One of the questions I was asked when I said I was retiring was: “And would you do it all again, if you were starting out now?”
One of those questions it’s impossible to answer, of course. I’d be tempted to follow the example of the man who, when asked which way it was to Tipperary, (or was it Steenokkerzeel? Or Chipping Sudbury?), replied: “If I was you, I wouldn’t be starting from here.”
Because a lot has changed before I took my first, almost accidental steps as an interpreter. In fact, it was hardly a conscious decision, more a feeling that having invested all those years – and all that money – into learning languages, I wanted to use them. Especially as they seemed to be the only thing I was good at, and enjoyed. And since I couldn’t face the thought of going straight back to school as a teacher, having only just emerged from it and not having found the experience totally pleasurable – it being one of those old-fashioned grammar schools with public-school pretensions, somewhat on the model of the film ‘If…’ – I thought I should try for one of the language professions.
A thought which took me eventually to the translation and interpreting course in Bath, from where I was recruited – more or less directly – by the European Commission as an interpreter. This was in 1976, when the UK and Ireland had only just joined the EEC and there was a desperate need for English interpreters. So you could say that I never really decided to be an interpreter; it just happened. Though I did make one decision: I was also offered a job as a translator by the European Parliament but turned it down, a decision I find rather surprising now as I’d always been a rather shy retiring person and not obviously cut out for standing up and making a fool of myself in front of other people. But there it is.
And having got there, was I happy in my work? I suppose you can say I must have been, since I stayed there for 37 years. It is an odd way to earn a living, though: for a start, it’s not a nine-to-five job – your working hours depend largely on the people you work for so that you start when they start and go on until they finish. And it’s a strangely detached, almost irresponsible kind of existence, which doesn’t mean that interpreters don’t do a responsible job, but rather that you’re not the one making the decisions or doing the negotiating, or even organizing the meeting. At the end of a good day you know you’ve helped people communicate and enabled them to do their work properly, but it’s their work, not yours, somehow. The upside of that is that when you go home in the evening you don’t take their worries with you. In the meantime, you’ve been paid for performing mental gymnastics, using your knowledge and abilities to do a difficult job under significant pressure, and the job satisfaction lies in knowing you’ve done it well – or as well as possible under the circumstances.
For some people, it’s the ideal way to earn a living and they stay with it all their lives. For others, like me, it didn’t seem enough at some stage so I went into management while still continuing to interpret. Whether that gave me the best of both worlds, or the worst, I’m still not entirely sure.
And would I do it again now? As I said, a lot has changed in the meantime. We’ve seen new technologies arriving, like remote interpreting, which have taken the interpreter one step further away from the customer. In a consecutive meeting you’re part of the group; in front of a screen you’re still performing a vital function, still using your skills, but without the human interaction. And customers are more demanding, partly because if the interpreter is in a box somewhere he or she becomes part of the technical equipment and is expected to perform as flawlessly as a computer, but also, and increasingly, because the customers’ language knowledge is vastly better than it was. Whereas thirty years ago very few delegates in continental Europe spoke English, nowadays it seems most of them do – or at least believe they do – and they are in consequence more critical of interpreters’ performance.
And yet…there are very few other professions which give you the opportunities to use your languages as interpreting does. Or to be privy to what’s going on behind the scenes. Or to travel. Or not to have to turn up at work at the same time in the same place every day. Maybe it’s not something to do for the rest of your life, but if it’s something you think you’d enjoy, don’t be put off by the prophets of doom – there’s still work out there.
David Smith, retiring Head of the English Interpreting Unit at the European Commission.