Guest Post: What they didn’t teach me at School

This week, LifeinLINCS is pleased to host a guest post from a well-known interpreting blogger. Michelle Hof is well-known in the interpreting community as the editor of the wildly successful blog, The Interpreter Diaries. Here she gives us her insights into the epiphanies she had after she left her interpreter training.

Not too long ago, I was asked by Jonathan at the LifeinLINCS blog to contribute a guest post looking at what I wished they had taught me in interpreting school. As someone who was actually very pleased with the training I received on my postgraduate conference interpreting course, at first I didn’t think I would be able to give a satisfactory reply. After all, the typical complaints about interpreter training programmes – “too much theory, not enough practice”; “they don’t prepare you for the real world”; “no help with voice training or stress management” etc. – simply didn’t apply in my case (for the record, I was part of the Class of 2000 of the M.A. in Conference Interpreting Techniques at the University of Westminster, London, a top-class program that was discontinued in 2011 as a result of UK government cuts to higher education).

As a satisfied customer, I wasn’t going to be able to trot out any of the usual comments about what is lacking in interpreter training, and so I decided to turn the exercise around and focus instead on the various epiphanies or “aha!” moments I have had since graduation. You know what I’m referring to: those moments when you discover something that may be glaringly obvious to the rest of the world, but which simply had not crossed your radar until that point. Seen from this angle, I have managed to identify four key lessons that they did not teach me in interpreting school.

1 There is life beyond Brussels. Considering I attended a school whose stated purpose was to prepare conference interpreters for accreditation at the European Institutions and United Nations, one could argue that it wasn’t the job of my trainers at Westminster to expose me to career opportunities outside of the EU/UN circuit. And indeed, for the first few years of my career at least, this gap in my training didn’t matter: within weeks of graduation, I had been accepted onto the SCIC’s Young Interpreters Scheme and basically spent the next four years working full-time as a freelancer in Brussels.

All this changed when I was approached in 2004 to work a large job on the private market in Spain. The experience opened me up to previously unknown professional opportunities and broadened my horizons beyond Brussels. The fact is, I had been so focussed on consolidating my experience with the European Institutions that at no point in those first few years of working did I even consider that there might be other options out there.

2 Conference interpreting in international political contexts is a niche market. Again, it is probably to Westminster’s credit that the trainers there focussed primarily on preparing us to work as conference interpreters in international political contexts – after all, that’s what we were paying them to do. And let’s admit it: in Europe, this type of interpreting clearly gets the most press, not least due to the presence of the European Institutions, the biggest employers of conference interpreters in the world. With that in mind, perhaps we here in Europe will be forgiven for not realizing that this type of conference work is only one of many kinds of interpreting out there.

My second epiphany therefore came the day that I read some statistics describing the North American interpreting market, which showed that work at international events and in government settings makes up only about 15% of all interpreting work there, with the remaining work consisting mostly of healthcare (30%), legal/judiciary (23%), business (14%) and community (11%) interpreting. Suddenly, I realized that the default image of an “interpreter” here in Europe (=an EU wonk who speaks eight languages and spends half his life on the train between Brussels and Strasbourg) is a far cry from the image of an interpreter that reigns in many other parts of the world. Say “I’m an interpreter” to a North American, for instance, and they are as likely to picture you in a police station or a hospital as in a booth at the UN.

3 Retour interpreters are not a rara avis. I said earlier that Europe is home to the largest employers of conference interpreters in the world. The DG SCIC (European Commission) and DG INTE (European Parliament) need to provide interpreting services for insanely large language combinations in most meetings. Your average meeting of national experts may use “only” five or six working languages, but the European Council meetings or Parliamentary plenary sittings require full coverage of all of the EU’s 23 official languages, and so it’s clear that what is needed are multilingual interpreters with a strong A (mother tongue or active language into which they work) and several Cs (passive languages from which they interpret).

To meet this need, interpreter training programmes in Europe tend to focus on training students in the A-C-C(-C) combination. This focus on “one active plus many passives” neglects the requirements of most other interpreting markets, where it is much more useful for interpreters to have two active languages (their mother tongue or A plus a “retour” language or B) so they can work back and forth between the two. Think back what I said earlier about most interpreting outside of Europe being in courts, hospitals, business meetings and the like, and you will see my point: these communicative contexts tend to involve only two languages. [Editor’s note: Heriot-Watt offers a retour stream in its postgraduate interpreting courses.]

