Pretty much any bilingual person is able to do written translation if given enough time and resources. But ask them to do interpretation and you’ll most likely get a scared look. An interpreter’s job is a tough one, but if you play your cards right, it can be both lucrative and useful. Four years in the industry have taught me a lot, and now I want to share my experiences and insight with those who are considering interpretation as their career prospect as well as those who do not know much about it but are capable and interested.
But before we get started, let me get one thing straight. While this profession has nothing in common with the boring and ugly life of an office pencil-pusher (quite the contrary, actually—it is as active a white-collar job as it gets), it is not something a regular man can do. Unless you have natural aptitude and nerves of steel, it will take a lot of training before you are able to interpret independently. And training will make you feel like giving up and quitting many, many times.
Still interested? Then let us begin.
In order to become an interpreter, all you need is excellent knowledge of at least two languages. By “excellent” I mean not only being able to seamlessly switch between them mid-sentence, but also having a very large vocabulary.
Your location factors into the size of your paycheck as well. Do you happen to speak Dutch in a country that does a lot of business with the Netherlands? Or maybe you live in South America while being fluent in both Spanish and Portuguese? How about knowing Chinese, Russian or Arabic in addition to your English? If so, you are in luck, as these languages are always in demand.
Less widespread or rare languages (e.g. Greek, Hungarian or Icelandic) are not as sought after, but you can always try to find a niche. The more languages you know, the wider you are able to cast your nets and the bigger is the fish you catch. Kato Lomb, a pioneer of the profession, spoke twenty-two languages and interpreted in ten. Most of them she learned by herself – an admirable feat, considering how few means of doing so were available in 1930s.
There are two kinds of interpretation: simultaneous and consecutive. Both kinds have their advantages and drawbacks, but few interpreters can do both with equal ease; most prefer to specialize in one of them and do the other only if necessary.
Simultaneous interpretation requires quick thinking and lots of stamina. Your task here is to listen carefully to the person speaking while repeating his words in another language, with minimal delay. With enough experience and a few minutes of warm-up, you will be able to do it automatically, falling into a trance of sorts.
However, sometimes the speaker can be very fast (those with pre-written speeches are the main culprits), have a thick accent or frequently use nigh untranslatable slang. And you can’t tell him to speak slower or stop telling jokes involving wordplay because you are sitting in a booth. You also cannot afford to fall silent while the other guy speaks or omit too much information from a sentence. All this taxes the mind immensely, which is why interpreters usually work in pairs, replacing each other every 30 minutes or so—one works while the other rests.
Consecutive interpretation requires a long attention span and a good memory. Instead of sitting in a booth with headphones on, you sit next to the speaker and listen carefully to whatever he has to say. Then he falls silent and all eyes in the audience turn towards you, awaiting the translation.
This does not sound too hard, but way too many people simply do not know when to stop – they drone on and on, seemingly forgetting about your presence, until the amount of information becomes too much. Then you are left stumbling and mumbling, trying to recall everything that was said. Elbowing the speaker so that he would shut up and let you translate is not an option. Thus, consecutive interpretation comes much easier to those good at remembering things, as they have time to think and form proper sentences.
There is also a third, lesser known kind of interpretation: whispering. At times when only one or two people in the audience do not speak the language, making special equipment unnecessary, you get seated between or next to them and do your usual simultaneous interpretation, repeating what you hear in a low voice. Whispering is the most demanding and tiring of all facets of the profession, which is why many of us avoid it: often you cannot hear what is being said, your charges stop paying attention, other attendees complain about your muttering distracting them, etc. The pay is very good though, so whether it is worth the trouble is up to you to decide.
As I said above, some people are naturally apt at interpretation—a week or two of practice to unlock their potential and they are ready for field work. Everyone else needs to have the ability drilled into them, and this can be grueling. However, this is more or less offset by the fact that you can easily practice interpretation at home. Basic training starts with shadowing – listening to someone speak and repeating aloud what you hear, word-for-word. Just find a recording of any politician’s speech (they usually speak the slowest) on Youtube and try following it. Shadowing is intended to get you used to listening intently and speaking rapidly, so once you feel comfortable with repeating speeches of politicians, switch to news broadcasts and then to TV shows.
