input. This, for example, is how you can get sick if you’re in a stationary train and you’re looking out the window to the train moving on the line next to yours. Or if you’re in the passenger seat of a car that’s being driven on a winding road while you’re reading a book or looking at a map. In this latter case, your inner ear is telling your brain, through the vestibular nerve, that your body is on the move, but according to your eyes which are focusing on a stationary object, your body is still. This conflicting sensory information gets passed on to the part of your brain called the area postrema which is responsible for vomiting. If someone with motion sickness doesn’t stop moving, they will start to throw up. Frequent vomiting can eventually lead to dehydration, exhaustion and dangerously low blood pressure.

Not to be taken lightly!

I have never counted the places that I have blessed with my sick throughout the years, but they make quite an interesting collection: from the lovely Western Carpathians in Romania, to the dry plains of the South, to the Budapest Airport (remember?) and even as far as Miami. The last event occurred somewhere above Luxemburg during the worst turbulence I have ever encountered (I hate Bombardiers, by the way!). I have even been known to ask drivers to pull over  while on mission with EU delegations.

There are all sorts of tips and tricks on how not to get sick and believe me, I have tried everything! The best I can do now is offer advice on how not to get too sick or not sick enough to puke your guts out for the passengers of an entire friggin’ Airbus to see. It is worth mentioning that I never get sick on trains and boats…

Watching the scenery works, so don’t fix your gaze on individual moving objects, just scan the scenery in general. This way, your eyes will confirm the sensation of motion perceived by your inner ear. This only works for me if I’m in a car though and only as long as I don’t move my head as well. That makes me a pretty useless copilot, cause sometimes the driver needs an extra pair of eyes, but, since I have to be completely stiff and sometimes even keep my eyes closed if things get serious, I’m no help. When on a plane, during takeoff, turbulence and landing, I have to stay completely still and close my eyes; otherwise, there’s trouble.

Plenty of air (difficult on a plane, with that recycled stuff that dries your throat), no alcohol and very little dry food before or during the trip. If you’re in the car with a driver who smokes, bad luck for you. In Romania it is, for some reason, considered rude to ask people not to give you cancer.

Pills don’t work, not for me anyway. I’ve tried everything on the market, but to no avail, and I hate taking meds anyway.

What you can also do is be nice and patient with people who may ask you to pull over because they are sick. Also keep your cars tidy and go easy on the air fresheners. And don’t drive like assholes. And quit smoking, it’s icky! And if you want moar science on this topic, check out this and this.

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…

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…

What to Do When You Suck

I’ll be damned if I know!

Most interpreters who write blogs are full of advice, which is always useful for a novice. But what I never see on interpreting blogs (maybe I haven’t looked hard enough) is self-criticism. It is always other people who suck: beginners, agencies, speakers. I think it is presumed that if an interpreter should speak on his or her own behalf, they are only worthy of opening their mouths if they have lessons to teach, advice to offer, both based on an immaculate track record.

I do not have advice. I’m apparently slow to learn and to create strategies for myself. I do it well when I finally do it, but I trip and fall a few times before I learn my lesson. I navigate through. Until one day one of those meetings comes. A meeting where everything that can go wrong goes wrong, where, in spite of all your prep work, no strategy works. The content is highly specialized and extremely complex, the topic is completely new, terminology is abundant, language is cryptic, there are no equivalents in your mother tongue (because you come from a country that had no idea what a market economy was until 20 years ago and that imports both solutions and problems (along with their names)), the speakers insist on speaking their own strange versions of English, with thick accents, bad grammar, long digressions, incomplete sentences and fast.

You’ve read all the documents, but when the experts start to speak, their words fly through you, without ringing any familiar bells. You know better than to focus on just words, but you fail to see a message beyond the banking jargon. Your technique has saved you on a number of occasions, but now the speaker virtually mops the floor with you when he starts to speak about the resolution (yes, really!) of financial institutions, but makes long digressions about German administrative law. You know better than to fall into that trap, but you fall anyway. You’re so happy when you hear words you  finally do understand, that you make up sentences with them, not knowing whether that’s what the speaker said or not. You do guess-work, not interpretation. Bref, you suck! Big time.

