Four languages if you want to call 112 in Belgium, what about interpreters?

I read in today (in the paper copy, cannot find it on the Internet) that the “Commission permanente de contrôle linguistique” has given thumbs up for letting people use English when they call 112 in Belgium. You can now be served in Dutch, French, German and English. The three official languages of Belgium and English. Le Soir also reports that in France you can get help in 128 languages with the help of interpreters. So for people living in Belgium; in case you are injured, ill or the witness of an accident don’t forget to first learn Dutch, French, German or English, or just don’t call 112. I mean how awful would it be if we made use of interpreters, the delicate linguistic balance of the country may be threatened, or the vile foreigner may decide he will never learn the country’s language properly since he can actually get the help of an interpreter should he be in distress. It is ironic that the country with the biggest group of professional interpreters is so far behind when it comes to using and training social or community interpreters.

Every word counts

I regularly write short columns for the Swedish journal “Språktidningen“. Recently, I wrote a column on how much every word counts, especially in asylum interviews and asylum hearings. I wrote:

Imagine that you are interpreting a first interview for an asylum seeker. The man says in French: Je suis allé au Port Nouveau” – you interpret: ‘I went to Port Nouveau’, since you have learned that the verb “aller” in French is equivalent to the Swedish term “go”. Later in the interview it becomes clear that the man has walked by foot to the Port Nouveau. The migrations officer becomes suspicious: “How exactly did you go to Port Nouveau? Before you just said that you went there, but now you say that you walked. What did you really do?” Immigration Services assesses whether people are telling the truth. It is important that you suddenly just change your story. With a bit of luck, this small incident is quickly solved, but what if it doesn’t? What if your interpreting is a contributing factor to that the man not assessed as credible.

A more light-hearted but not less clumsy example happened to me when I interpreted at a meeting where the English term “piracy” unexpectedly came up. Since piracy in the term of copying products and brands illegally was most in vogue at the time, I understood and interpreted it to its Swedish equivalent. Then “we” started discussing different ways of fighting this and I followed, until the speaker started talking about the use of different countries’ corvettes (small warship). Strange, to stop piracy with corvettes, I thought, before I realized that “we” talked about the Gulf of Aden and pirates at sea, a totally different term in Swedish.

The interpreter must therefore be alert to any ambiguous words. However, making a mistake is most likely not a question of life and death, as long as you clearly recognize that the mistake is yours and gives the correct translation.

My examples in the column is as I said definitely not an issue of life and death. But when I read this article in the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet I got a scary example of how important it may be. The article reads:

“The interpreter […] did not understand what I said,” says Ali Taleb. The statement that he had a cameraman with him when he filmed “Night of Baghdad”, is such a misunderstanding, because he often had camera man with him. But “Night of Baghdad”, he filmed himself. And the statement of a cameraman or not is now being used as evidence that Ali Taleb changed his story. The statement about the camera man gets completely out of proportion, says Clara Klintbo Skilje.

I couldn’t have given a better example myself of how important every word is.

Day 10 This is what I bring to the booth

1) My computer – under the best circumstances I have my USB-modem or Internet access in the booth. If not, it’s OK. I still have a lot of word lists on my computer.

2) My little black note book – I have an address book that I use as notebook. I keep my entries according to topic (agriculture, economy, European Works Council etc.) and each topic is in alphabetical order.

3) Pen (or rather lots of pens, pencils and markers but that’s just because I like it) and paper – most of the time the organisers provide pen and paper, but just in case…

4) A book to read when I do not interpret – If you work in a booth you work in teams of two or three, this means that there are periods when you don’t interpret. When you don’t interpret you have to be attentive of course and help your colleagues, but still there are periods when it’s good to have a book. It’s good if it’s not to captivating though, it has happened that I missed “my cue”, because I was too absorbed in my book. My colleagues quickly reminded me of course, but it’s nevertheless very embarrassing.

5) Coffee – tons (or rather liters of coffee, I’m a real addict….

As you can see, I usually carry round lots of weight. I do like the snails, I carry my home on the back. You may have noticed that I do not bring dictionaries. I used to, before the lap top era. Now I only do it occasionally, in meetings with very specialized terminology.

The only difference in my packing if I do a community interpreting is that I cannot read my book in the meeting and I do not bring coffee. Otherwise, the I carry around the same stuff.

This post is part of a list, 30 days of interpreting. You can view the whole list here.

