Lessons from a Graduate Student in Translation

“To be an interpreter, you have to be weird.”

That was among the first pieces of advice I was given upon arriving in Monterey, California, to study Russian Translation and Interpretation (T&I). One month ago, your faithful Beyond Words writer packed her bags and headed cross-country to begin a two-year master’s course in Russian T&I in the only university in the U.S. to offer such a program. While most burgeoning translators and interpreters spring-board their professional lives freelancing here and there, many of the ones that decide to make a career of it find that a gregarious nature and a knack for finding the right word do not an interpreter make (at least, that isn’t enough).

After some six years of experience in the field, I realized that I was still incapable of direct, one-to-one translations, and that I occasionally faltered in finding appropriate technical terms. That, coupled with the frustration of putting my bachelor’s degree to work waiting tables, was enough to convince me to take on staggering student loans in the hopes of carving out a niche in an extremely appealing and exciting market.

Classes don’t start for another few weeks, but I’ve already been dealt enough insight into the heart and mind of the interpreter to make a few general assumptions. Why is the interpreter “weird”? Because the interpreter lives an independent — even lonely — existence. Through conferences and projects, the interpreter makes brief but instantaneous connections all over the globe. The interpreter does not allow deep connections because of the knowledge that, after a few days, he or she will move on to other conferences (a constant cycle meeting new people and sometimes never crossing paths with them again). Those interpreters who love what they do call this independence.

Another prevalent quality of the well-educated interpreter — both self-admitted and undeniably obvious — is unbridled confidence. The graduates of the Monterey Institute of International Studies that I’ve met so far have a lot in common, but no quality stands out more than their belief that there is one and only one way to do things. I must admit that this quality is jarring at first. One graduate informed me that Zen Buddhism is the “only” method of dealing with the stress of simultaneous interpretation. When I asked him if any other options existed, his answer was an unflappable “no.”

Still, on closer inspection, I realized that not only is this confidence irreprehensible, it is absolutely indispensable to the successful interpreter. Simultaneous interpreters are their own media and their own set of tools. As they work, information passes through them at such speedy rates that they must discern both the meaning and foreign-language equivalent of a sentence before the speaker has even finished it. They must believe that there is a wrong word and a right word. They must believe that there is a wrong way and a right way. To stand before a committee of professionals, politicians, surgeons, lawyers, world leaders — to know that you are responsible for the transmittal of crucial information — requires the sort of boldness and brashness that I’ve encountered among the university’s graduates.

I’m interested to see what havoc this transformation will wreak on me in the months to come. Stay tuned for more notes, factoids, advice, and lessons from a graduate student in translation and interpretation.

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  • Elizabeth M. Lewis
    Posted at 09:45h, 06 August Reply

    Interesting piece, especially for me, coming from the opposite direction. I completed the Monterey degree in 1979 (back in the Stone Age) and have since been through many years of … er … seasoning.

    Your comment about the brash attitude of recent Monterey graduates reflects the reputation they have out in the market, and it’s something I myself graduated with lo these many years ago. You drop it as the years go by. You begin to discover that all your blacks and whites have grown rather gray, and all your certainties fade into waffling.

    In this business, the more you learn, the more you realize that you will never really know for sure. So you just keep studying, reading, trying to make some sense out of it.

    The hard part is, you still need to exude confidence in the booth and sound as if you really knew with certainty, when in fact your brain is striving desperately to grab at every possible straw and put all the disassociated facts together into some kind of coherent picture. At the end of the conference, you come away with more questions than you walked in with.

    So as the years go by, you become a whole lot more humble and a better interpreter because of it — even behind your Monterey veneer of self-assurance!

  • Maria
    Posted at 13:31h, 10 August Reply

    That’s heartening news! Thank you for your comment, Elizabeth.

  • Hermes Merchant
    Posted at 02:18h, 08 September Reply

    Great to hear such diverse opinions. I, for one, would like to agree and disagree. Maria, I do translations which is akin to interpretations and I would like to agree and also disagree with you. I work with many other translators at ABPT and none of them are weird! Yes, I agree, we need to keep a professional distance from our clients and not allow our personal points of view to dictate the final output.

    I think interpreters need to work faster than translators but there are times when we really need to think on our feet too!

    Elizabeth, I totally identify with your feelings! Yes, there are times when I, too, find myself doubting myself and feeling that my work can be much better. But thankfully, at my company I can fall back on my resource staff who are there to help me with documents, exact nuances, interpretations and so on. Even so, I agree with you: it is important to remain humble and retain a keen interest in languages to be a better translation professional 🙂

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