Ask the (former) Interpreter

The title pretty much says it all: I studied interpretation during my undergraduate, and at this point have interpreted part-time for several years. I don’t have nearly as much experience as a career interpreter would, but I’m happy to answer any questions I can.

As for my qualifications, my university offered interpretation as a minor that ran three years, two of which were devoted to general theory while the third focused on your languages of choice (Japanese and English for me).

Most of my instructors had experience working at the UN or other areas of the diplomatic community, so classes focused on conference interpretation of that calibre with an emphasis on political and business vocabulary.

Soooo… any questions?

Where did you go to school?

What’s the biggest goof you’ve ever made translating from one language to another?

What’s the most rewarding experience you’ve ever had?

Also, what’s the most “important” thing you’ve had to translate?

we’ll take this thread over, by golly,** Kytheria**!

  1. What are the rates charged for interpretation (side-by-side, simultaneous, text)?
  2. Where are interpreters in good demand?
  3. Are you required to be able to translate to and from both languages?

Ever had a situation where what you said was vastly longer/shorter than what was said in the original language, a la “Lost in Translation”?

(BTW, what was that commercial director saying anyway?)

-trupa, whose 4 weeks of Japanese non-credit cont-ed classes were enough for getting directions in Tokyo, one Saturday…

Does the (former) in your title indicate that this was not an enjoyable job?

If I were to pick a dream job (on paper) this would probably be it.

How much subtlety and nuance is lost when translating? I’ve always wondered that. I know there’s no hard and fast answer, but every time I read something which has been translated (or hear, such as in a dubbed movie), I always wonder about what is being lost.

This one I’d rather not answer, honestly… it’s nothing personal, but I’m a privacy nut when it comes to online stuff.

If you’d like to become an interpreter though, Monterrey is by far the best specialized institution. They offer an m.a. in interpretation, among other things… a few of my profs were trained there, and absolutely loved it.

Hmm, that’s a tough one, and it’s quite possible that I’ve made huge errors and just never noticed them. Plus, to minimize errors at big conferences and the like simultaneous interpreters tend to work in pairs, and at the UN they pretty much HAVE to work in pairs. Both interpreters will wear headsets, but only one will actually interpret at a time. While they’re speaking their partner will listen, keep an eye on them, and generally tend to any technical stuff or issues in the booth. (Occasionally we get broken equipment, technical bugs, run out of water, or get hungry. Big conferences don’t tend to have very many breaks, so the “off” interpreter is usually in charge of communicating issues to the support staff and repairing equipment on the fly.) Most importantly though, the off interpreter is responsible for catching errors that their partner makes, or stepping in if their partner gets too far behind or doesn’t know how to translate a specific term. We tend to split the work about 50/50, so at an eight hour conference you can expect to be on for two two hour shifts, and off for two two hour shifts.

Some of my own particularly memorable mistakes are probably as follows:

While interpreting for a surf instructor at a resort in Japan I accidentally mixed up the Japanese for “lay down” and “undress” in my head, and told some poor Australian woman that the first step in surfing was to get naked on the board.

Hmm, all three of these depend a lot on the individual context, but I’ll try to answer them:

  1. What are the rates charged for interpretation?

There are two different services we’re talking about here: interpretation, which is listening to speech in one language and reproducing it in another, and translation, which is actually converting written stuff from one language to another. I understand that translation often charges on a word-for-word basis, but I’ve never done it so I couldn’t say.

As for interpretation, there are three major types: Consecutive, Simultaneous, and Sight Reading.
Consecutive interpretation was practically the only type practiced on a large scale before the 1940s, due to logistic concerns, and involves a speaker talking uninterrupted for anywhere from several sentences to ten minutes, at which point he pauses and allows the interpreters to repeat his entire spiel in the target language. (We use an extremely condensed type of shorthand to help with this. Most good interpreters can remember about 4-5 minutes of dense speech unaided, and about 8-10 minutes with one page of notes on a flip-top pad.)
Simultaneous, on the other hand, is just what it sounds like: the interpreter listens to speech in one language, and as soon as he’s able he begins to reproduce it in the target language while still listening. This really took off during the warcrimes trials held after WWII, where they actually issued the interpreters headphones and microphones that were attached to mics on the floor and earpieces that each individual delegate was equipped with. (Actually, one interesting trick to tell whether or not an interpreter has been formally trained is to watch how they wear their headset: almost without exception, interpreters who’ve recieved substantial training tend to wear headphones on one ear and keep the other uncovered, while a fairly big chunk of talented, untrained interpreters cover both ears).
Sight reading is a related area, and it involves looking at text written in one language and reading it aloud in another.