Sociaal tolken in Flanders and Belgium

Through the Flemish news from De Redactie, I got the good news that the demand for public service interpreters “Sociaal tolken” is increasing in Flanders. Last year it was 43000 events compared to this years 50000. The figures seem fairly low to me, but I suppose it reflects the fact that although Belgium is the home of conference interpreting, community interpreting is not quite there yet. So, it is good news in the perspective that authorities are actually acknowledging the need for organising, training and providing community interpreters.

The Redactie also tells us that the interpreters are trained for the task, through role plays and other techniques. I looked up the training and found information from the Vlaams minderheden centrum here, and from the Centrale ondersteuningscel voor sociaal tolken en vertalen. The latter seems to be a special unit for community interpreting and translation at the Flemish centre for minorities.

For the French speaking community I can only find information about how to start working as a social interpreter, but not anything about training. Maybe somebody can enlighten me on this.

I have said in an earlier post that the use of community interpreting is not very well established in Belgium, I still believe that, but clearly after my research since yesterday, I have to admit that Belgium or at least Flanders makes progress in the area.

Day 06 A Day at Work

A day at work differs a lot if you are on a community mission or conference mission. Your community interpreting day will typically start with you gathering all your dictionaries and word lists (not too much though you will carry it around for the whole day), you will absolutely need a pen and your note pad (actually it may be better to have all that packed up the day before), you also need to know where you are going, names and possible contact numbers (sometimes places can be difficult to get in to). Once you’re ready off to, for instance, the court house.

If you’re lucky it’s a day long hearing and you don’t have to move around that much, otherwise you’re out of the court house after an hour usually (that’s fairly average for shorter law suits or cases, a witness hearing may be even shorter at least where I work), after that you’re off to a midwife for a pregnancy check-up. After the pregnancy check-up you hopefully have time for some lunch and then you’re off to the migration board for an information meeting for newly arrived refugees.

Usually there is little time to prepare, you are lucky if you get a file from the court. For medical appointments you usually just know the name of the person who booked you. Regular meetings at for instance the migration board are good, because usually you do them more than once and will know in general how they are done. You have very little contact with your colleagues, simply because as a community interpreter you rarely work in teams. This also means that you are pretty much on your own for terminology and so forth.

For a conference interpreting mission the day at work starts already a couple of days before your job. Longer before if you are not familiar with the topic, maybe just the afternoon or evening before if this is a routine job. When you start preparing you surf the internet, your read up on the topic, you make word lists and so forth.

The evening before you check all the practical details; where are you going, how long does it take you to get there (if you’re working out of town or out of the country you may be traveling the evening before), do you have your contract, dictionaries, power point etc. If the meeting is very specialized the speakers are usually kind enough to send you their power points.

You get to the meeting at least 30 minutes before you start. An interpreter is NEVER late. In my 15 years of interpreting I have never been late for a private market meeting. I have been late to meetings at different institutions a couple of times, mainly due to flight problems (snow, strike and so forth), it is of course just as inadmissible to be late to an institution, but usually they have a back up team of interpreters so it’s a little less damaging. On the private market you can ruin the whole meeting.

As you get to your meeting you take out all your aids, i.e. dictionaries, word lists, computer, note pad and pen. Pen is also a no, no to forget. You say hello to you colleagues, check last minute changes, have a coffee and… you’re on air.

In the booth you take turns with your colleagues, 15-30 minutes at a time. When you’re not on air, you have to maintain a certain level of concentration as you may need to help your colleague with different things such as; technical mishaps (the sound disappearing is a nightmare), terminology, difficulties to catch names, get the right page in a power point or document and so forth.

At lunch you just want a calm moment and a chat with your colleagues, sometimes it’s good to check terminology with your delegate. No interpreter loves to continue interpreting during lunch conversations and speeches, if interpreting is needed during lunch it is wise to provide extra time for interpreters to recover. You cannot be a top performer all day without proper resting time.

The afternoon you’re back in the booth with basically the same tasks as in the morning. Don’t forget to bring a cup of coffee to the booth for the grave yard slot, you know the first speaker after lunch when everyone is tired.

After a day of interpreting be it community of conference you are worn out. Of course you develop stamina after years in the business, but the fact is that it is a very demanding task where you have to stay alert and concentrate intensely for long periods of time. So what you are longing for after a day of interpreting is a bit of rest and… silence.

This post is part of a list, 30 days of interpreting. You can see the whole list here.

Interpreting certification Norwegian

If you work as a community or liaison interpreter and you live in a country that has a certification exam you absolutely want to take that if it is given in you language. To be a certified interpreter gives you a professional label and it is of course a quality label. You have actually proven that you meet a certain professional standard.