Then come your first interpreting attempts. Go back to the slowest speech you have and try to translate what you hear. At this stage it would be useful to have someone listen to you and evaluate your progress. Russians have a saying “the first pancake is always a blob,” so do not lose heart if your first results are abysmal. The key here is to never stop speaking. Even if you fail to understand something in a speech, get confused about the meaning of some word or mishear something, just press on. Find synonyms, improvise, guess – but no matter what, do not attempt to stop and gather your wits. You will gradually develop a knack for this, but do not over-exert yourself.
Once you feel confident with translating political lingo and keeping up with the speakers’ speed, it’s time for specialized sessions. Find recordings of medical, business or judicial conferences and meetings and try your hand at them. You will almost invariably find yourself grossly out of depth but again, do not despair—Rome was not built in a day. Write down any unfamiliar words you hear and try to memorize them. When you become able to predict most literary clichés and structures, knowing approximately what is going to be said at least three seconds in advance, congratulations: you have reached the necessary level of automatism.
As a supplement, you can try live training, although you’ll need two rooms, two assistants and a laptop for that. The setup is simple—one room has a microphone and someone reading a text aloud, the other room has you wearing headphones and interpreting. The third person listens and rates your performance. This kind of practice is very useful, as you can choose the content and adjust the reading speed.
You can, of course, skip all that and just go to a school or university that provides far more thorough training and has all the fancy equipment, but this usually costs a pretty penny. Another stumbling block here is the lack of an international standard or any kind of worldwide certification. This is actually a good thing – interpreting is a very versatile field, and trying to hem it into some arbitrary framework would cause nothing but harm. It also leaves the profession wide open to influx of promising newbies. Hence, interpretation is all about your personal skill and building connections.
So, you have completed your training and are now ready to take wing. Where do you start? Since you are new to the industry, the best course of action would be to find an interpretation company (make sure it is not a “language bank”) and sign up. The company, which is typically a loose network of freelancers run by a single person, receives commissions from clients and distributes them to interpreters.
I do not recommend declining any tasks you get assigned to, as your time with the company serves as a foundation of your career – aside from earning you money, it allows you to polish your skills, create a reputation (you’ll be surprised how many return clients specifically ask for “that guy who did such a good job the last time”) and meet many useful people.
What happens next is up to you. You can stick with the company if you like, or you can use your accumulated capital, knowledge and connections to break away, becoming a freelancer or starting an interpretation company of your own. Each choice has its own benefits and drawbacks.
Staying with the company means that you do not have to look for clients yourself but your personal reputation and income suffer slightly; being a freelancer means that you get to be picky about who hires you (for example, I refuse to work for feminists, Jewish or Muslim organizations and others with whose views I vehemently disagree) but commissions can get quite scarce at times; having your own business means a bigger income, but also more hassle with management and potential risks.
Money. For many interpreters, this is what brought them into the fold in the first place. A good interpreter makes from $250 to $750 a day. Few other professions can boast such an income. Besides, risks and rewards here correlate directly: the more commissions you accept and the thinner you spread yourself, the more you’ll make.
Connections. As an interpreter, you rub shoulders with businessmen, politicians and all kinds of movers and shakers. Like I, you will probably find most of them unpleasant and shallow, but do not deny the usefulness of making their acquaintance. Knowing a media mogul on a first-name basis can save you tons of money on advertising your future business, while drinking with your country’s president might secure you years of guaranteed, well-paying commissions.
Game. Whenever there is a conference or a meeting, there is almost always a bunch of sexy girls around running errands, shifting papers or handing out leaflets. They are usually bored out of their minds and readily respond to even the crudest game attempts. The amount of times when I left a meeting with one of them in tow for an amazing evening is getting too much to count.
