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Starting a Career in Interpreting

Interpreters are seen as glamorous, and this before the eponymous Nicole Kidman film. Many language-loving college students in Europe and Asia aspire to be conference interpreters, and many bilingual people here in the U.S. also dream of interpretation as a career, imagining themselves high in a U.N. General Assembly interpretation booth, gracefully rendering meaning between languages. But you have to start at the bottom.

One interpreter started his career with legal depositions and telephone interpreting. He spent his afternoons and evenings helping lawyers sort out who would sue whom, or helping hotel guests understand how to call up the porn channel on their in-room televisions. Another interpreter started her career doing escort work, essentially playing den mother to a group of low-level bureaucrats visiting the U.S., or taking a team of architects from abroad around to all the strip malls in Central California so they could analyze and evaluate the architecture, or spending the day in prison interpreting between a public defender and his indigent non-English-speaking client.

Many interpreters start their careers as community interpreters, working in hospitals. There the work does not so much resemble "E.R." or "Gray's Anatomy" as it does "Scrubs." For the most part the interpreters end up having to explain to the doctors and nurses that the patient doesn't understand their instructions, may not follow them for religious or cultural reasons, or by contrast, explain to the patient that the doctors and nurses can and will answer questions, something that other cultures do not expect or assume.

And most interpreters acquire their language skills by living and working abroad, which usually entails teaching their native language at some point. Yet another eventual interpreter found herself in a classroom expected to teach English, and in an innovative frame of mind suggested that the students select a film, which the class would then watch for listening comprehension and vocabulary and idiom building. The students were selective, and showed up with a porno flick. They were very eager to know all the details of certain words and idioms, and were convinced that this film would do the trick. The eventual interpreter managed to steer them to a more, to her and the school she worked for, acceptable choice.

What is important here is that glamorous careers still start at the bottom, and you have to work your way up. Becoming a conference interpreter for the U.S. State Department or an AIIC interpreter on the international conference circuit is a long, difficult path. And there will be a lot of fun, and amusing anecdotes, along the way.

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