As for wages, it really depends on the language. Working as a Japanese-English interpreter I usually made around $130-$170 an hour at conferences and meetings, and slightly less at smaller venues or on individual assignments.

The work isn’t guaranteed, however, so in practice a good interpreter will usually make a minimum of $40,000 a year, and often around $60,000-$80,000 in a good region. (There do exist regulated, waged positions, most notably UN and military jobs, but I’ve never worked in either.)

  1. Where are interpreters in good demand?

Anywhere that hosts one of the following: a large population of speakers native in a language other than that of the region, an international airport and large business concerns, or a large diplomatic community. Hawai’i, for instance, can provide pretty regular work if you speak Ilokano, Vietnamese, or Japanese.

  1. Are you required to be able to translate to and from both languages?

Absolutely. This isn’t always the case, especially for employees who are hired into non-specialized positions and asked to interpret as an additional service, but professional interpreters must have native or near-native proficiency in every language they work in. Large conferences might only hire you to interpret into one language (translating Japanese into English, for instance, and letting someone else do English to Japanese), but in almost every scenario you’ll have to do both jobs. Continuing education is another big issue for interpreters; I used to carry around a pocket full of index cards covered with words I didn’t know (the card I’m carrying right now contains, among other things, niransei-souseiji and
ichiransei-souseiji, which are respectively the words for biovular and monovular). Another great trick is to buy college-level textbooks in the language you don’t speak natively, and troll through them looking for words you don’t know. I used to have a whole stack of elementary legal and medical books in Japanese for that exact purpose.

Well I don’t work in diplomatic circles, but even if I did I think I’d have to say that the medical interpretation I used to do was the most important. Hospitals in high-traffic areas will usually retain a couple of interpreters, and so I’d be mediating between Japanese or English-speaking tourists who, for some reason, had to seek medical care in a foreign country. I never actually had to deal with someone with anything worse than flu or food poisoning, but it was understandably critical that I was extremely accurate in both languages, and more to the point that I minimized the differences between the two medical systems. (Actually, English speakers tend to either not notice or get mildly pissed off at Japanese doctors… it’s the Japanese patients who you really have to worry about. In Japan the doctor is supposed to be the expert, and as such his word is nearly absolute: he asks you about your symptoms, looks at you, pronounces a diagnoses, and pronounces a solution. He’s the doctor, so you’re theoretically supposed to accept his advice without question. American doctors, on the other hand, like to give patients options. Most English speakers will find it perfectly reasonable to hear something like “Well I could give you something for the nausea, but it’ll make you drowsy for the rest of the day. You might just be happier dealing with the symptoms, and they should go away within an hour or two,” but that type of statement tends to scare the shit out of Japanese patients: since the doctor is asking them, they tend to assume that he doesn’t know what he’s doing. I’ve actually had patients turn to me and ask “This doctor isn’t very skilled, is he?”.)

I think it’d be better to say that it wasn’t enjoyable for me. It’s extremely tiring, and after a very short while I found that it was really boring to translate what other people were saying… I prefer to be the person who comes up with the ideas, rather than the one who interprets them.

If you think it would be enjoyable though, I’d highly recommend you look into training… it’s a hard job, but every professional I’ve met, almost without exception, has seemed to really love their work.

Well it depends on the languages being used, and one of the big reasons that Japanese interpreters are payed so much is because it’s fairly difficult to effectively convey all of the nuances of Japanese into English and vice versa.

In general though, any given source language will have subtleties that the target language you’re interpreting into lacks. In these cases, it’s up to you how to proceed… idioms can be useful, or you can exert your judgement and say what was intended, rather than what was literally said. (This is one of those decisions that tends to be self-regulating: interpreters who do this appropriately tend to get rave reviews and more job offers, while those who inappropriately cut content out tend to not get hired again.)

So in general, it’s up to the individual interpreter’s discretion. However, there’s almost always going to be content that gets lost between languages, and one of the main responsibilities of an interpreter is minimizing this loss in such a way that neither side notices enough for it to be an issue.

How can you start interpreting while the speaker is still speaking? I find this bizarre unless they’ve completed a sentence. Oftentimes in translation clauses are re-ordered so that it makes more sense in the target language. Plus, they’re still talking. How can you hear them, understand, translate, and speak while they’re still talking? It’d give me a headache.

