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  • Isabel Steele

Training to be an Interpreter Translator: Part 2

Updated: Feb 28, 2022

I’m proudly part of the new wave of interpreters and translators, diligently training behind the scenes of the pandemic. With the shift to online interpreting due to national lockdowns, studying this MA from a student bedsit shaped an unprecedented hybrid learning experience. This blog will discuss the challenges faced academically and personally due to the pandemic, but also how 2021 graduates may be better equipped for the digitalisation of the language market. As I close my books on this MA, acutely aware that this is all but a baby step into a highly competitive language profession, I want to take stock of the lessons learnt and hopefully inspire others to keep fighting for our education.

From Christmas onwards, I decided to study from home rather than return to Bath, knowing that all lectures and conferences would be streamed online, so I wouldn’t lose access to any course content. While my bank account is very grateful for this decision, there are a few reasons this is not advisable when studying such a practical vocation. Interpreting is a practice of facilitating human interaction, made all the less authentic when shifted into a virtual space, with all the technical glitches and sterilised communication this entails. Not to mention a profession which values social networking and corridor conversations as essential for a successful career. And if anything, trying to learn something as intellectually challenging and emotionally draining as interpreting without fellow students around to normalise the madness, home-study triggers many an existential crisis! But while the language market becomes increasingly virtual, this online training may mean we are as prepared as anyone for this digital shift.

'The original is unfaithful to the translation' (Borges, 1947).

Albeit well over my head at times, I now have resonant confidence in the necessity of multilingual service. Our world can’t thrive without it. You only need to watch the news for five minutes to understand that. The course prepared us for any specialism, with translation coursework spanning architectural development plans, legal contracts, medical certificates, agricultural policies and film subtitling. As a linguist you never quite know where your contracts may take you, being the voice for current affairs and public services, who knows what might come up? This means a thorough translation memorium of commonly used terms and keeping our language combinations firing at all times is part of the job description, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The dream...

In second term, we had the invaluable opportunity to attend training weeks with SCIC or the United Nations. Unsurprisingly, everything was virtual - hopefully this year's cohort will make it abroad! I chose the UN - the dream of calling Geneva my workplace a permanent drive in my study. After sweating my way through the most intense training sessions with the UN languages department on anything from gender equality to national security, I knew that was it. Hooked. Although, interpreting from live speeches using pre-prepared texts, any preconceptions that having a text in front of you makes it easier are quickly shattered. A whole new dimension of suffering is added as the speaker unwittingly veers off text in an anecdotal flair, then jumps back in on the next page, leaving you interpreting statistics at the speed of light while frantically trying to relocate your fervent speaker. Once Friday thankfully arrived, we found solace in that MA-level exam speeches now seemed a lot more manageable. My main advice for this years cohort would be to take your time, consolidate new techniques before moving on, and remember it's a marathon not a sprint.

All I can say is, if your dreams don't scare you...

Our MA consistently combined In-Person Teaching with lectures over Zoom. Later in the year we simulated mock conferences and attended online workshops with SCIC and the European Commission and virtually recreated PSCI assignments with live French speakers. However, while we are veterans of the digitalisation of communication and experts in videoconferencing, we remain novices in the domain of face-to-face bilateral interpreting. I hope experienced professionals will take us under their wing and CPD will be able to support our transition from at-home exams to these face-to-face contracts. I have joined the Institute of Translation and Interpreting as an Affiliate Member to hopefully facilitate this progression.

I am very excited for upcoming CPD including 'Business skills for interpreters in the new digital age' and 'Ethical and technical dilemmas in RSI' in the next few months.

The final climb to exams was a coffee-fuelled escapade of militant revision days, vocabulary lists hitting the bottom of Excel and the infinite game of décalage. I finally learnt to deploy my brain into various task forces: one to analyse the speech, one to pick out tone, one to bridge the languages, and one to speak aloud in English. Then engaging that ultimate coordination allowing you to do it all at the same time, while speaking one sentence behind the original to ensure you haven’t missed a final detail that might negate everything you've just said. It’s spoken Marmite. Luckily, exam topics weren’t too startling, and we enjoyed interpreting the latest developments in space travel and the ecological risks of AstroTurf.

Slowly fitting the pieces together...

As far as the dissertation goes, you can choose 10,000 words to translate, followed by a 5,000 word commentary on translation theory. I knew I’d be happiest at my desk with my head in the mountains, so I translated an excerpt from Alpinisme: Des Premiers Pas aux Grandes Ascensions. This Alpine guide covers the fundamentals of mountaineering, progressing to great adventures like summiting the Mönch, passing over ridge routes and ice falls. The passion in translation is that it allows insight into areas of the world that may have been culturally or linguistically inaccessible. As a mountain-lover and linguistic explorer, I aimed to transport English-speaking mountaineers to the glorious Alps, to facilitate access to a mountain kingdom with resilient cultural identity and staggering topography.

The mountains will always be my spiritual home.

The French setting of the original manual was, of course, a non-negotiable feature in my translation, so I based my strategy on Venuti’s foreignisation theory. This used a non-fluent, estranging and heterogeneous translation style designed to make my presence as translator visible and to highlight the foreign identity of the source text, as what use is an Alpine guide if brought into an English context? I lost myself in months of research on Reiss, Koller, and Newmark, to recast the shimmering body of the Alps into natural English, without losing any of the French flair along the way. The challenges lay in reconciling the creativity of mountain literature with the more sobering, edifying character of an Alpine guide. This meeting of styles continuously tested me, as I learned to craft the mountaineering essence in words: expressive yet technical. I hope that it encourages English mountaineers to take to the Alps confidently, with the utmost respect for this illustrious, yet increasingly unstable region of our world.

I hope that by improving international cooperation on the protection of our mountain spaces, we can continue exploring them for years to come.

Newmark stated that ‘this is a new profession, though an old practice, and that the body of knowledge and of assumptions that exists about translation is tentative, often controversial and fluctuating’ (1988: xii). Three decades on, the experimental, subjective nature of translation prevails, yet I’ve become fascinated with the evolving corpus of theory and found confidence in my own approach. Working with this Alpine manual was a passion project, decrypting a border land that could remain as perilous as it could be silent to many English speakers without reliable translation. While my translation stands secondary to the French source text, I remain inspired by Borges’ words that the ‘original is unfaithful to the translation’ (On William Beckford’s Vathek, 1943), confident in that what I crafted is seminal in its purpose, thorough in its accuracy and progressive in its foreignisation strategy. All in all, a text empowered by its widened audience.

Linguist monday-friday, mountain runner saturday-sunday, hire me?

Now I’ve finished the course, I’m balancing my days between visa-chasing, interpreting practice, restaurant shifts, job applications, catching up with friends, and reading books that have been going dusty on my selves. It’s a rather exhausting, tearful timetable, but needs must. I still hope to move to Spain in October, but I think we left Europe so it's not as easy as it once was! Whether I make it to Spain or find work in the UK market, I’ll continue to document my experience training as an interpreter and translator, sharing some lessons I’d have appreciated this time last year. In the meantime, I look forward to seeing my friends sign their first contracts in the non-virtual world, proving that the Covid cohort can go above and beyond their digital expertise.

The World Heritage City of Bath, home to one of the best Interpreting and Translating courses in Europe.

While the invisibility of interpreters has been illuminated by recent, harrowing developments in Afghanistan, I’d like to close by saying,


if you are lucky enough to have equal access to education,

you had better not be squandering that opportunity.

Issy x

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