From #xl8 to #1nt, or… How did I go from translator to interpreter? A tale of two trades.

by Mary Kyriakopoulou

I decided that I wanted to become a translator at the age of 13, therefore, I became one and I have been working as one for about 7-8 years. I loved this job from the beginning, and I still do: every day, I would sit in front of my laptop, a nice, warm cup of tea by my side and I would start typing away whatever project the gods of globalization would throw my way – papers, articles, certificates, contracts, agreements, menus, tourist guides, even guidelines on how to administer a drug on chicken constipation (#truestory) – and I was content. Joyful, even… but the gods had different plans.

One day, the project manager from a translation bureau I had been working with at the time called me and suggested something OUTRAGEOUS: that I should offer liaison interpreting services at a factory in my city, for about 3-4 hours, for some members of the board that would be visiting from abroad. The convo went as follows:

-I’m not an interpreter, you know that.

-I do, but it will be easy, it’s going to be 3 people from abroad and 3 Greeks, no terminology, just a general discussion, no need to worry!

-I repeat, I’m not an interpreter.

-(same generic reply, pushing me to accept the assignment).

…It took some convincing from her part, but I said yes. And I immediately regretted doing so. Because I had no idea where I was getting myself into! I knew that an interpreter is someone who translates simultaneously (“Charade”, Audrey Hepburn, helloooo) but, apart from that, nada. Zip. Niente. Ницего. Have you seen the science dog meme? That was me. At the moment, I didn’t have any interpreter friends I could call and ask for help. I had no idea what I was doing. Neither did I have any idea that this assignment would change the course of my professional life.

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True to my personal motto, that the best defense is a good offense, I started preparing myself for what might come.

Step 1: research. What does a good translator do when stumbling upon an unknown term? Research! I just typed “how to interpret” on Google and started reading articles and advice from professionals. I also watched some YouTube videos which proved to be very useful since, afterall, I had absolutely NO IDEA how to interpret. For example, did you know that an interpreter never says “This guy said that he would like to…” BUT uses the first person instead, i.e. “I would like to…”? Well I did not! DEAR ZEUS, there were so many things about interpreting that I did not know! How could I ever do this!

Step 2: Empowerment. Enough with the articles and the videos, they started making me nervous. I meditated for like two hours the evening before the assignment, just to try and calm myself down. I had a light dinner and went to bed early, to wake up refreshed and rested. I kept repeating to myself “It’s a piece of cake. You’ll do this. You’re the best around, nothing’s gonna ever bring you down. (shout-out to all 90’s kids out there). A “get psyched” playlist can do wonders for your self confidence. One of my favorites? It starts and ends with the training montage from Rocky IV – Burning heart by Survivor. Hmm, maybe I can do this!

Step 3: Worst case scenario. I did some research on the company and its products, made a little glossary with the terms I did not know and jotted down the names and last names of the people who would be attending, lest I forget them. I also loaded my cell phone with dictionaries and thought that, if all comes crashing down, I could excuse myself, go to the toilet and curl up in a ball and cry look up the words I did not know. Ok, not bad. I can do this.

Step 4: Fake it till you make it. And then the time came. I dressed up in my best power suit, wore sensible heels, did my make up and left the house, as any professional interpreter would do. A car had been sent for me by the factory, to take me to the industrial zone. As it would happen for any professional interpreter. Upon arrival, I found out that there would be, not 6, but 16 participants at the meeting. Doesn’t matter, I’m the Queen of the meeting room. Without me, they will be just a group of babbling, bumbling band of baboons looking around at each other, waving their hands around, not being able to communicate. I took a deep breath and went in. As any professional interpreter would do. Let’s do this!

I emerged a victor from this challenge. I felt surprised, relieved, exhilarated, weird, happy, excited and so, so tired as if I was digging around with a shovel on a field all day long. Under the hot sun. Without water. Wearing iron shoes. With a foreman flogging me at regular intervals. But it was also, totally, amazingly, definitely worth it! It was as if the universe was giving me a nudge, pushing me towards this direction. This was reaffirmed a few months later, as I was called back at the same factory for another liaison assignment. And the idea stuck to my head. “Become an interpreter, they said. It will be fun, they said.”

I decided to attend a 1-year course on conference and consecutive interpretation in a private school in Athens. The year was 2014. I packed my bags and off I went!

At first, I had 4 classmates and an amazing professor, a well-known professional interpreter, He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named (purely for privacy reasons). And then, another sign from the universe came to solidify my decision and reassure me that I had done the right thing: all my other classmates quit the course. So I basically had a year of private interpreting lessons with a great teacher!

Now the following part is pretty much the same for any language professional. You get your degree, a bouquet of flowers and a nice dinner from your parents, you start sending out CVs in the hope that someone will send you some work and cross your fingers that it will happen soon enough. And once it does… HELL YEAH! I’m currently a happy translator/ interpreter, living and working in Athens and feeling as happy as a clam!

As a translator AND an interpreter (I love saying that!), I can say that I have spotted both differences and similarities in these two language professions. Of course, the main goal of both is to transmit information from one language to the other, in order to make communication possible. But, a translator writes while an interpreter speaks! As a translator, you mostly work alone, with specified deadlines – meaning that you have the time to do your research, to check and recheck your text, to ask for advice from a colleague. In general, translators tend to specialize in a particular field. Good translators have excellent writing skills and are usually meticulous perfectionists by nature, paying particular attention to the style of source documents, as well as the accuracy and significance of terms used in their translations. Interpreters, on the other hand, have a completely different modus operandi. They rely primarily on language knowledge plus their linguistic expertise acquired through training and experience – a sentence in one language may be rendered an entirely different way in another.

The biggest and most difficult hurdle I had to overcome was the fact that I went from my safety zone, i.e. my office, my cup of tea and my ample time straight to the public eye, or better yet, the public ear. From a shallow, idyllic pond with floating lilies, I was thrown blindfolded from a helicopter in an iron cage full of great white sharks and a small piranha (equally dangerous – not to be underestimated). As an interpreter, you barely have time to breathe. Good interpreters are endowed with very quick reflexes, as well as a good memory and speaking voice. And, once you open your mouth, there’s no turning back! You have to keep on speaking, no matter what. And of course, all ears are on you and you have to know what you’re saying, otherwise, why should they listen to you?

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Another difficult task is to change your way of thinking. As a translator, you follow the flow of the text and translate each and every word that comes along, adapting it of course to the context of the text. As an interpreter, you follow a combination of your translator skills, public speaking capabilities, some acting and a bit of divination. Why is that, you say? Because of the speaker, I reply. Rarely will the speaker follow the flow of his speech. They tend to speak s l o w l y orveryveryfast,Imeanextremelyfast, go back and forth, repeat themselves or repeat themselves or they tend to speak very s l o w or start a sentence and forget to finish it, forget what they meant to say in the first place, now that I think about it, I have a funny joke to share with you, or. (See what I did there?) The interpreter has to gather all useful information and put it together in a nicely formed sentence, adapted to his or her audience.  So you have to train your brain to look not for separate words, but for meanings.

Nevertheless, despite the difficulties and the challenges and the differences, I know that we must always strive to improve and keep educating ourselves. This is the only way to excel, stand out and thrive. The one certain thing this whole journey has taught me is that you should never be afraid to step out of your comfort zone. You never know what you’re gonna find out there! Maybe a new hobby? A new friend? A new career path? Let’s see!

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