European Court of Auditors, Secretariat Genaral/Translation Directorate, September 2013.
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.
“The internationalisation of English has begun to provoke a two-fold enervation. In many societies, imported English, with its necessarily synthetic, ‘pre-packaged’ semantic field, is eroding the autonomy of the native language-culture. Intentionally or not, American-English and English, by virtue of their global diffusion, are a principal agent in the destruction of natural linguistic diversity. This destruction is, perhaps, the least reparable of the ecological ravages which distinguish our age. More subtly, the modulation of English into an ‘Esperanto’ of world commerce, technology, and tourism, is having debilitating effects on English proper”.
George Steiner “After Babel”, 1973.
Why proper English rules OK, by Simon Kuper, Financial Times.
There are several ways to overcome the problem of communication between people who speak different mother tongues. None of these ways is ideal. One solution, obviously, is that one of the interlocutors speaks the language of the other. Problems may arise: the knowledge of the language may not be adequate, one side is making a concession and the other has an immediate and significant advantage, there are possible political implications, it may be difficult to apply in multilateral diplomacy, etc. A second possibility is that both sides use a third, neutral, language. A potential problem may be that neither side possesses full linguistic knowledge and control, leading to possible bad misunderstandings. Nevertheless, this method is frequently applied in international practice because of its political advantages. A third formula, using interpreters, is also very widely used, particularly in multilateral diplomacy or for negotiations at a very high political level – not only for reasons of equity, but because politicians and statesmen often do not speak foreign languages.
So, which language is the diplomatic one? The answer is not simple at all. To start with, there is no single diplomatic “lingua franca” that could be inscribed in the above-mentioned catchphrase. In the past there were periods when one language or another served as a common, widely-used means of inter-state communication, although usually limited to certain geographic areas or political groups of countries. Such a role was played by Acadian (Asyrian-Babilonian), by literary Chinese, by Greek “koin`e” (a mixture of dialects, based mainly on Ionic and Attic), and later by mediaeval Greek, then Latin, Arabic, Turkish, and yet later by Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Italian, Dutch, German, French, and recently, more and more, by English. Very often attempts have been made to impose one language or another, with the argumentation that it is “clearer”, “more flexible”, “more expressive”, “more eloquent, subtle or refined”, “most suitable for international negotiations”, etc. The mere fact that historically such a role has been taken in turns by so many languages proves that linguistic or semantic reasons are not decisive. On the contrary, it can be said that the dominant role of one language or another in diplomacy has resulted from the political, strategic, economic, cultural or other domination of one power or another in international relations.
J. Kurbalija and H. Slavik, Language and Diplomacy, 2001.
Xema nos explica qué es el Globish y sus efectos…
Xema tells us about Globish and its consequences.
Xema habla a título personal: sus opiniones no reflejan necesariamente las de la Comisión Europea.
Xema is speaking in a personal capacity: his views do not necessarily reflect those of the European Commission.
Images© European Union – European Parliament