On crossing language borders

Rumors that English has become the global lingua franca are exaggerated. International fora and organizations still need interpreters to link speakers of different tongues, and European Union enlargement has boosted the demand for interpreters who work in the languages of the new member states. «What is it like working on the language front line and what skills are needed?» Kathimerini English Edition asked three Athens-based conference interpreters who have extensive experience of working with international institutions in Greece and abroad. Mix of skills All three agreed that the profession demands far more than a sound knowledge of languages and they emphasized social skills as well as academic ones. For Alexander Zaphiriou, desirable qualities for an interpreter are «a retentive memory, agile pithiness of expression, curiosity about the world at large, a fair share of the social graces, an urge to keep improving one’s skills, and the willingness to afford oneself a solid general grounding in (practically) every field of human inquiry. This last means you’ve got to keep reading avidly, all your life long.» Julie Hogan recommends «a good understanding of one’s languages, knowledge of the country and its culture, broad general knowledge, accuracy, fast reflexes, adaptability, natural curiosity, communication skills and a pleasant delivery.» The ability to improvise and presence of mind are crucial, according to Bettina Mara. She quoted Hugh Lunghi, one of Churchill’s interpreters, who said an interpreter «’was rather like a concert artist – and his object was to get over the meaning, the tone of the score… you had to think of your interpreting as a performance. You were performing… You can’t be just a translating machine.’ I also love this quote because I would have loved to study music, but didn’t play the piano quite well enough, and at the time figured interpreting would be a better way of finding gainful employment for me, and it was. The performing aspect is most definitely there; naturally you have to be true to the original when interpreting, but you also have to sound convincing, and improvise if you get stuck, just like any other performer. (That doesn’t mean one needs to have artistic talents, just a capacity to present your material well.)» Practice rather than theory is the key to competence. «I don’t know if you can learn much from theory,» said Mara, who studied conference interpreting at the University of Heidelberg, where the course included a lot of practice. «We had to do a semester abroad for each language,» she explained. One of the most useful subjects covered the culture and political and educational systems of the countries where the languages are spoken. Zaphiriou, who studied comparative literature, said: «I haven’t had much grounding in theory, so practice has been of paramount importance for me. But colleagues who have been through formal training also tell me that when it comes to the crunch, there’s nothing to beat loads of experience.» After a degree in modern languages in Great Britain, Hogan studied interpreting in Paris, then did a «stage» at the Commission of the European Communities in Brussels. Given the need for a broad range of knowledge, she believes aspiring interpreters are «better off in many ways with a scientific/technical background.» What advice would they give someone who wants to become an interpreter? «Don’t,» quipped Zaphiriou. «But, joking aside, don’t ever get a chip on your shoulder, remain considerate in the face of cutthroat competition, and put yourself in your customer’s shoes. Note that your customer isn’t the guy who pays you – it’s the guy who’s listening to what you say.» «It’s important to be good at teamwork,» said Mara. «When working in simultaneous, which is what we do most, we work as a team of from two or three to up to sometimes dozens of interpreters, so it’s very important to be able to get along with others and help each other out. «And you have to be willing to develop an interest in various things and to work on them,» she advised. Her tip is to go for the Eastern European languages – Czech, Hungarian, Slovenian and Russian. For someone starting out now, with years of study ahead of them, Hogan recommends the language predicted to dominate in the future: «If you want to interpret – and it’s a long hard road, you’re really going to have to go out and live there if you want to,» she said. «I think Chinese is the one to be learning.» At the peak of the profession, interpreting may offer good money, travel and the opportunity to work in august institutions where decisions affecting the world are made. It is also highly competitive and can be exhausting, but the most stressful aspect is often the speaker’s delivery. Asked about the main challenges interpreters face at work, Mara didn’t hesitate: «Speakers who have not been trained in public speaking. In such cases, interpreters ask for their speech in advance, but that doesn’t always help when the speaker doesn’t understand the difference between written and spoken language. They read it off, but it’s still not spoken language. Written language needs to be translated; interpreting works with the spoken language.» Sometimes it’s not really interpreting, she laughed. «It’s just coping.» She also finds it stressful when there are many conference languages, and the interpreters have to do relays, or when she is listening to non-native English or French all day. Zaphiriou also referred to «poor speakers (because they are too fast, or they are speaking in a language that is foreign to them, or their thinking is haphazard, or their grammar is faulty, or their pronunciation is hard to get, or their intonation is too flat, or they don’t know when to stop, or they think that we should be interested in everything single thing they know…).» His other bugbears include «exasperating organizers (because they don’t know what it takes, or couldn’t care less, or are over demanding, or too disorganized…), difficult colleagues (because they are too insecure, or too clever by half, or too aggressive, or undependable, or merely incompetent…), one’s own inadequacy (one can’t know everything, or one has had a bad day/week/month/year/life, or ‘it’s somebody else’s fault»…), and all that is just for starters…» Nerves of steel The same themes echo in Hogan’s response: «Individually, the challenges are very high levels of stress, requiring nerves of steel, and preferably a thick skin. Interpreting badly spoken English, speakers from various backgrounds, grappling with terminology, coping with poor sound/visual quality. When on ‘mission’ anything from possible discomfort, unorthodox working hours, to responding to the call of nature without upsetting protocol. People reading rather than speaking. «As a profession,» Hogan added, «the latest challenges are remote interpreting; EU enlargement, therefore more languages, more ‘relay’ work; cuts in expenditure in institutions and the private market, and recognition of the profession.» English is being used more widely, but for the foreseeable future there is work for interpreters with flair and stamina.

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