How did I start interpreting?

Years ago, I was on a ship. I was thoroughly bilingual in all four skills: reading, writing, listening and speaking. I had gone to med school for a couple of years, gone to secretarial school for a year, graduated from college in Argentina as an elementary school teacher, and I had taken the British Proficiency class when I was 15. After that, I had been a member of an Anglo-Argentine drama group: the Suburban Players.

These are facts. I had the linguistic proficiency. Then I joined a missionary ship, the MV Logos. I was there in Tierra del Fuego, when it shipwrecked. But I spent 15 months going around Latin America interpreting for the ship community, a group of 140 people from 40 countries from all continents. They needed “translators”. That really meant both things: translators and interpreters. So I joined. I worked 40 hours a week in the purser’s office, helping with customs and immigration paperwork in every country in Latin America. In my free time, I interpreted at public events on a daily basis. Pretty soon, I was one of the “preferred interpreters” and was busy seven evenings a week besides doing my day job.

I loved it! Besides that, I was translating the handouts. Mind you, this was back in the days when we didn’t have computers! So I’d type a draft, show it to a Colombian, she’d tell me Colombians would never understand this or that, I’d fix it, she’d tell me I had a typo here or there, I’d fix it again, and we’d print it. That’s when I figured that if a Colombian and an Argentine could agree on something, it was “neutral Spanish”.

Here I was, translating and interpreting, by the seat of my pants, for a live, important audience, every day. Oh, and figuring out what “neutral Spanish” wasn’t by using Argentine phrases when I interpreted. Training? Nope. None. Well… Probably some informal coaching from some others. Note taking? The speaker had his notes on the lectern. Positioning? By the microphone. How did I learn? Surviving. By the school of hard knocks. By experience. Honestly, like most of the most experienced interpreters today.

Fast forward a few years. I did medical interpreting. I loved it. Still by the seat of my pants. I interpreted at conferences. No training. I loved it. When I lived in Boston, I was a member of the New England Translators Association. They invited me to some of the early meetings of the Massachusetts Medical Interpreting Association, where they were discussing the draft of the code of ethics and I joined the MMIA. (Oh, it’s the IMIA now. M became A for American, then I for International.)

Finally, I decided to be a Federal Court Interpreter. I took the training for the first test, the written exam. That is actually the screening, you know. Then came the real test. I mean the oral test. I almost passed it, but almost doesn’t quite count.

As I prepared for the Federal exam, I was forced to work on my skills. Note-taking! After med school, that was intuitive, but I still had some tricks to learn. Sight translation. I loved reading stories to people in different languages. Practicing sight translation was fascinating. I used these skills in other places.

However… I didn’t pass the federal exam. I just got a miserable 77 average. (Passing score: 80 average). After that, the exam dates were just at bad times for me, and it didn’t work out for me to take it under good conditions.

I did pass the Oregon court interpreter exam, though! Now the agencies that kept asking me “why do you think you can charge that rate?” finally had an answer. Because I was good! Because I finally had proof that I actually was a good simultaneous interpreter!

I loved interpreting, and I wanted to be fully certified as a medical interpreter. So I took the National Board certification as soon as I could. Actually, since I had been an MMIA member, I had taken the Pilot Exam. I flew from Portland, Oregon, to San Francisco for the oral exam!

However, I really wanted to train medical interpreters. I thought I knew it all, and I wanted to teach. I checked out different programs, and the one that looked the most interesting was The Community Interpreter. It had a good blend of being practical, and not spending too much time teaching me medical terminology that I had learned in medical school at the University of Buenos Aires (Argentina). Besides… how much medical terminology can I really learn in 40 hours anyway? The most useful thing I can learn about that is how to figure out how to find the answers. In 40 hours, in my opinion, my time should be spent working on how to deal with the issues of interpreting. Oh, and Marjory looked like an interesting person. I went to Maryland. It was fun!

I thought it would be easy. I got back to my hotel room every night, and pored over my book. My roommate looked at me, as she relaxed after 8 hours of class. “Are you… studying?” “Yes, of course! When else will I get a chance to ask Marjory these questions again?” It was fun! The group was exciting, and there were some really sharp people there. One of them was a 70-year-old court interpreter wanting to get some training so she could prepare to train the next generation when she slowed down! I want to be like her! So Judith (the 70-year-old), Liliya (a Russian) and I worked together on the hardest project we could find as a capstone. Man, we dug into it! Mediation outside the session. It was fun! Fun, for Ebys, you have to understand, means “rewarding, hard work”. All three of us had Eby fun! We became friends.

I learned a lot about the depth of the ethics of medical interpreting. Being able to discuss medical interpreting ethics, argue and fight over issues with people who fight back for a week, and just have fun over it all, was a fantastic experience. I grew so much! And I changed.

I was already a certified medical interpreter and a certified court interpreter. But now I really understood things! Or I was starting to.

Then I started to train medical interpreters. As students started to pose questions, I gave them the answers we had discussed. When those didn’t quite work, I asked my colleagues across the country. I researched it and wrote blog posts. I’m still learning.

So… Was I an inadequate interpreter before I was certified?

Well… it depends. I managed, and the training for the Federal exam sure helped! But the folks I interpreted for sure liked how I could handle medical interpreting. In the medical setting, I was quite adequate.

Was I better after I was certified?

Certification didn’t make me better. It proved I had met a certain standard. That’s why I took the test.

Was I better after I was trained?

Yes. I started to learn things that helped me do the job with greater ease. I learned techniques, strategies, and ways to discuss things with my colleagues so that we could grow together. Even just knowing how to explain things makes us better.

Why, then, take training?

  • To have the opportunity to discuss things,
  • to explore new ideas,
  • to find new ways to do things,
  • to “fight” with others and say “I’ve been doing it this way for years and it works, thank you very much, so why on earth do I have to do it your way?” and get an answer,
  • to grow as a professional.

Now, I’m training interpreters. They come to class. They work in small groups, in interpreting teams, in small study groups for terminology, solving problems together.

Some are just starting out, with no experience. Some have been working for years. They learn from each other! The ones with no experience can imagine the situation with fresh eyes, and the ones with experience can add some reality to the picture.

Some have incredible linguistic proficiency, like I did. Others are struggling, because they didn’t have the kind of opportunities I had. However, they are all working hard. Those who lacked opportunity improve a lot in the few weeks they are in class, and see their potential to learn! Those who were already proficient learn to respect those who want to learn, and support their colleagues. So… do I require strong linguistic proficiency before students start? No. Do I think it is nice? Yes.

Some have a lot of academic experience. Others have not gone to college. Those who have not gone to college often learn to take awesome notes, and show the others how to use pictures! Those who have gone to college can often explain some point of difficulty to the others.

Some speak Spanish, some speak Russian, Chinese or Sinhalese. We learn how to express things in different ways, and our thinking becomes more flexible. We learn different cultural perspectives from each other. Our multilingual class becomes a source of enrichment, a place to solve problems together.

Why do I teach?

Because I love to see people graduate from my class saying, “Now I know what it means to be a professional medical interpreter. Can we keep studying?”

Yep. You can. OSTI, the Oregon Society of Translators and Interpreters, will be glad to hear your ideas and suggestions! Check the calendar page to see what’s out there already!