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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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…

Unless…

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…

On Being Bi…

Bilingual that is…

Jokes and cheesy metaphors aside, my last post (greatly inspired by this) was mainly an allegory of how I was too lazy and never well-disciplined enough to learn French properly and how the way French is taught over here is really getting in the way of students liking and using the language actively. You cannot learn a language from books, you cannot like a language when it’s being shoved down your throat by frustrated teachers who think English is overrated. You learn a language by using it, by immersing in it. In junior high, the books we used were at least 25 years old. The language in them was outdated, with too big of a focus on grammar and almost none on vocabulary. We were not introduced to literature, pop culture (movies, comics, music, stand-up comedy, you name it), the books had been passed down for I don’t know how many generations, they were old, the pictures were black and white, they told almost nothing of French history, culture, the cities, the personalities, modern life, sports, slang… In highschool, we had French students visiting us and they did not speak the language in our books.

Bottom line, the system and the teachers didn’t know how to sell their stuff. We played hookey so much, our junior high French teacher forgot she had class with us. And be honest: have you ever met kids with self-discipline so motivated that they take up something completely new on their own and just because? Maybe I’m making excuses for my failure to be proactive about learning French. The teachers thought it was so great, though! Of course they did! They had probably learned it during the Communist regime and it was a rare connection to an outside world they didn’t know, it was a sort of an escape for them. For us, it was a burden. They never tried to explain, to make us curious about it, to show us all the interesting things behind the language. Ya know: all that stuff that makes teachers good. To them it was beautiful and rich and nothing more, and because they liked it (did they?), we had to like it too, they took that for granted.

The fact that I managed to squeeze through the system (up to a certain point) with mediocre French says something about the educational process in Romania. So now I only work with one language: English. This can’t last long, as interpreters are always under pressure to add new languages. But for now, my Romanian A <> English B is still a bankable combination.

For now…

But they don’t seem to like us of the puny language combinations in Brussels. I’ve heard people say quite directly “yes, well, we, in the bigger booths, we have to add a language every few years, we have to have at least 4 or 5 languages in our combination, and it bothers us to see that our colleagues from the newer booths (hint much?) have only one or two languages. We do appreciate all their work and their excellent retour, but…”

And this is where I come to the point of this post. You see, we had to make up an ambiguous and funky, yet not offensive, name for these people, because they’re so annoying! Bilinguals, people who grew up speaking languages, who had languages all around them, who grew up in Jo’burg, spent their gap year in Argentina, had a government-funded scholarship in Madrid, an aunt in Estonia and spoke to their German cousins on the phone every week. They went to college in France and had their MA in London, spent three years teaching English in Lisbon, freelanced in Geneva and now spend all their summers between Athens and Palermo, while our parents bankrupted themselves to send us on a three-month Erasmus mobility in Aix-en-Provence. You see my point.

I would hate them if I didn’t envy them and their perfect lives so much. “My dad is Belgian and my mom is Swedish, my dad is Spanish and my mom is French, my dad is English and my mom is Spanish” etc. How is life fair? It’s not, but you don’t see me complaining! (right…) Bottom line, we here in this strange corner of the woods had to work harder to learn things people in the West take for granted. We had to work for our languages, while their parents f***ed and produced a bilingual baby.

I know it’s not as simple as I’m trying to make it look. Most interpreters actually don’t come from bilingual families. But they certainly do have more resources, they travel from a very young age, they have more solid educational systems, good quality public TV and, let’s admit it, more open minds (except when they make comments like the one above). I really don’t know a lot of people in Romania who, out of the blue, go: “I think I’ll take a year off from college and spend it in Peru just to learn Spanish.” (When I was 5, I asked my mom if I could walk to kindergarten alone. She got mad and didn’t speak to me for a whole day). They’re born with wings, we need to grow ours. They run in an open field, we’re on an obstacle course.

Then, to hear something like that coming from a colleague and a professional I admire… I’m not trying to downplay the work of the older booths, on the contrary. The quality of their work, the expanse of their knowledge, their style, their charm, the ease with which they express themselves in all of their languages, these things never cease to amaze me. But let me tell you something: the Romanian booth kicks some pretty serious @$$, in spite of us not being as bi as other people are.

French and I Are Over

But we’re still friends…

You may have figured it out from my blogroll that I am an interpreter. Mainly. I also translate, because when that really nice money from interpreting comes in, I really don’t want to tarnish it with measly expenses, like rent. (Yeah, I’m so rich, I still rent…).

Anyway, you can’t do an MA in interpreting without at least two C languages. Mine were English and French. In the meantime, English became my B and I almost completely discarded French. A good B is worth quite something on the private market and the Romanian booth at the EU institutions still accepts freelancers with just a B (or at least 2 C’s) (for now, and if you pass the test, of course). Shame on me to have done away with such a beautiful language, I know, but it was never true love and French knew it… Marriage of convenience, really…

With English, it was so different. It wasn’t immediate attraction, no love at first sight. Back when I was young, French was the popular kid. English was the weird new kid whose parents nobody knew and everyone was afraid to play with it, even though all the older kids openly admitted that French was kind of pain in the ass and an attention whore. So I was brave enough to approach English myself. We hit it off almost immediately and it has never disappointed me to this day. We have the same mind frame, we’re both pragmatic, to-the-point, no bullshit (as you can see from this blog :P), yet still capable of sensitivity and poetry when the mood strikes us. English is one of my best friends to this day and we have a mutually beneficial relationship, so to speak 🙂

With French, however, different story… I ignored it as much as I could, but it hasn’t gone away to this day. Finally, by 6th grade it insisted on making its insidious presence felt in my life on a weekly basis, at least. Not gonna lie to you, the kid is a looker (or sounder, whatever), we enjoyed some good moments together. But you know the old furniture that takes up a lot of space and doesn’t go with the decor or anything else you may have in your house, but you have to keep it there because it’s a family heirloom and it has sentimental value and shit? Yeah, French is like that.

Oh, France’s exquisite culture, France’s glorious history, the teachers ranted. France has always been Romania’s ally, blah blah blah. See what I mean? Popular kid: my parents have money, my family knows people, I’m connected, look at my flashy clothes and shiny car, pay attention to me, that sort of thing! French has an attitude problem!

It’s not all French’s fault. That’s what happens to people when everyone tells them they’re great: they either turn into dictators who insist on taking over everyone’s lives, or they finally see that they’re not exactly as cool as they thought they were and get all frustrated when someone else steals their thunder.

My relationship with French was all flash and no substance. It insisted on addressing me in the most confusing terms, speaking in metaphors and abusing idioms. It thinks so highly of its grammar and its history, it forgets to live in the present. Soon after we started, I realized French was an old soul who had trouble finding its place in the world. I even felt sorry for it for a while and half-heartedly accepted its pointless conversations, its empty quoting of classics, its refusal to open up and see the world changing around it. So we dragged it on for years and years. In spite of my ongoing relationship with English and my flirting with Italian and German, we ended up at that point in a relationship where there is no going back: you’re stuck with each other. I managed to fake faithfulness quite well until recently, I even fooled myself into believing we had feelings for each other.

But it didn’t work out. French, self-absorbed as it is, realized it was too good for me, and I finally figured out that we didn’t fit together at all, all we ever did was annoy each other. Counseling said it would be better for me to stick with just English for now. They also recommended trying to rekindle my relationship with French in the future, but the thing is: we get along better now that we don’t have to put up with each other anymore.

I recently started a little fling with Spanish (doesn’t everyone?), so let’s wait and see where that will take us.