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  • Writer's pictureIsabel Steele

Training to be an Interpreter Translator: Part 1

Updated: Sep 29, 2021

Burrowing in for Christmas after one of the most exhausting but rewarding academic terms, I’m marking this milestone with a reflection on my MA experience thus far. I chose this route after years living abroad and completing my BA in Modern Languages, deciding it was time to capitalise on my language skills and specialise. Linguists have various professional options, but interpreting/translating brings to life the romantic ideal of being the voice for diplomats, commanding officers, activists, or artists across languages. Being the real-life Google Translator for someone’s mind. The pace of it. The agility of it. The creativity of it. Interpretation is an art form, an invisibility of seamless translation.

That’s what we’re aiming for anyway! Three months in and it’s a case of reaching 7pm with enough mental energy left to be able to cook yourself dinner. Read on for my initial experience of training to be an interpreter/translator and why human linguists are still essential, despite the immediacy of online translation engines.

I've always had dreams too big for my boots. Finally this MA is pushing me to my limits and I'm just about clinging on!

For those new to the game, translating involves reproducing text in different languages. It's more complex than one might immediately think, when taking into account unparallel idiomatic expressions, difficult grammar and compensation of cultural references. Interpreting, on the other hand, is spoken translation. It could be done simultaneously at a multilingual conference using a headset and microphone, or consecutively using short-hand notes, rendering the message into English during the speaker’s pauses.

I speak French, Spanish and English – so it can’t be too difficult, right? Oh, how unprepared I was for the mental battering! I’ve quickly learnt that concentration has to be single focused and undistracted. Otherwise, even your English becomes incomprehensible as your brain tries to juggle listening to the source, translating, memorising, speaking, listening to your own output and planning lunch! Sometimes I feel like I’m being pelted by tennis balls from every direction and I’m meant to catch them all. Term one complete and the techniques are just about seeming possible (as long as you’re on a continuous IV coffee drip). Lesson one: this demand of intellectual energy requires a consistent sleep pattern and a healthy caffeine addiction if you want to stay sane.

It's quite disconcerting how much your appetite increases when you're working your brain so hard! Coffee and snacks. Coffee and snacks.

The term started with a lot of reassuring English – English reformulation practice and improving our register in our mother tongues. We did this through reading newspapers and academic articles, many sight translations and trusty vocab lists. In class we'd do activities that required us to listen to English speeches and recreate them with different sentence structures and synonyms. I'd have definitely overlooked the importance of high register and broad vocabulary in English if I'd not been guided by this MA.

But an interpreter will never master the pace required for international conferences unless they have the linguistic agility in their mother tongue to embody a politician, both at the rostrum of the General Assembly and in corridor conversation on their lunch break. Nor could they adapt to the character of different speakers without comprehensive vocabulary and a good grasp of English rhetoric. I find this aspect of the course very empowering as I notice my speaking becoming more confident and expressive. Lesson two: never underestimate the impact and importance of your mother tongue!

Be prepared to fly through endless pads of paper. Learning note taking is no easy feat. One short speech can take 3-5 pages.

As the term progressed, we began working with French or Spanish speeches, each week focusing on a particular skill. These included analysing speech structure or how to note down paragraph links in the margin. Interpreting is, however, quite like that metaphor of the swan gliding along whilst its feet peddle frantically below the surface. To reach this refined professionalism, interpreters have to learn to coordinate endless techniques and make them operate on autopilot. For example, how to short-hand speeches with symbols (as words take too long to write) and memorise the majority, reproducing it in English immediately afterwards. To do this, one must note ideas rather than individual words to save time, or note down just one trigger word for whole anecdotes.

Memory work is everything. We began learning how to memorise 3-minute speeches to give us confidence in information retention. Term one now over, we’ve reached 6-minute speeches by memory, with trigger words or visualisation techniques to help out, mapping speech structure to fingers on our hands. All of a sudden you see your hands as an organised speech of main points and sub points. Practice. Practice. Practice. Lesson three: your memory is an incredibly powerful tool and can be trained like any muscle.

