Are interpreters real people?

While researching literature on Interpreting Didactics, I read Eva Paneth’s Master’s thesis from 1956, the very first academic paper on Interpreting and Interpreter Training.

I love stumbling upon quotes that make me think or that bring up a point I have never considered before. Eva Paneth’s “investigation into conference interpreting” did not disappoint in this respect.

In the section that caught my eye she revisits the discussion about whether interpreting and translation skills should be a part of undergraduate studies; a question still pertinent for today’s curricular design.

This problem is linked to the question of whether “very young people” should jump headfirst into an interpreting program without having acquired another field-specific education, e.g. as lawyers, doctors or journalists.

Paneth summarizes the dilemma as follows:

“The danger for very young people [is that they] will remain mouthpieces from whom pours vocabulary; and secondly that being mouthpieces so young and so continuously they will not have the chance to develop into real people. “(Paneth, 1957: 137)

“Wait, could that be the problem with me?!” – was my immediate reaction.

Did I just encounter a convenient explanation for any interpreting student’s quarter-life-crisis?

Ultimately, I concluded that Paneth’s notion derived from entirely different premises. In the 1950-s, the professionalization of the interpreter’s profession was still under way.

Nowadays, an interpreting student, no matter how young, having paid attention during theoretical lectures on interpreting studies and communicational theory MUST develop a healthier and more concrete sense of self.

I should hope that interpreting students would identify not only as (future) experts on their working languages, but also on culture, inter-and transcultural communication, mediation and, most importantly, on the complex and demanding interpreting techniques.

In my opinion, it would be nothing but ridiculous and short-sighted to consider a “very young” interpreter exhibiting all these skills merely a “mouthpiece”.

Of course, whether the academic path chosen at a young age corresponds best to one’s talents and visions is another question; but assuming it was an appropriate choice, young interpreters in today’s world surely do not only have the chance to develop into real people, but into nothing short of a multi-faceted superheroes! 😉

Are you listening correctly?

“There are many ways of listening to a speech. We may listen to a voice, to its music, its color, consider its beauty or harshness, or else we may single out an accent and try to guess at the origin or cultural background of a speaker”

For interpreting, the type of listening we employ has to be an entirely different one, since it is crucial to extract meaning from the uttered words.

While it sounds perfectly logical, this passage in Danica Seleskovitch’s “Teaching Conference Interpreting”* oddly resonated with me – maybe because it explains a problem I have encountered various times without being able to pinpoint it!

Language-enthusiastic interpreting students might focus too much on HOW something is being said, instead of paying attention to WHAT is being said:

“Students of interpretation have often been trained previously in translating languages; they frequently have a way of listening that is therefore difficult to get rid of: they listen to language, to words, instead of trying to understand what a speaker has in mind when uttering a word sequence.”

Having read this sentence, I wanted to burst into affirmations!

How often have I admired the steady rumble of a broad American accent, traced the delicate, metaphoric loops produced by an Italian native speaker, or listened to Russian proverbs being artistically incorporated into an otherwise mundane discourse: all without paying too much attention to what was being said.

Ideally, the interpreter would wait, pen poised, for the first meaningful unit to be uttered like a predator lurking for prey!


*Seleskovich Danica (1999) The Teaching of Conference Interpretation in the Course of the Last 50 Years. Interpreting 4 (1), 55-66.


Second semester wisdom

What has my second semester as an interpreting student taught me so far?

  • Never forget your earphones

Leave your glasses under the bed, run out the door with mismatched socks and leave your precooked lunch in the fridge to ist own destiny – but you cannot forget your earphones.

Be it a podcast, a youtube video, a political speech or a recording of your own voice: as long as you can plug them into your phone, a tablet or computer, earphones are an interpreting student’s best friends as they help you improve on the go and in every little break you might want to use effectively.

  • Acknowledge the essentiality of the notepad

While earphones help you practise and improve, a notepad facilitates you doing your job. More than once have I expected 90 minutes of chuchotage and did not take a notepad with me which turned out as a big mistake when chuchotage turned into classic consecutive. You will always want to note something down: feedback to your fellow students, numbers and figures while interpreting simultaneously, classical consecutive notes or little kitty faces to conquer your nervousness.

  • Ditch the library

Don’t get me wrong, the library is still a good guess if you are looking for me – but as an interpreting student, your voice becomes your most precious asset and it wants to be trained! There has never been an excuse as valid to leave university early … to practise at home, of course! 😉

  • Never stop over-analyzing

As tempting as it may be to interpret text after text after text – it may make more sense to focus on one particular speech, record your interpretation and analyze it. Write down all errors and odd expressions and correct them on paper, then try again and again until you are satisfied with your preformance.

Is there a life after C2?

Is there a life after C2?

Already after the first two weeks interpreting classes, something has become blatantly obvious to me: while a C2 level might be considered “near-native proficiency” there is still so much left to learn.

It always depends on the specific field you plan to apply your language skills in, but for me as an aspiring interpreter it has become clear that I will most likely never stop improving them. In the end, language learning is a never-ending journey.

Sometimes it even seems to me that a C2 level is merely the starting point for making working as an interpreter possible.

Which means that even at a C2 level one could set the goal of improving one’s vocabulary. Especially economical, finance-related or political terminology can always be improved and expanded.

Another sphere holding potential for improvement is cultural knowledge. The culture of a nation is continually changing and developing which will always leave us with blank spaces to fill in or with interesting facts to research and to discover.

Considering the seemingly endless possibilities of amplifying our cultural knowledge, why don’t we start tonight by watching a good movie or reading a classic in a language you already know really well?

Without a doubt, curiosity will be more helpful when improving than perfectionism. And from time to time I think we should simply be proud of having reached a C2-level in the first place!