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.

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 ūüôā
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 ūüôā

Part 2 and maybe 3 to come…

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.