I’ve never had to be quite that short, but there are definitely times when length will differ between languages. One of the big reasons for this in Japanese is that a lot of honorifics exist that English simply doesn’t have, and there are various grammatical structures which simply take longer to say. However, this is often compensated for by the fact that conveying honorifics in English is often done with stiff language; if the Japanese speaker says something to the effect of “wo kake ni natte kudasai,” which is an extremely polite form of “suwatte kudasai,” “please sit down”. If I were interpreting the above, I’d probably render the latter as “Please sit down,” and the former as something like “Please take a seat,” or “Please, feel free to sit” depending on the circumstance.

I don’t recall the entirety of that sketch, but the gist of it was that the director was giving Bill Murray extremely complicated blocking and acting directions. seems to have a pretty good translation of the entire scene, and it’s accurate from what I can remember.

The multitasking is one of the big reasons why it’s so tiring to interpret for a long while. What you basically have to do is silently listen long enough to get enough information to start, and then continue from there. Simultaneous interpretation is most commonly used in things like speeches or debates, where you’ll be interpreting extremely long utterances, but you can basically do it any time you have enough information to complete the sentence.

Japanese, for instance, is really awful about this; sometimes sentences will begin with something you can interpret right away, but since the verb occurs at the end of the sentence you’ll typically need to hear at least one full sentence before you begin, and in some cases you’ll need up to a full paragraph before you can start. I quickly got in the habit of giving myself a “feeder” sentence, where I wouldn’t begin talking until I had two full sentences, effectively getting one full sentence behind the speaker. This let me keep an uninterrupted stream of speech going if I hit a longer utterance later, which made it easier for the listeners to keep track of what I was saying.

As for logistics, simultaneous interpretation usually relies on electronics: you’ll wear a headset with a direct feed from the speaker’s mic, and speak into a microphone that’s hooked to earpieces or headphones on the floor or whatnot. As you can imagine, simultaneous interpretation is most common at conferences and the like… in small meetings, consecutive interpretation tends to be ultimately more efficient.

The way they taught us to multitask was with a few basic exercises that we repeated ad nauseum. We’d start with counting drills, which were meant to help us disassociate written and spoken content; we would take a notepad and write out the alphabet from a-z, while speaking the alphabet from z-a, such that we’d write “a, b, c, d…” while saying “z, y, x, w…”. Once we finished both ends, we’d start over in the opposite direction, saying “a, b, c…” and writing “z, y, x…”. It didn’t take long to become fairly proficient at this, so the next step was to work with numbers; we’d start writing 1-100 and counting 100-1, but the instructor quickly added some fairly annoying computational components; we’d have to do something like add our way from 1-99 in intervals of three, while counting down from 100-1 in intervals of seven.

All of that silliness probably lasted about two weeks, all in all, and we were expected to practice on our own time while we worked on learning interpreter’s shorthand (which is a shorthand made from scratch by each interpreter. There are some general concepts and common symbols that most interpreters share, but in general a good conference interpreter will know a shorthand with somewhere between two and three thousand symbols). After a few weeks, however, we started scheduling regular classes in a language lab, where we would do lag exercises. They were supposed to build on the multitasking we learned from counting, and they began with counting exercises that used a lag of one: we would put on a headset and hear a monotone voice counting at even intervals, going “one… <beat> two… <beat> three… <beat> four…” and so fourth. At first, we had to begin counting on the second word, saying “one” right as the tape said “two,” saying “two” right as the tape said “three,” and so forth.

We’d quickly change over from numbers to simple words (tree, car, milk, window…), which we would spend another two weeks on, gradually increasing the lag until we could comfortably work with a lag of six, where the tape would go “beer, can, apple, pencil, television, bike, banana,” and on “banana” we would say “beer” and proceed from there.

Once we could hold about six words in our head, they started alternating between outright sentences and technical words (as I recall, we started with engineering vocabulary, then business vocab, then diplomatic/political words, and finally legal and medical terms). Furthermore, the sentence tapes tended to have a very irregular rythmn, such that you got used to ignoring the pacing. Once you got used to sentences, it was generally just a matter of practicing until the process was very intuitive.

One extremely interesting artifact of this process is that it’s very difficult to actually remembering what you’re saying; most interpreters I’ve known have had the same problem I do, in which we instantly forget what we’ve said after we say it. I’ve actually had jobs where the conference has ended and I’ve had to ask a friend or look at a brochure to find out what the conference was about.

I have the utmost respect for interpreters/translators. I did a lot of part-time interpreting back in Seoul (Korean/English) and while it always paid well (I had no formal credentials and was a college student, but I still got paid between 50-100 USD an hour) it was also always a headache.

Omi no Kami, have you ever been in a situation where you’ve found it hard to stay neutral and objective? Have you ever been yelled at or threatened because of your in-the-middle role? I’ve experienced both of these, but I’m curious as to whether more professional interpreters also have to deal with that kind of crap.

