As I have confessed to my colleagues, being an interpreter has been my dream since I was a child.
I started to cherish the idea when I was just eleven and, like many people, at that time I thought that good language skills were enough.
Well, I was wrong.
University taught me that the knowledge of a language is barely the basis.
The first obstacle was learning how to sight-translate, because it’s not easy to read a text mentally while translating it into another. But this is nothing when compared to consecutive and simultaneous interpreting.
Each technique requires hours of practice just to start acquiring its basics.
In particular, regarding consecutive interpreting, an interpreter must learn to note down a speech by reducing it to its fundamental elements. Therefore, a student tries to develop a code of symbols, which gradually becomes a real language that only the author can read and understand. Tolkien would be very proud of us.
Simultaneous interpreting is another world. Someone loves it, someone hates it. It is surely the most tiring technique, because it requires constant attention and there’s no time to organize your thoughts before translating. Moreover, you never know if the speaker decides to finish the sentence or if it goes unfinished, if they speak faster than Speedy Gonzales or slower than a sloth. Not to mention figures, which must be noted down before you forget them.
It took me two intense years of Master’s Degree to really master the different techniques and our job isn’t only about this.
What if we are asked to interpret during a conference about medicine? This is not a topic we usually talk about in Italian (unless counting triglycerides is one of your hobbies), let alone in a foreign language. Sometimes we are asked to take part in negotiations among wineries and sommeliers, where the discussion hinges around niche wines or engineering, just because “you just have to translate what they say”; as I have been told more than once.
Many people think that you’re born an interpreter. I’m sorry but I disagree, and this is precisely the reason why you should always rely on a professional.
I’ve been a second choice all too often.
Before contacting the “expensive” interpreter, people ask that friend who speaks English because they have been to London, the cousin who studied Languages at university, or even passers-by (as you can read here). But then they are disappointed, because these “interpreters” are not able to carry out a consecutive interpreting about the disposal of radioactive waste, not to mention their ability in whispered interpreting. It’s not rare that these improvised interpreters burst into tears after half day of work and refuse to work again the following morning.
This risk is practically reduced to zero if you hire a professional interpreter; here’s why.
First and foremost, a professional interpreter has become such thanks to years of training, crowned by a master’s degree. An improvised interpreter doesn’t have this kind of background. The skills acquired during the education years and honed by practice practically reduce to zero the possibility that your “translator” abandons you in the middle of a business event.
Our training isn’t confined to the acquisition of specific interpreting techniques, but it also involves the learning of methods to rapidly acquire vocabulary. This explains why a professional is able to move from a conference on aortic aneurysms to one regarding nuclear energy (almost) without blinking.
But remember, we were NOT born omniscient and it is NOT enough to translate what is being said: we must learn, read, get information, find the perfect translation of specific terms and compile endless glossaries. It takes us hours of preparation and research even to get ready for the shortest event and therefore the client should hire the interpreter a long time in advance, so that the professional can prepare and offer the best performance possible. No, you can’t consider half day of notice as “long time in advance”.
According to a legend, interpreters are beings with two halves: half human and half encyclopedia, encompassing all human knowledge.
This is maybe the impression we give, because for the entire conference a professional interpreter must be as expert as the speakers. It’s true that we translate words, but to do that properly, there are some things that must be clear: links, causes, consequences, basic information, who did what and when, and so on. Could an improvised interpreter say the same? Would they devote entire days to meticulous preparation?
My direct experience tells me that the answer is no. No one knows how much preliminary work there is behind a good interpreting performance and this often leads to choosing non-qualified people.
Last but not least, the importance of the mind. It may seem a secondary element, but try to recall how you felt when, at school, you had to present a project in front of everyone: trembling voice, shaking hands, shivers down the spine. During a conference, the audience is larger and more involved than your high school classmates.
A professional knows how to cope with booth-related stress or with the anxiety linked to taking the floor during consecutive interpreting. Moreover, they know how to behave with speakers and foreign guests and are ready to help them as language mediators for any need.
Despite our limits, we can also face the unexpected; but above all we know what we need to do our job properly and provide a high-quality performance. Experience teaches us to foresee everything that could happen, while our education gives us the tools to face it confidently. Trust me, this is the difference between professional interpreters and improvised ones.
At this point, I would say that it is now clear: you are not born an interpreter, you become one.
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