Interpreting : A privilege for natives of the major languages?
Thread poster: Williamson

Williamson  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 21:55
Flemish to English
+ ...
Mar 25, 2011

What about C/B>into a near-native A?
Those who dominate the profession-in most cases native speakers of major languages such as English, French, German, Spanish, .... consider this a profanation of the profession and shudder at the thought alone. They immediately refer to AIIC's principles.

However, AIIC 's principles were drawn up 60 years ago, when the world was quite different from today's world. Less globalised with hardly and internal European market and major languages back then were English,French, Russian, German, Spanish, Chinese...

Nowadays a youngster from say the Baltics, who has mastered English upto a near A-level can never become a freelancer interpreter, who can sell his/her services on the European market outside the E.U.-institutions, the only place where there is a demand. No cost-aware company is going to hire an interpreter to interpret from Estonian into say English as most Estonians grow up with English as a second language.

The only place where a graduate with such a combination can find work are the institutions of the European-Union, where once very five or ten years a competition takes place (to replace those who are going to retire) or as an E.U.-freelancer.

Interpreting : for natives of major languages only?

[Edited at 2011-03-25 13:44 GMT]


Javier Wasserzug  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 13:55
English to Spanish
+ ...
US West coast Mar 25, 2011

In the hospital where I work (Seattle) there is always a demand for interpreters besides the “major” languages. Somali, Laotian, Tagalong, etc.
Anyway, what is a “major” language?


sonjaswenson (X)  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 15:55
Spanish to English
+ ...
No. Mar 26, 2011

I have had this debte many times, and forgive me for answering despite my English A "privilege".

Yes, the world has changed in the last sixty years, and languages that were discounted at the time AIIC and many major institutions were drawn up are now far more important (German, Portuguese, Japanese come to mind in particular, and would French really be set as the second official language of so many institutions if they were formed today?)

Unfortunately, however, the mechanics of the human brain and language acquisition have not changed, nor will they.

We do not choose our A language any more than we choose our bodies, our race, or the economic situation we were born into. So yes, while those who were born into English, French, or Spanish-speaking environments certainly have a wider range of choices concerning where we will work as interpreters, it is no different from a lot of other lines of work. I could never be a bricklayer, or a firefighter, for reasons beyond my control. Also, for reasons beyond my control, I can not be an EU staff interpreter.

An "almost-A" is not an A. I have worked with interpreters who claim they can work from C to "almost-A". It is not the same as C to A, or even A to B. The mental processes that occur during simultaneous interpreting are very intense and require more than being able to simply speak at a high level with no foreign accent. That is only the tip of the iceberg. Referring to "almost-As" reminds me of a credit card company representative who once attempted to sign me up for a plan that was "almost" the same as what I had originally signed up for. Almost, but not quite.

Working into a B language (from A) is demanding. It is harder than working into an A, and anyone who claims otherwise is probably not monitoring himself or controlling what actually comes out of his mouth. It is an opposite mental process to working into one's A. Because of market demands where I live right now, I work from A to B, but would like nothing more than to pass an institutional exam and never have to do it again. For the moment, though, I am obliged to spend hours upon hours on my B.

There are certainly cases of double-As. People who grew up legitimately speaking and being educated in two languages and cultures. Who spent extensive time in two countries. Not just an immigrant community in their home country, and not just "Mom, can you pass the salt?" conversations. I have also known some AA interpreters. They are often classified as AB for various reasons. One simply has enough work with AB and feels no burning need to adjust this. Another acknowledges that one of his A's is weaker than the other and wants to have some leeway to make a mistake should it ever happen. Yet others acknowledge that despite growing up speaking and going to school in both languages, one is inevitably weaker than the other, and they would rather err on the side of caution.

If there is, say, a Lithuanian A interpreter, he can certainly find work by passing the EU exams. Depending on demand and the market, this may or may not take a couple of years, that is true. If he has English B, he can work on the private market in Lithuania, as a freelancer for the EU and the private market in Brussels, or he could also probably find work in the meantime in New York on the private market and in the courts, or with the US State Department. It isn't a hopeless situation at all. If he has Russian B he can find similar work in Russia.

I also think that far too often this debate becomes very institution- and conference-centric. Another route which is just as difficult and rewarding is court interpreting. Becoming a qualified court interpreter is not an easy task, and the demands are quite different than conference interpreting. A Hmong A or Somali A, for example, can have a very rich career with a good English B as a qualified court interpreter in the United States, and also pass an exam for the State Department. He can't work for the UN, but neither can a Portuguese, German, Dutch, or Italian A.

Working from C to B is a no-no, and anyone who can do so without a roomful of native speakers noting the difference, with the grammar and wealth of vocabulary equal to an A, and with no linguistic interference, is one of the rare and lucky people who in fact has a double A. But once again, an A language, even if we have two of them, is not something that is acquired through formal studies or after childhood. It is not something we can choose.

Like with any endavor, honesty is the best and most professional policy in interpreting. A person who walks into an accreditation or admissions exam, claiming English-A status when he is in fact an English B, will be found out immediately by the jury. That is why he probably hasn't passed any of the aforementioned.


Williamson  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 21:55
Flemish to English
+ ...
Lofty principles versus market principles. Mar 27, 2011

Sonja Swenson wrote:

I have had this debate many times, and forgive me for answering despite my English A "privilege".

Unfortunately, however, the mechanics of the human brain and language acquisition have not changed, nor will they.
I am obliged to spend hours upon hours on my B.