Well, thanks for the compliment! :slight_smile:

Getting to your question, I think everyone has to deal with that crap at one time or another… they gave us some tips in school to strive and remain neutral, but occasionally it’s unavoidable.

The worst situations tend to be when you’re interpreting during a trial, a doctor’s appointment, or a psychiatric assessment. I absolutely refuse to interpret for potential psychiatric patients, and have never been in that situation, but in legal and medical proceedings you often find that the environment seems somewhat hostile for the person you’re interpreting to, simply because they don’t speak the language very well, or often times at all. In those cases people tend to gravitate towards the interpreter as a “buddy,” since you’re one of the only people in the room who they can talk to easily. As you’ve probably noticed, however, it’s pretty key that you avoid this since it can turn nasty later on. In those types of situations, the best solution I’ve found is to find subtle ways of stressing your neutrality. In trials, basically by necessity, you usually ignore the people you’re translating entirely. If they ask you a question, you translate the question and wait for a response… if they keep asking questions, you request the court’s permission to clarify your role and then bluntly tell them that you’re only an interpreter, and not allowed to directly interact with them beyond the extent required by your job. It sounds kind of mean, and in a lot of cases it’ll annoy people, but it has the effect of establishing your neutrality from the outset.

When people try to give you a hard time personally, whether it’s yelling at you (which, thankfully, I’ve never personally experienced) or otherwise acting in an inappropriate or confrontational way, the best thing to do in my experience is to stress your role. (This is something one of our teachers explicitly covered with us, actually.) You need to review your contract before you sign up for any job, to ensure that this is covered, but whenever someone is acting inappropriately towards you, the first thing you obviously do is deflect it as best you can, and continue… but if things continue, you’re well within your rights to stop interpreting, and inform whomever your hiring agent was (or, if they aren’t present, inform the head of whichever party hired you) that you aren’t comfortable with this individual’s behavior.

Delivery is everything in this kind of case, because you’re within your rights to leave if you’re putting up with that kind of abuse: it’s distracting, and it’s impolite. If you’re obviously being calm and professional about it, chances are that the offending person will either be asked to leave, or at the very least someone from your client’s party will realize that you’re getting sucked in, and make an effort to stand up for you. Either way, it’s important that you put a stop to that kind of crap right away… you aren’t there to deal with whatever issues anyone involved is having, and both parties need to understand that.

Worst comes to worst, just excuse yourself and leave. Your contract should allow for it, and other clients are going to stand up for you if they hear about what happened and see that whomever hired you didn’t do a thing to stop it.

(this is an extremely mean thing to do, but if the situation’s getting worse and your client isn’t doing a thing about it, you can pause and say something to the effect of “Please hold on, I need to explain what’s going on to the other side so they understand…” once you’ve said that, you’d be amazed at how quickly the offensive person is publicly remanded, in very clear sight of both parties.)

Fortunately I usually worked in a booth, so I’ve never had to deal with anything quite as uncomfortable as what you’ve described. :slight_smile:

I should add, it also helps if you’ve worked with a certain client before, or if you have a reputation at the company. Good interpreters are expensive, and they can be extremely hard to find, so even though you’re a neutral party, clients that you do repeat business with are usually very interested in keeping you interested in taking more of their jobs.

God I was glad to get out of interpreting. Way stressful.

So, you’re informally interpreting for some bigwigs, and the English speaking bigwig doesn’t know how to work with interpreters and he decides to tell one of the those pun jokes that doesn’t translate. For instance, the one that ends “I’m a frayed knot!”

What do you do?

Get out of interpreting. :wink:

Seriously though, it depends on the situation; the fastest thing would probably be to wrinkle your brow or otherwise make a show of having trouble, and, in the non-English language, say “I’m afraid this joke is difficult to translate; it’s similiar to <name a pun joke in the native language>.” If they look interested, you scramble to explain it in 20 seconds or less. If they aren’t interested, which is more likely, they’ll probably make a show of trying to smile and the English bigwig can be happy that his joke went over well.

Speaking of which, y’know my favorite? The politicians who don’t know how to work with interpreters. Lots of 'em are used to being interpreted these days, and more to the point their speechwriters are used to it, but there ain’t nothing quite like a showy speech with five times as many words as it needs being mumbled at 500 words a minute.

(actually, when simultaneous interpreting was just getting started in the newly-formed UN, interpreters were outraged at the crap they had to put up with; a lot of them actually ended up demanding riders on their contracts that essentially read “If the speaker mumbles a lot and talks too quickly, then we won’t take responsibility.”)

Also, I’m now almost obligated to share UK Candid Camera - The Interpreter