As an interpreter with one A, four Cs and no B in sight, my third “aha!” moment came the day I heard that as many as 90% of all respondents to a global online survey of interpreters had reported working regularly into a B language (sorry, no link, as I can’t recall the source!). Living in my “Brussels bubble”, I had of course been aware that retour interpreting existed – in the European Institutions, it has become increasingly common since the 2004 wave of accession of new member states – and yet I had no idea that the vast majority of interpreters around the world worked into a B. This, again, is arguably not something that needs to be included on the curriculum of a training programme preparing students for A-C-C work, and yet it might have been useful to know that what we were learning was not what the wider world is doing.

4 We could all use a magic ring. The fourth lesson I want to share is not directly related to interpreting, and yet it has proven to be an important life lesson for me that I think could help all interpreting students in one way or another. It serves me well both in those moments of freelancing desperation when it seems the phone will never ring again and when I am feeling on top of the world because of a new contact or job opportunity.

The story of the magic ring, which some accredit to the Sufi poets but which I give below in its Jewish folktale version, goes something like this:

One day Solomon decided to humble his most trusted minister. He said to him, “There is a certain ring that I want you to bring to me. I wish to wear it for Sukkot, which gives you six months to find it.”

“If it exists anywhere on earth, your majesty,” replied his minister, “I will find it and bring it to you, but what makes the ring so special?”

“It has magic powers,” answered the king. “If a happy man looks at it, he becomes sad, and if a sad man looks at it, he becomes happy.”  Solomon knew that no such ring existed in the world, but he wished to give his minister a little taste of humility.

Spring passed and then summer, and still the minister had no idea where he could find the ring. On the night before Sukkot, he decided to take a walk in one of the poorest quarters of Jerusalem. He passed by a merchant who had begun to set out the day’s wares on a shabby carpet.

“Have you by any chance heard of a magic ring that makes the happy wearer forget his joy and the broken-hearted wearer forget his sorrows?” he asked.

He watched the grandfather take a plain gold ring from his carpet and engrave something on it. When the minister read the words on the ring, his face broke out in a wide smile.

That night the entire city welcomed in the holiday of Sukkot with great festivity.

“Well, my friend,” said Solomon, “have you found what I sent you after?” All the ministers laughed and Solomon himself smiled.

To everyone’s surprise, the minister held up a small gold ring and declared, “Here it is, your majesty!”

As soon as Solomon read the inscription, the smile vanished from his face. The jeweller had written on the gold band: “This too shall pass.”

Now if only they had taught me that in interpreting school.



Michelle Hof is a conference interpreter and trainer. You can find her at her blog The Interpreter Diaries or on Twitter at @InterpDiaries.

5 thoughts on “Guest Post: What they didn’t teach me at School

  1. Thank you Michelle for this insight on interpreter training in Europe. If I may, I would like to enhance however that there is not only a European EU-orientated interpreter training and interpreting market vs. training and market for a non EU institutional environment in other parts of the world. There are – also in Europe – interpreters who have been trained:
    – with retour (from and into a foreign language), in fact all, apart perhaps from Westminster?
    – for a non institutional (international political) market (business, technical, legal, etc.)
    and who do not work for the EU nor the UN and still enjoy a fulfilled and successful professional life.
    I feel that colleagues trained for and working at the EU level have adopted a similar attitude to the French one which is to consider France as being solely Paris and thus view Europe exclusively through EU glasses. Europe is definitely broader and richer than the EU institutions, EU rules and EU experience, however valuable.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Aude-Valérie. You’re right, of course. I was pretty free with the term “schools in Europe”. What I say certainly doesn’t apply to all schools. I considered adding a bit about the EMCI’s requirements that member schools must offer an A-C-C but the post seemed to be getting a bit long. Many schools in Europe now offer A-B combinations, even the EMCI ones, and more are joining the trend every day. But back when I studied, it really was the exception. When I studied at Westminster, we had retour students from Russian and Swedish, but they were clearly the minority.

    As to your point that interpreting in Europe is much broader than the EU institutions, I agree in full – that was part of the point that I was trying to make. An EMCI-style course sometimes does not transmit that message effectively, as its focus tends to be quite narrow. I havemany colleagues here in Spain who work on the private market and have built very successful careers without ever having seen the inside of an EU building.

    Thanks again for adding your voice to the discussion!

  3. Pingback: Weekly favorites (July 1-7) | Adventures in Freelance Translation

  4. A superb piece. My cousin works in Brussels much of the time and is now lucky enough to be able to cherry pick the work she undertakes. When she started out, there were no blogs or websites to remind her of her self-worth and to ‘keep swimming’. The skill of ‘picking yourself up and dusting yourself down’ was never taught in any school, but Thomas Edison took 2000 attempts to invent the lightbulb, but to him he just found 1999 ways not to make one first. Therefore, it is not about the opportunities or lack thereof out there, it is your perception of them that holds the key to success or failure.

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