Most exams are criticized for different reasons depending on the exam. The main reason for this is that interpreting is notoriously difficult to measure and test. But no matter whether the test is a 100 % apt or not it is still testing your skills and having passed it is a perfect way of promoting yourself.

In Norway the next certification exam this time is given for Bulgarian, Sorani and German. More information here.

Thank you Anne Birgitta for the tip.

Positive experience when interpreting for a friend

I have so far mostly whined about interpreting for friends. But today I had a very positive experience. It started as soon as I introduced myself (of course I mentioned that I earned my living interpreting, not just helping out on this single occasion), the doctor was positively surprised and said that she had never experienced that kind of luxury.

After some 20 minutes of translation, the doctor realized (AND told me!) that she had not fully understood exactly how my friend experienced the different symptoms, and that that was an important piece of information for the diagnosis! What can I say? WHY isn’t it compulsory for all authorities in all European countries to make use of the service of public service interpreters.

Day 01 About me

I have been a professional interpreter for almost 15 years. I am accredited at the European Institutions and I am a state authorized public service interpreter. 2009–2013, I lived in Brussels. So much for the dull basic facts.

I love interpreting, all facets of interpreting. I find it truly fascinating and exciting, both sitting in a booth and interpreting heads of states or world leader, and sitting together with a client in the court or at the hospital. I regularly experience that I make a difference which is of course very rewarding. Not to mention the adrenaline boost you get when you open the microphone or walk into the courtroom. I am a person of the spoken word, not the written word (which is obvious to readers of the blog).

I became an interpreter by chance, (I’ll get to that later in the list). When I studied to become a teacher (a thousand years ago), I feared waking up every day for the next 20 years and knowing exactly what my day would look like. The fact that I now work as a freelance has effectively remedied that, although that was not the only reason to become an interpreter of course.

I did not grow up bilingual, I started studying languages fairly early at school, but it was by no means a bilingual education. Maybe I can label myself bilingual today, but I have difficulties doing that since “bilingual” in interpreting “lingo” means that a person masters at least two languages equally well, and not only well but to high academic perfection and not the least that you can interpret both to and from the languages of course. I mostly interpret into my mother tongue, occasionally into English.

Four years ago I decided to start writing a PhD in interpreting. I wanted to combine the two worlds that I like so much, the interpreting world and the academic world. I am now at least halfway through and hope to finish my PhD in about two years time. I study expertise in interpreting. How interpreters develop expertise and if there are expert interpreters. This sounds harsh; wouldn’t interpreters be experts? of course they would. The expert concept though is a concept from psychology, it is a concept explored by psychology professor Karl Anders Ericsson among others. It is experts in those terms I’m looking for.

This post is part of a list, 30 days of interpreting. You can see the whole list here.

More on interpreting for friends

I have once again had my fair share of interpreting for friends in different situations. The network of public service interpreters and the habit of using such interpreters is not very well established in Belgium. Of course I’ll interpret when my friends ask me to, but it is a very interesting contrast to my every day interpreting job.

As a public service interpreter in Sweden I am called to, for instance, a clinic when a doctor needs my services in a consultation. Simply the fact that the clinic books me makes me more neutral in the clinic’s eyes, this is strengthened by the fact that I have the same ethnical background as most of the personel.

However, when interpreting for my friends, I arrive to the clinic with my friend/the patient, I have the same ethnical background as the patient. I have, in the eyes of the doctor, the same status as the patient’s husband, or sister or any other accompanying family member. The fact that I loose my official role also affects the interpreting. I wrote in an earlier blogpost that it’s more difficult to use the neutral interpreting “I” when you have a non-professional relationship with your client (e.g. interpreting for a friend), and when the other user of your interpreting service, in this case the doctor, does not perceive you as “a professional interpreter” because of your relationship to the patient; it’s very difficult to keep that neutral distance and professional tone.

Naturally, I should (and I do) struggle to keep my professional voice and I need to point out to the participants that I am a professional and imparital interpreter. However, this is so much easier when there is an existing service for public service interpreters, and when you are booked by the authority not by the patient or your friend.

Tips for speakers

One of my research colleagues Anna-Riita Vuorikoski says that the responsibility for understanding a message does not only lie with the interpreter. It is a mutual responsibility between the speaker and the interpreter. Hence we need to educate our speakers as well. The blog Translating and Interpreting has a very good post on Tips for working with interpreters. I cannot say it better myself.