One of the most important lessons I've learnt this term is 'little and often'. Short bursts of highly concentrated, focused practice sessions are the best way to improve in this field. Punctuated with regular brews!

On the translation side of things, it’s been a truly humbling experience becoming aware of the difficulties in maintaining cultural references between languages. Sometimes a grammar structure in one language simply doesn’t exist in another. And certain multidimensional readings can leave you agonising over one sentence for hours. One coursework we sweat over for days came from a Spanish comic book set in 20th century Madrid, with stereotypical Spanish names and awkward character counts. A translation engine would have had none of it, nor would an English target audience if it wasn’t completely recontextualised to an English backdrop. I ended up boldly changing the character names, humour references and having to adapt the English character count to make it fit the graphics. It still came back needing much revision!

Take this extract from a French literary coursework as an example of the necessity of human translators:

Ne jamais jurer de rien, surtout du Jura. Ainsi, le « Train des Hirondelles » ne transporte aucun oiseau annonçant le printemps : il tire son nom de son parcours sinueux et aérien, par lequel la fantaisie industrieuse des hommes rivalise aisément avec la liberté des oiseaux.

Source :

Google Translate makes a commendable effort with:

Never swear anything, especially from the Jura.Thus, the “Train des Hirondelles” does not carry any bird announcing spring: it takes its name from its winding and aerial course, by which the industrious fantasy of men easily rivals the freedom of birds.

You’re a hero if you made much sense of the above. It's jarring and uncomfortable.

Here’s where the translator comes in:

One swallow does not make a summer, but this railway does make the Jura. It is no surprise, that the Swallows’ Railway doesn’t in fact carry any birds heralding the arrival of spring. Instead, it takes its name from its meandering, aerial route, by which man’s industrious imagination easily rivals the freedom of birds.

How much smoother is that? An Aristotle reference making it culturally appropriate and small exegetic additions to ease comprehension. The above rendition is a group effort by my translation class. Lesson four: Google Translate can’t save you now! And often, an appropriate translation won’t be reached until the whole class has argued over it for a good hour.

This is a photo taken from Google depicting the Train des Hirondelles in the Jura. Poetic!

To close off the term, we brought our learning to life through mock conferences and simulated interpreting scenarios. A mediator directs speeches in French, Spanish, Italian and Russian, while we take it in turns to interpret the speeches back to the class, according to our language combinations. All speeches and interpretations, like our translations, receive extended feedback from our tutors and classmates, meaning you can improve from every output. Everyone gives and receives constructive criticism, focusing on delivery, content, and accuracy.

It’s exciting to see how far we have come this term regarding mental stamina, public speaking, quality of English, source language vocabulary and the ability to take a beating to the ego multiple times a day! They say interpreting is more stressful long term than being a fighter pilot. I’ll take that. The adrenaline rush and pressure felt every time that red light goes on to start speaking causes multiple stress spikes throughout the day. I can confirm, the number of emotional breakdowns I’ve had this term is far from sexy. But like learning to drive a car, we have been assured it’ll all be second nature by the end of the year. Lesson five: don’t try to run before you can walk. Trust the process.

My first time practicing in the interpreting booth back in November. My swan feet are going like crazy.

Christmas break will take us well into January exams. For now, I’ll be relaxing from my Cornish safe haven. I’ll keep ticking over the skills I’ve learnt thus far, equally, giving my brain some well-deserved rest. 12-hour nights are no stranger to me now! While festivities will provide welcome solace, I can’t wait to get back to Bath for term two. The cohort of students on the course is one of the most supportive, hard-working and hilarious groups of people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. Where else could I enjoy priceless laughs over Têtes à Claques and Elp impersonations, all in the same conversation as Brexit woes and our subsequently Pontless futures? Furthermore, the tutors are an invaluable source of expertise, experience and encouragement; University of Bath students truly are in the best hands. If anyone is considering this MA pathway, I couldn’t recommend it more. My only hope is that more can go ahead in person next term!

Keep chasing those dreams.

Issy x

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