Since I found no mention of this kind of situation in the literature, I don’t know what one is to do in such cases. Since I was completely out of my depth (OK, I was fucking drowning!), I was at a loss for any ideas, solutions, strategies, techniques that I could adopt to save myself. I wish I could say I was trying to keep afloat, but what I did was manage not to die. So what does one do? I don’t know, but I can tell you what I did.

1. I cried.

So cry! Let it all out. You’re a mediocre to bad interpreter, after one year of working almost every week, you are not capable of delivering in a meeting. Your technique is shit, you can’t speak your own mother tongue, you don’t understand English, your teachers were idiots for ever letting you pass exams, your bosses are dumb for ever letting you near a console. You are never getting work again! You thought you were smart, but your whole life is a lie. All your peers are doing better than you. Your parents are delusional, you don’t deserve their love. You are almost 27 and still unmarried, you old maid, you! You have adult acne, you’ve been putting on (more) weight, your roots show, you have split ends. You are the typical subject of passive-aggressive posts on interpreter blogs. Well, not you personally, but fucktards like you.

Anything else wrong with you? Good! Moving on:

2. Disconnect.

Try to nap, and, if you don’t have time, read something that doesn’t have to do with work for about 30 or 40 minutes, watch the news or a light TV show. It’s good to remember that your job isn’t everything out there and that there are people who are worse off than you (as cynical as it may sound, other people’s problems do have the gift of making me stop whining).

Done? OK.

3. Prepare for tomorrow’s meeting.

And do it well. Don’t underestimate the difficulty or plunge into the abyss of despair. You have to be in shape because your damaged self-esteem can’t handle another botched day in the booth. Work well. You’ll have time to think about how bad you were later. Now go to sleep.

So this is what I did. I cried my eyeballs out, read a magazine, prepared for the next meeting, went to bed and did all right in the booth on the following day, even though it wasn’t easy at all. But it isn’t over. There is a step 4.

4. Figure out what went wrong and how you can keep it from going wrong in the future (if you ever get contracts again).

This is guess-work again, because I have no way of knowing for sure.

  • We don’t do pretty: too much focus on terminology – in trying to avoid Anglicisms (big no-no in our booth), I attempted to come up with the best equivalents in Romanian. That meant 4-5 words in Romanian for every 2 words in English, which led me to waste time and to miss the essential parts of the ideas that followed. I lost who was doing what, whether certain actions are good or bad in the speaker’s view etc. I was too busy speaking at certain points, and forgot to listen.
  • When forced to choose between text and speaker, choose the speaker! I have never learned how to work with a text in the booth, so I’m still at the stage where it hurts my work to read, listen and speak at the same time. In my desperate attempts to not lag behind, I thought the ppt presentations could help me keep up, but they didn’t, as I wasted a lot of energy looking at the slides, instead of listening and trying to understand (something, anything).
  • Freestyling is not always a good idea: I’m not so sure of this one, because either people understand everything better than me or are better at hiding the fact that they don’t understand. If they do bullshit at all, their bullshit sounds a lot more plausible than mine. I don’t have experience, my BS is less than credible, anyone can call my bluffs. Interpret, don’t guess!

I don’t know what difference that would have made a few days ago, but I’ll be better prepared for the next meeting on the resolution of financial and credit institutions (you read that right!).

5. Apologize.

This should probably have been step 1, but I was too busy trying to find a bathroom to cry in.

And life isn’t all that bad… You’re a good human being, your friends like you, your parents would love you no matter how dumb you turned out to be. Sure, you could lose a few pounds, but your boyfriend still thinks you’re sexy, and if you had a six-pack a year ago, you can get one again. A day at the beauty salon and you’ll be as good as new.

You remember there were conferences and meetings where you did well to great, in spite of the difficulty. You’re not a complete idiot. Life is good. There will be other meetings…


One of the colleagues in the booth that awful day was your boss…

So it’s a good thing I didn’t set this blog out to be an interpreting blog, because I may need to change my career soon…