So Sonia, how did you make your way to this job?
I think I always wanted to be an interpreter.
Yes, I liked English and I wanted to meet people, travel and when I heard about interpretation, I knew it was what I wanted to do. But of course, it didn’t happen very smoothly. First I wanted to work in art restoration and started preparing for it.
But after suffering for a year from allergies and disease, we found out that it was a reaction to dust and toxins in the paints. So, I had to consider an alternative degree and role. I started studying English after that.
How did you make your way to interpretation?
I knew I didn’t want to teach after finishing college. But of course, things don’t go smoothly and I worked for 7 years and a little more as an English teacher! I may have wanted to be an interpreter for a long time but I only could do it full-time 2007 onward.
And when did you start working with Paweł?
I have been working with Paweł for around 7 years. We are in the booth for hours and interpreting for long stretches. So to have the same wavelength, same sense of humour–that always helps. If I pause, he can understand and immediately takes over when needed. We also have another colleague who joins us sometimes, Piotr.
What does a normal work-day look like for you?
When I’m working at an event, we are in the interpreter’s booth – which some people from outside the business call a hut or kiosk – most of the time. We have to be alert and attentive to what’s being said and interpret simultaneously.
Do you have to stay inside the booth through the whole event? Aren’t there breaks?
Sometimes there are such small breaks at events that we cannot even go for a bathroom break between two speakers. But some clients are very respectful and conscientious and they come and ask what I need. I have a client in the geothermal sector and when I travel with them for conference or meeting interpretation, I feel very considered. It’s not that common in events.
So the interpreters’ perspective gets left out.
Yes. For many clients, interpretation is just a service they order. Many don’t pay attention to the fact we are there. Still, it can be considered a positive aspect that your clients forget your presence, as it means communication through interpretation was seamless. The less visible the interpreter, the better in a way.
One thing we absolutely adore about Maciej is that he always introduces interpreters. Few people have done it in my experience.
Oh! But yes it sounds very like him. He is very considerate. But generally what about your clients?
Some clients really consider us and come and talk to us about what kind of breaks we need but most of the time we are in the booth continuously. Because from one speaker to the next, we are needed to interpret. Also to interpret inbetween announcements when there are any. Generally, our role is to help people communicate, so we have to be there if anybody needs us.
What are some of the challenges of your job?
Very often we know only the topic of the conference but not the detailed matter. For example, a client informed us that interpretation would be needed about transport but did not mention that it was specifically mining transport. You know people think that if you are fluent in a language you’ll know all the words and terms but even native speakers do not know their language inside out! Especially specialised terminology. Rendering the sense in such specialised events without any preparation can be a struggle. And you need to bear in mind that it is not about rendering the content word for word, but about conveying the sense. The more you know about the topic, process, idea, etc., the easier it is to deliver the target message.
Another challenge is the burden to our brain. It’s so much that we have to shift every 20 or 30 mins. It’s like the overheating of a circuit. Listening, speaking intensively for all those hours. So it really helps to have a partner you are in sync with.
And how often do you have clients who don’t send you material or information that will help you prepare?
Sometimes, yes. Sometimes clients send nothing in case of confidential materials if the conference is on something sensitive. But personally for me a challenging event that I interpret for regularly is a conference on aesthetic and anti-ageing medicine. It’s highly specialised, I rarely get materials about what I have to delve into specifically, and the speakers often have strong accents. The breaks are also small at the conference. Short ones in 12-14 hours. The conference is really demanding. You can expect the unexpected since the conference covers the entire human body, so anything can come up. It takes a long time to prepare for the event.
12 to 14 hours of focused attention to interpret sounds incredibly hard. I cannot imagine that pressure along with that of not making a mistake since the topic is so important.
Yes you know I read somewhere about a study carried out in Switzerland – I’m not sure if it is true since I didn’t verify – but the researchers found that interpreters have a kind of “defect” in their brain that lets them do multiple, separate things at once. I mean we listen, understand, process, interpret and speak all at once. Still, perhaps we should not consider it a failure but more a bless.
Before we end, is there something you’d like to share? A question that I might not have asked?
I would like to say what is so great about this job.
Oh yes, of course! What an important question!
It’s the opportunity to travel and meet people I would never meet otherwise. Most of the people I meet are experts in their fields. And often I look at them through the booth glass but sometimes I can talk to them after the event. It’s a job where you can never be bored. Nothing is ever the same and you can learn a lot even though you don’t remember what you just interpreted!
Haha, what do you mean?
We are doing it at such speed and everything is so intense that an overall idea stays but not much detail.
Yes and the other great thing about this work is that sometimes I get to go where I wouldn’t have otherwise. E.g. I was the interpreter at a knee surgery where a specialist came down and I had to interpret for those watching in the gallery. It of course was very demanding, because you cannot afford to make even the slightest mistake.
Yes, of course.
And I also got to meet the real Santa Claus from Rovaniemi, Finland. He visited children in a hospital in Poland. That was special as well – pleasant and moving.
Wow, that’s quite something.
Yes, it really was. I’ve seen volcanoes, operating theatres, engineering facilities, helicopter interiors and met many interesting personalities and Santa Claus all thanks to the work I do. One could not dream to get more in their profession.
[This interview was conducted and edited by Aayati Sengupta]