Personal improvement. As your experience in interpreting grows, so does your self-assurance and composure. You shoulder a lot of responsibility and face genuinely difficult situations almost every day; overcoming them steels your mind and gives you a good endorphin rush whenever you walk away from a job well done. Fear of public speaking? Confidence issues? Anxiety? Psshh. You learn to master such feelings very quickly once you start ending up in situations where everything depends on you and there is no going back.
Travel. If you decide to become an escorting interpreter, you will have to accompany a fair amount of big cheeses on their meetings and conferences around the world. Since you’ll rarely be busy for more than five or six hours per day, you will have a lot of time to explore, sightsee and do whatever tourists do.
Freedom. Interpreters have a lot of independence. Even if you work for a company, there is very little your boss can do if a client complains about your performance – you are too valuable an asset to lose. Unless you seriously screw things up, the most you’re going to get is a verbal slap on the wrist. HR in interpretation companies is near-nonexistent—your skills speak for themselves and nothing else matters, thus removing a need for having some pink-haired ambulocetus hound your every step in order to make sure you are not being “toxic” or “intimidating.” For honest opinions and genuine criticism, rely on your colleagues and nobody else.
Knowledge. Unless you choose to specialize in a particular field, you’ll be surprised how many new things one can learn about the world as an interpreter. From the plight of industrial fishermen to latest breakthroughs in ophthalmology, every meeting lets you in on something you had no idea of before, increasing your erudition and broadening your horizons. Strange as it sounds, interpreting is very educational.
Flextime. An interpreter does not have a particular workplace or working hours – only assignments. You do not need to wake up early in the morning, drag yourself to an office in a zombie-like state and sit there every day until your ass starts growing roots. Even a moderately busy interpreter only works every other day or so, which leaves him with a lot of free time.
Company. Interpreters come from all walks of life and, due to their profession’s rarity, frequently form tight-knit communities. By associating with your colleagues, you might not only make some decent friends, but also learn a lot from those more experienced than you. There is very little competition-induced tension, as demand for interpreters always exceeds the amount of interpreters themselves by a huge margin.
Stress. Both your main enemy and inseparable companion. Over-exerting your mental capabilities for a living leaves its mark on a person, and as time passes, this mark begins to show. Many veteran interpreters are heavy drinkers or pill-poppers; some become irritable and short-tempered, others sink into depression. My former mentor, a grizzled guru of the profession, is now showing early signs of schizophrenia. If you possess iron will, you will be able to resist the chafing effect of stress on your psyche for a very long time, but few people have such mental fortitude. Do not believe the stock images: interpreting is an overwhelmingly male-dominated profession, as only a miniscule amount of women can take the heat.
Emergencies. Always be ready for a force majeure. The subject of the meeting suddenly gets changed to something you did not prepare for, audio channels go haywire and you end up translating the wrong speech, your colleague gets stomach cramps and runs to the toilet, leaving you to fend for yourself… Dozens of unexpected things can happen during a session, and it will frequently fall to you to improvise and save the day. Unpleasant as they are, such situations teach you self-reliance.
Written translation. You’ll be asked to do that a lot, and there is not a single reason why you should agree. Written translation is thankless and monotonous, eating up a lot of time and paying peanuts—the adjective “soul-destroying” applies to it perfectly. Unless you are starving, refuse all offers without regret. All it takes is a couple of accepted commissions for people to latch onto you like ticks—good luck shaking them off afterwards. Leave written translation to office drones.
Flextime. Many people view this as a drawback, as an interpreter does not live by proper weekdays, weekends and days off. Planning a family evening, a drinking night with friends or a date, only to have it cancelled by an untimely commission you cannot refuse can be extremely frustrating.
Seasonality. In many countries, midwinter and late summer are “dead seasons”, as everyone is away on vacation. This dries up sources of income for many freelance interpreters; sometimes the “drought” is so strong that even interpreting companies run aground. Always be prudent with your money and have a sizeable sum laid aside for such occurrences.
As I said in the introduction, interpreting is not for everyone. However, in times like ours, when a poster boy for white-collar employment is a passive, metrosexual, coffee-sipping bean counter, interpretation is an excellent way for an ambitious man to monetize his mental capabilities and improve himself at the same time.
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