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…