Interpreter Stories: Something meaningful to learn every day

To study conference interpreting was nothing more than a random thought at the time when the economic and financial crisis hit the world the hardest in 2008. I was an executive assistant to vice president of SsangYong Motor Company – one of Korea’s largest automobile companies acquired by SAIC Motor Corporation Limited, which is the parent company of two 50/50 joint ventures partnered with Volkswagen and General Motors. My secondment by SAIC in 2005 to Seoul was a good near-4 years experience for someone whose university degree was the Korean language and literature. To ditch a job at a time when millions of others are looking desperately for one to sustain their basic needs just sounds crazy. I was often asked whether I was out of my mind to make such a decision as studying conference interpreting. I must now tell that if an inner voice is telling you to do something, then you should probably follow your heart and stay firm in your conviction.

Conference Interpreting had always been of great interest to me. I found working in a booth simultaneously fascinating. It was exactly part of my personality – seeking the pleasure of overcoming what seemingly impossible – that gave me the impetus of applying for the course at one of the best of its kind in the UK – the University of Westminster (now unfortunately the course is closed down). When informed that I was offered scholarship to enrol on the course, I went straight away to hand in my resignation. Moving from Seoul, which was already far from home, to London, England was another big challenge ahead – cultural difference, language barrier (given the fact that I hadn’t used English much for years) and so on. I was then studying Monday-Friday and working over the weekend to earn some pocket money, which turned out not to be such a wise idea. I would recommend that any students, especially those who come from afar to study an intense course like conference interpreting not take up any part time jobs. It’s certainly not worth it. You must be 100% focused in order to succeed. I wouldn’t bore anyone with my long and winding story about how I obtained my diploma and freelance test at the UN in Geneva. My experience is that you must

1) Believe in yourself (self-confidence): of course there will be setbacks, ups and downs but losing confidence at the beginning would make it not too far from a definite failure

2) You need to be sensitive to languages, i.e. have a bit of talent at what you do and love what you study/do. It would probably be a disaster if I recklessly chose to be a mechanical engineer for example 🙂 Your great interest in a subject or profession will often bring you extra power and energy to look ahead and overcome difficulties.

3) Train wisely and sufficiently. Practice makes perfect. Even the most talented interpreter might find it difficult to reach a certain level if lacking practice. Watching TV news, read “The Economist”, creating your own glossary and work on your mother tongue and active/passive languages should be your routine ”work-out”. Once embarking on a journey of a conference interpreter, you should be fully prepared to do this so long as your career continues. Having said that, it is not merely about the amount of practice you do but rather the analysis of each speech after practice is more important. You would end up making the same type of mistakes if not analysing why you made it in the first place.

4) Be modest. No matter whether you are working with experienced or less experienced colleagues, there is always something you can draw upon and offset.

If you are a good interpreter, your performance will be judged and recognised by others. Achieving grade 1 interpreter status and joining AIIC in my opinion is only a matter of time and procedures. There is no need to rush things. As said before, once you are well-established in the market, all the rest would follow. However having all of these ”crowns” might not mean much at all since over time you will get there. What is more important at the end of the day is your performance, your performance at each and every conference speaks for itself. Your audience and colleagues are not blind or deaf, as they clearly know if you are a good interpreter or not. If you cannot genuinely deliver the message to your client, what is the point of telling others that you are an AIIC member or how many days you have worked so far. Learn now and learn always 🙂

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Liang Zhang

Liang is a Geneva-based Chinese A and English B freelance conference interpreter. Originally from Shanghai, with a university degree in the Korean language and literature, he now works mostly for the United Nations and its specialised agencies. In 2013 he was accredited for the European Institutions as a freelance conference interpreter and became an active member of AIIC.

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