The agony and the extasy of interpreting
Maybe you wanted to be a fireman when you were young. Or a doctor. Or a supermodel. But who would have dreamed about becoming an interpreter?
When I was young, the profession had such a low profile that I didn’t even know it existed.
Then, when I was about fifteen a book in my parents’ bookshelf caught my eye. It had a very tempting title: The Agony and The Ecstasy. As a teenager I was expecting something … well, ecstatic.
I couldn’t have been more wrong – it was “just” a biography. A very detailed account of the life of Michelangelo.
Disappointed at first, I was hooked after a couple of pages – transported into 16th century Tuscany and imagining all the amazing works of art that were created there and then. The book had one major flaw though – there were only a few grainy black and white photographs of some of the works and I desperately wanted to see all the beauty with my own eyes. However, living in a communist country, I knew, I would never be able to go to Italy. Unless….
And that is where the idea was born – I will be an interpreter and I will accompany the lucky ones who were able to travel and see the world! Little did I know about conference interpreting – I have never heard of people sitting in sound-proof booths with headphones and microphones enabling simultaneous interpreting. Becoming an interpreter basically meant to me to become a tour guide.
My parents weren’t exactly impressed as they knew I am a confirmed introvert and thus, according to all theories, not suited for the interpreting profession. But I was determined. I wanted to see the world, no matter what. And I wanted to see Florence and Michelangelo’s David.
Of course, back in communist times you weren’t allowed to simply pick and choose the languages you would study (if you were lucky enough to be accepted into the only interpreting school in the country that had about 30 students per year). Each year there was a set combination of two languages and usually one of them was Russian. No Italian the year I applied. But I was lucky and at least got to study interpreting.
Now, the Agony began. I was in for quite some surprises – because at university I learned there is this “simultaneous interpreting” – where you listen and speak AT THE SAME TIME! This seemed not humanly possible. I could never ever do this. How did I land here? All I wanted was to travel to Italy!
Obviously, you don’t start your interpreting training with simultaneous. You take it step-by-step. It all starts with learning consecutive interpreting first – this is where you speak after the speaker has finished. It can be quite an art too – if done professionally, many people will admire how you can listen and take notes for about five to ten minutes and then render the speech from memory.
But the big day eventually comes – you get to sit in the booth for the first time. You don’t hear yourself, because you’re not used to splitting the attention between listening to the speaker and listening to your interpretation. I wanted Agony and I got it.
But you know what? It is possible to learn simultaneous interpreting. It takes some time and in order to be good, it takes regular practice, yet I am living proof that it can be done.
And when you tame the beast – you’re in Ecstasy. After all, you master the craft of listening, understanding, translating and speaking all at the same time and your output actually makes sense and is equal to what the original speaker was saying. You DO feel ecstatic.
The job itself contains both – sometimes it is agonising to sit in a very difficult meeting, where delegates speak at very high speed, or the subject matter discussed is so new, that there is virtually no terminology in your target language for it. Or you sit in your booth for long hours and your head is spinning.
Then come the days where you are interpreting a very lively debate, where people seem oblivious to the fact that they use interpreters, because you do your job so well that it feels as if you weren’t even there. There you get ecstatic – after all, interpreters work to make communication possible.
I had a lot of Agony and Ecstasy in the past 19 years in this job.
And my dream of getting to Florence and see David? It finally came true this year. You wonder, what took me so long, after all the Iron Curtain has disappeared more than 20 years ago… Well, there is this saying in English, telling you to be careful what you wish for, because it may come true.
As a conference interpreter I travel so much for work that it takes extra energy to travel for pleasure.
When I finally got into Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence and stood beneath the huge David sculpture, I had tears in my eyes. There stood the reason why I made this career choice – why I became an interpreter. A great book about an outstanding artist inspired this young girl living behind barbed wire to pluck up the courage and go her own way.