I’ve just read a very disheartening interview with an anonymous conference interpreter, who was basically explaining the doom, gloom and misery of working in this field.
Indeed, it is a difficult profession, with no financial guarantees, with no major possibilities of career development. Indeed, it is often a thankless job, since the interpreter is remembered mostly when something goes wrong, and ironically, the sure sign of great interpreting is that the participants don’t notice it. Yes, you have to learn all the time, and you bluff. After all, you’re basically convincing two fertilizer experts that you live solely for compost, while in reality you can’t tell a cabbage from a cow, and just crammed in all the knowledge before the meeting.
The thing is, despite all these rational arguments, I just love this job.
1) I feel like I belong to a secret society. We may not have a secret handshake, but we do have our own customs and rules. We are always simultaneously in the thick of it and yet still outsiders. Like ghosts, we pass through closed doors; we are the third person in one-to-one talks; we know what someone wishes to say before they even say it – and oftentimes we phrase it better than they would. A fascinated delegate once told me that we are like Voland from “The Master and Margarita” – mysterious scholars with a slight foreign accent. A doctor at a conference said that what we do is medically impossible: apparently neurologists are taught that the brain can either talk or listen, but isn’t capable of doing both simultaneously. In other words, we are a small group with highly suspect capabilities. Maybe we should come up with a secret handshake after all?
2) I don’t have to decide what I want to be when I grow up. Recently, in a single week I visited a chocolate factory, interpreted for heads of state, discovered how catamarans are made, followed trade union debates and worked at a plenary session of an international organization. I get to visit unusual places, I meet people I’d never have a chance to meet in other circumstances, I get to hear conversations carefully concealed from third parties, and I know that soon enough I’ll end up in yet another new setting.
3) I like how fleeting it all is. God forbid I’d have to work full-time in that chocolate factory, and I don’t want to hear trade unionists quarrel every day. I like the kick of adrenaline when a new subject, a new place comes up – and I like the drop in the adrenaline level when it’s all done. I like it that there are no do-overs, and that every time I have to give it my all. Of course some meetings are boring and tedious. So what? At the end of the day I switch off the microphone and don’t think about it anymore. And of course some colleagues are a pain. So what? After the conference is over, we’ll go our separate ways: it’s not as though we have to share the same office space until retirement do us part.
4) I learn strange things (which I then sometimes share in surprising circumstances). Obviously, I forget much of the information, or my brain would melt. And obviously I have to keep a lot of information confidential. But sometimes, surprising facts stick. I remember seeing my father’s eyes getting bigger and bigger as he heard me discuss diesel engines with a cab driver in Warsaw; a lawyer friend loves chatting with me about European jurisprudence. I have neither a driver’s license nor a law degree. I was once at a dinner party where I described in great detail how to produce heroin. It’s only when I saw the hosts’ panicked faces that I realized I should probably mention I had just gotten back from a police training session. What other profession would allow me to impress both a cab driver and a lawyer?
5) Sometimes I change the world. Obviously people might somehow manage to communicate without me. And of course most of the meetings, sessions, conferences and hearings I work at will not change the course of history. But sometimes I switch off my microphone, or close my notepad, with the distinct feeling that something major has just happened, that some age-old blockage has just been removed, that justice has been rendered. And knowing that I’ve helped this process a tiny bit, that I’ve been a facilitator… it just makes me proud.
This is not meant as agitprop. I don’t promise young or future interpreters the same experiences – in fact, I don’t even know if my colleagues would agree with me. Yes, it really is difficult to become, and to be, a conference interpreter. But what kind of a secret society would we be if we just accepted all hopefuls? Hey, at least we don’t demand that you sacrifice black roosters.
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