(this is not a statement about Seattle)
Friday, 17 April, 2015
Early in December I went to a local gathering for interpreters, attended by local interpreters. The gathering was organized by the Northwest Translators and Interpreters Society (NOTIS), and styled as a potluck. I did not bring any food, so I suppose I cannot complain that there was a lack of Sichuan cuisine, but that is not to say that the dishes available weren’t good. In fact, they were great. I was especially entertained when the Ethiopian food arrived and I found myself the only one at my table eating with my hand rather than my my utensils. I guess Ma and Pa didn’t bring me up right. The home made eggnog was also wonderful.
Of course, my discussion today is not about eggnog, or the proper way to eat the cuisine of the various cultures (which is a practice I am, no doubt, a mere novice in), but, rather, I intend to discuss what I was able to gather from this meeting with regard to interpreting.
The potluck-gathering was actually sort of a front for an Annual Meeting, in which statistics are discussed, short speeches are given, NOTIS members are recognized, and board members are voted on. This is fine, and the gathering was advertised as including these features, but they were mostly mundane for the casual observer, and I was also warned of this before entering. I entered anyhow. One useful outcome for me was to begin seeing some names and faces of some of the more involved individuals at the gathering. However, I later came to discover that many of the people there were, in fact, quite involved in the interpreting and translating community in various ways, from teaching and leading, to doing work abroad and even studying (as I myself was and am still doing).
Possibly the most obvious aspect about the attendees, which came to me unexpectedly, was that they weren’t all interpreters but translators. If I have not gone over this distinction, I suppose now is as good a time as any. This is a simple distinction: interpreters work with spoken word, and translators work with written word. I suspect the choice of term designation was somewhat arbitrary; however, I can see how interpreters need to work more on their feet, so to speak, and may be required more to interpret meaning, rather than translate word for word. This is not to say that translators don’t have to deal with interpreting meaning, or that interpreters don’t need to be accurate. It is important, I think, for the interpreter/translator to be cognizant that these are professional terms, and that the lay persons is likely to simply say “translator” in either situation. It was noted by some that people who work in translation tend to be less “outgoing” people, and people who work as interpreters are generally very “chatty” people. Possibly, that is because interpreters must go out to their clients, and chat with them. /However, I don’t see why one person cannot excel in both fields, and this is something I intend to do. I do, on the other hand, recognize a difference in skills, which I will explore at some later time.
When inquiring about how someone new to the profession should go about learning the craft I was told that I should first get a certification, and then start working, and then continue to get as many certifications as possible. This was a little disheartening for me to hear, but it wasn’t anything new. Why is it disheartening, you may ask? I’ve made several observations throughout my life in this regard, that those who hold their certifications aren’t necessarily the one’s who excel in the work. I think this is most obviously recognized in work environments where the manager has some kind of business credentials, but some low-wage staff worker is the one playing the leadership role. This brings up questions of leadership and managing, which I am perhaps not qualified to discuss, and which are perhaps not relevant here. The point is, that many qualified or highly motivated individuals are left feeding on scraps while the others with less qualifications are running the show. Machiavelli would say that this is do to a state of peace and it’s concurrent notions of equality, whereas in more dire situations the individuals with true talent are discovered and put to use.
Then again, I am hardly the talented individual in this case, and as far as I can tell, the people attending this event were talented individuals. I have also heard countless stories of unqualified linguists – that is interpreters or translators – causing havoc in various areas, from not speaking the language they claim and summarizing à la aphorism, to misrepresenting work travel costs and mistranslating important technical terms. I am aware, from first hand experience, that some interpreting certifications aren’t that hard to achieve (though I’ve yet to achieve them, but I’ll go into that another time). I am also aware that there are many with certifications who do not actually do the work.
Here, I can’t help but reflect on my own case. I lack a training environment and mentors. How am I to achieve certifications, I ask myself? I reminisce on trying to acquire a driver’s license in my early twenties. I am not supposed to drive alone without my own insurance, which I can’t acquire without a license, which I can’t acquire without practice, which I can’t acquire without insurance, etc. etc. My solution: drive around and practice responsibly, though it may be against the rules (by which method I learned several skills the average driver never even considers). What shall my method be now?
Another common discussion was on ethics in interpreting and translating, and specifically, in teaching ethics. I was somewhat appalled to hear how dogmatic people sounded in their discussions on this topic. It sounded as if the topic were not up for discussion, in fact. I felt for the students who would be force fed this stuff without being able to inquire as to why, or how these ethics came about, or whether or not they can be improved upon. Now, I’ve no doubt the people around me were speaking somewhat freely, and somewhat in jest about their experiences, and I think many of us have done this. Here I recalled my lessons at the Cross Cultural Health Care Program’s: Bridging the Gap training course, and the instructors, Juan and Barry’s, method of teaching, which was highly engaging and Socratic – that is, empowering the student to reach their own conclusions. We, the students, were given tough situations to work through, and real examples of unfortunate endings, and then allowed, within the time alloted, to come to our own understanding of the ethical guidelines which were being taught. I can only hope that other’s take a similar approach.
This is a process which I very much enjoy in my limited teaching career: watching students learn on their own. I think, perhaps, the best a teacher can do is guide our stubborn human minds, or demand absolute obedience and faith, which no doubt, sometimes occurs. However, I think in the latter method, the lessons aren’t really learned until the student is faced with the stinging slap of experience; a sting which is lessened via the former method.
All of this talk about ethics, however, was not new to me, as the interpreting course I attended previously, which I mentioned above, was quite thorough.
What was new to me, was the sense that all or most of these individuals enjoyed their careers, and were largely self employed. This is important to me because these are precisely the two items which I put highest on my list of priorities in choosing how I pay for my bread, or rice as it may be. This says more about these individuals than that they have linguistic talents. This says they can handle themselves. Many, in fact, were self employed in other fields as well, be it teaching or as private detectives. Learning and using language requires an refinement of certain mental faculties, faculties which can be further refined or used in other ways. These faculties include possessing a strong and resilient character, clarity and precision of speech, decision making, imagination, memory, intuition, communication, creativity, adaptability, cognition, observation, concentration, analyses, and much more. These people need to be able to hear, remember, interpret, and speak all at once. They need to manage whether or not they get paid, and deal with their own taxes. They need to advertise (hence the organizations). They need to stand up for themselves and their practices, which are largely misunderstood and undervalued. They need to have a vast knowledge of most subjects, or at least the ones they usually work with. They need to work with different people and different projects all of the time. These are commendable and admirable people. This feature, most of all, is what I took away from the gathering, on that cool and sunny December day.
I left early, and connected with some folks about possibly writing for their newsletter. That would be great, though I feel generally under-qualified, as I’ve not really begun working as an interpreter yet. Maybe that is what I shall be able to write about, the process, the learning, the discovery.
Your not so socially apt,
To browse my previous letters, please see categories side-bar, and select Interpreting Diary Letters.