Are you considering a career as a Chinese or Japanese interpreter/translator?
Think again. And think real hard.
The Learning Process
I pulled up my collar. I strutted into the hallway, knockin’ down the door as I busted into my first interpreting class. I pulled up a chair next to the fellow Chinese students like a boss. I gave everyone a chin up, just to let them know that this little lady here could speak and read Mandarin. I just passed HSK Level 6 after only 6 months of study, and although I had lived in China for only two years I could pay my own bills, find an apartment, make friends and date the locals all without a translator. I was the shit.
Then, it happened.
I lost face.
Oh no, I didn’t just lose face… I felt like I had been shot down by multiple rounds of language bullets from the interpreting firing squad.
The instructor played the State of the Union speech by Obama and, he said, you’re not allowed to take notes. After playing the video for five minutes, he called on a Chinese student to immediately interpret said speech into Chinese.
The student interpreted it in perfect Mandarin–all without a stutter.
My jaw dropped to the floor.
The instructor resumed the video and I could feel my hands starting to sweat. If he calls on me, I’m going to crap my pants. I don’t know the word for deficit. I don’t even know how to say recession! Oh god, what’s the Chinese word for FBI??
“Ruo Lan,” the instructor read my Chinese name off the list. “Go ahead.”
I’ll save you the pathetic story of how I completely humiliated myself in front of an army of trained, Chinese
assassins interpreters. Five minutes of Obama’s state of the union speech turned into, “Uh, America is great?” followed by my total loss of dignity.
And despite my efforts, I continued to lose face day, after day, after day. This is how I bonded with the other two foreigners in the class, and how we quickly became drinking buddies as we commiserated about our craptastic classroom performance. They both had degrees in Chinese–one even had a Masters in Chinese language, and was shooting for Master Degree number two. Yet we still lost, and lost hard, to the local students.
High-Pressure, Delicate Situations
After dropping out of my Mandarin interpreting program, I was instantly called upon to work as a Japanese interpreter for an advertising agency. You’d think that my traumatizing experience in class would send the message across that, perhaps, I wasn’t meant for this high pressure job–but I took the offer anyway. It was good money at a prestigious company and I was much more confident in my Japanese than Chinese. I’m sure it would be fine.
“Mary,” my CEO told me in Japanese as we faced three other British CEOs at a long conference table. “Tell him he can go to hell.”
Our negotiations to form a fair and stable agreement with our western partners was not going well.
“He thinks that would be disadvantageous for us,” I replied as my CEO’s response. I tried to be diplomatic, but I think my CEO’s expression conveyed his real feelings across the table.
Learning to deal with wild cards (like above) when interpreting was difficult, but by far the most stressful aspect of these long meetings was getting it right. Not forgetting words. Understanding everything.
Basically, think of interpreting as public speaking–but with a wrong answer. As with my case, if I misinterpreted something from my boss or the client, it would not only endanger the relationship between these two parties but also cost my company thousands (or even millions) of dollars.
That’s a lot of responsibility.
Interpreting Work is HARD
Many people think that being “fluent” in a language means becoming an interpreter or translator is a logical next step in terms of career.
While translation is a skill that can be honed with practice and hard work, interpreting requires the inherent ability to make split-fast decisions at the drop of a pin. Interpreting is instant word recollection, sentence composition and damage control (which you need if you forget how to say a word/phrase) all balled up into a one second decision making process. It’s not easy.
So no, being fluent (even extremely fluent) in a language does not mean you automatically qualify for interpreter status.
Qualifying for interpreter status means thinking fast on your feet. Real fast.
The Perks of Interpreting
Interpreting is not all doom and gloom. Despite my initial struggles as a Japanese interpreter, as I became more familiar with my industry (and also the specialized words) the clients and staff, I started to thoroughly enjoy my work. Being an interpreter rocks because…
- Interpreting is stimulating. Everyday your abilities are tested and there are constant challenges. Basically, you’re never bored. To prep for your interpreting you’re constantly learning new words (and thus new material and information), which actually makes interpreters very well-rounded and knowledgeable people.
- Flexibility. Most interpreters go freelance and can work whenever and however they please after they build up a client base. It also helps that these jobs pay…
- Big bucks. Interpreters with a good reputation are guaranteed to make decent money. I was once offered 2,000 dollars to interpret at a conference for two days (I didn’t take it, but still)… Not bad.
- Robots probably won’t take over your job anytime soon, like with translation. While google translate is gettin’ there with text, interpreting is an entirely different ball game. I give robots at least another 80 years until they can fully replace a human for interpreting (especially languages like Japanese where the grammar is so completely different to English).
- If you’re like me, you need some human interaction. Translation is a very solitary and lonely job, so interpreting was a better fit for me because I got to meet new people and socialize with my clients.
Drawbacks of becoming an Interpreter
- As I wrote up there, it’s really damn hard and not everyone can do it.
- Becoming a really good interpreter usually requires training. I attempted to go to a Chinese school for interpreter training, but going to school in China was a huge mistake. If you want to tackle interpreting as a career, I suggest you study at the Monterey Institute in Monterey, California. Top ranked interpreting program in the USA (and also costs $$$$$).
- Finding in-house jobs (like mine at the Japanese ad agency) are difficult since most interpreters are hired as freelance. Freelance is nice and flexible, but building up that initial client base is very hard and requires self-discipline.
- For Chinese-English interpreters, there’s a lot of supply but not enough demand. As I wrote above, there’s a huge pool of Chinese students who can speak way better English than you will ever speak Chinese. Competing with these mainland interpreters, who usually take a lower rate, is tough indeed. Other language combinations with Mandarin, such as Chinese-Greek or Chinese-Arabic or Chinese-Russia will probably be much more in demand.
And Finally: Why Did I Leave The Interpreting Field?
As I was interpreting for my CEO for the millionth time, it finally occurred to me:
I haven’t voiced my own opinion or participated in any creative, thought-provoking solutions for almost two years. All I do is translate other people’s words and interpret them in a speech. I don’t have my own voice.
The more I thought about my entire life being used as a mouthpiece for someone else, the more I realized:
Dammit, I want someone to interpret for me. I want to make the big decisions. I want to think of the creative solutions. I don’t want to be a medium. I want to be the content. I want to be the boss.
Tips for the Would-Be Interpreter
Ok, if all of my horror stories didn’t frighten you away from the industry, then you must really be serious about this.
- My thread on Chinese-Forums is a must-read for all wannabe interpreters
- The core of becoming a good interpreter is practice. Practice note-taking and practice interpreting at home. This means listening to speeches in your A or B language for 5-10 minutes, interpreting said portion (I would always record myself doing this) and critique yourself for improvement while writing down/memorizing vocabulary from the speech you didn’t know
- If you’re looking for speech materials in English or Japanese, this Ninja/Interpreter has a blog with great practice material
- For resources, accredited interpreting schools (don’t go to the Shanghai one) and other information, visit the Association of International Conference Interpreters.
Anybody have an interpreting story they would like to tell? Or translation? Any comments or questions for interpreting?