Interpreter Stories: Secret Society

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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Wanda Gadomska

Wanda is a Paris-based freelance interpreter (Polish A, French B, English and BCSM C), member of AIIC, ESIT graduate, accredited with the EU institutions, formerly interpreter trainer at ESIT and ISIT in Paris.

17 CommentsLeave a comment

  • I’m glad your experiences are so uplifting. I must say, working in middle snd high school certainly does not have a positive experience. My ITP only focused on – and glamorized – community work. Sad.

  • Bonjour Mme Gadomska,

    Je suis un étudiant en langues, et j’ai comme objectif unique et précis de devenir un interprète de conférences, en passant par l’ESIT justement. Quel soulagement de lire un tel article parmi tant d’impressions négatives sur la profession, comme vous le dites bien. J’ai entendu qu’en Europe il faut maintenant 5 langues pour s’en sortir dans le milieu. J’aimerais savoir ce que vous en pensez, d’une part, et d’autre part, auriez-vous un conseil ou deux, de quelque nature que ce soit, pour un futur interprète?

    Merci d’avance,

    Olivier Q.

    • Je pense qu’il n’y a pas de réponse univoque. Il y a des biactifs qui fonctionnent très bien sur le marché, et des interprètes avec beaucoup de langues qui ont du mal à trouver du travail. La question n’est pas de savoir COMBIEN de langues, mais bien QUELLES langues l’on a dans sa combinaison. À titre d’exemple : un français A avec le slovaque en C est rare, donc peut être intéressant pour les institutions européennes ; un tchèque A avec le slovaque en C est loin d’être unique, idem pour un français A avec l’espagnol en C – tandis qu’un tchèque A avec l’espagnol en C sera plutôt attractif. Pour résumer c’est, comme pour tout, la loi de l’offre et de la demande.
      Par ailleurs je ne pense pas avoir beaucoup de conseils à donner, si ce n’est de ne pas trop avoir comme « objectif unique et précis » de devenir interprète… 🙂 Je pense que c’est un métier tellement particulier, avec des exigences si spécifiques, que l’on ne peut pas savoir à l’avance si l’on est fait pour être interprète. Je n’essaie pas de vous décourager, je vous invite juste à garder un esprit ouvert.

  • Agree very much. Many people look at me like they’re seeing an alien when I’m interpreting to and from a very foreign language from the locality (my work is in Malaysia & Indonesia, and English is not too foreign) for eg. Italian or Japanese to Indonesian. And there are some diplomatic negotiations so secret I could theoretically be executed if I ever told anyone I was present; lovely interpretive thoughts to sleep soundly and dream over.

  • I loved your article!
    Perfectly summarizes my feelings!!!
    I have read recent sarcastic blogs (not the one the article mentions) about the current perspective of “new” interpreters, but the experience and feeling, for me, is just as Wanda expresses it!

  • Dear Wanda,

    Your writing style is full of sensitivity and sweetness, and your account is absolutely accurate!

    We couldn’t be more thankfull for this true ode to our beloved profession!

    Best regards!

  • Your article is quite an exciting read: both due to its solidly well-written style and due to how it does remind us all of the thrill our profession is. Even though my praxis seems to be a bit off the mainstream (I’m a specialist interpreter – mostly one industry only all the time), I should say the feeling is just the same!

  • I read this article via a fellow interpreter’s reposting on Weibo, the Chinese Twitter+Facebook (her post attracted over 14000 clicks). I am currently working in China as a freelance interpreter with Mandarin A, English B and French C. Life is fabulous – I just can’t wait to work on the next project and have to stop myself from working too much as it’s bad for my health. Today I also watched an NHK documentary on a Japanese interpreter who’s still acive in her 70s and has been working behind Japan’s diplomacy for over 40 years! It’s so inspiring and encouraging. Interpreting is not just a profession for me but a passion, an art and a lifelong pursuit!

  • Great article! I feel the same way! Oh how I wish to study at ESIT, too bad Indonesian language is not included :'(

  • Thank you Wanda! It is all so well summed up and lovingly said! I have enjoyed being an interpreter in many settings for over 43 years. I will be quitting this thrilling profession at the end of the year and I know I will sorely miss it.

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