Doesn't he who pays the piper, calls the tune! At least on the private market.

There are certainly cases of double-As.
People who grew up legitimately speaking and being educated in two languages and cultures.

I grew up in Brussels and surroundings.
Official languages of Brussels: French and Dutch, with a large French-speaking majority who send their kids to Dutch-speaking schools due to better quality issues. English is widely spoken as a kind of semi-official language.

I still have friends in Brussels and if I remember well, last night we spoke French most of the time, so that the native of French could understand the conversation. Switching between Dutch/French is something which I have done my entire life from age 14-now.

Unfortunately, I have been so stupid to choose a school for translators and interpreters with Dutch as A and not like some natives of Dutch, who are listed on the AIIC-list with French as A or gone to a at the Université Libre de Bruxelles instead of the Vrije Universiteit Brussels, despite the fact that at that University some courses are taught in English and some masters are entirely in English).

Nowadays, both universities offer the possibility to attend courses at the same faculty, which means that you can study say applied economics in three languages, English, French and Dutch.

If there is, say, a Lithuanian A interpreter, he can certainly find work by passing the EU exams. Depending on demand and the market, this may or may not take a couple of years, that is true

When was the last exam with Lithuanian ?
When Lithuania became an E.U.-Member.
When will the next be?

If he has English B, he can work on the private market in Lithuania,

What if there is no work on that market?
The younger generation has grown up with English as second language instead of Russian and the smaller languages are only in demand at the E.U.

From another posting:

But from what I see in the meetings that I work in (mainly EU institutions) the delegates will cancel interpreting sooner or later, because 90% of all deliberations goes on in English anyway.
In the EP, it's the French who stick to their mother-tongue and sometimes the Greeks or Germans, but not as consistently as the French. And as interpreting costs a lot of money and spending cuts are everywhere, it's an easy target for spending cuts. .

On my local (Eastern-European) market, there's hardly any work left for interpreters or translators, as Google translate is "good enough" and secretaries/assistants can do the interpreting.

and the private market in Brussels

I happen to know that market (outside the E.U.) for I stumbled into it.
No demand for Baltic languages there, perhaps a demand from some Eastern-European languages into English, French, Dutch....

Can you perform and how much will it cost instead of principles? that is the question there.

I've learned my limits.

What I can do and what I can't.
I can not interpret two people talking in different languages at the same time, whether it is from B>A or B>B. and I can not interpret simultaneously a tgv-speaker when the powerpoint slides are at a 90° angle of the booth.

However, I can do chuchotage both ways (French into English and vice-versa) before an room full of executives or group meetings where one person at the time is talking, not rattling.
At dinner, I was invited at the table de francophones and continued with FrenchEnglish for an entire afternoon.

For me, it does not have to be CI. If this kind of interpreting earns me a living, fine with me.

With regard to Mom, can you pass the salt?" conversations, what if your real native language is such a vernacular, limited to the restricted code of language use, i.e. a vocabulary of about 1000 words. (Google : Basil.Bernstein + restricted code)? I am referring to this because in stress situations one tends to fall back on the "mother-tongue", but what if in the strict sense the mother-tongue is a restricted code local language?

The major languages: English, French, German, Spanish, Chinese, Arabic and Japanese.

[Edited at 2011-03-27 14:12 GMT]


sonjaswenson (X)  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 15:55
Spanish to English
+ ...
Lofty principles Mar 27, 2011

Yes, he who pays the piper calls the tune. We have all heard this many times before. And yes, it is true, but that doesn't mean he wants a half-rate trumpet player to step in when he is calling for a flautist.

The market demand is one reason why I left Europe- they usually want English A with a French B on the private market there, and that wasn't going to happen overnight for me. On the other hand while working on getting into another market, I am able to get enough work with Spanish B in the US, and don't have to worry about visas anymore.

I understand very well the situation of people with "exotic" or "minority" mother tongues, ie those from the former Soviet Union. A Georgian A will not be able to work for the EU any time soon, and his options are rather limited if he insists on remaining in the EU. At home he can certainly find work with an English, Russian, or French B. And unfortunately, in the meantime he will probably have to also do some translation/consulting/teaching work in order to support himself.

No, it's not fair. I don't have to be on the short end of the stick to recognize that it exists, but that doesn't mean that our Georgian A has the right to masquerade as someone raised in London when he sees a job for FR-EN in simultaneous. It is simply unethical, will result in poor quality, and is infinitely exasperating for his colleagues. From experience I can tell you that few things are more embarassing and irritating than being stuck in a booth with someone who is alingual at best, and at worst, a liar.

If you grew up switching between Dutch and French since age 14, that does not make you a French A. From about the same age I wound up, through some odd events, doing the same with Spanish, and spent part of my late teens/early 20s enrolled at a Mexican unversity. I am not a Spanish A. With a lot of work, I manage to be a Spanish B. Simply put, because I am not a Spanish speaker. In the booth, one does not just have to speak a language, but absolutely master its culture, mentality, and nuances. One has to embody the language while making it all accurate for the listener. This is difficult enough a task for A-B. From B-B or from C-B, forget it.

I also know that there are some people, for example, diplomats' children, who grow up in one country but educated entirely in another language. A Dutch family in the Netherlands who sends their children to entirely French-speaking schools, say. If Dutch was simply the language at home the children would probably be French A, should they go into conference interpreting. They might also wind up being "alingual" by CI standards, which is very possible and quite commonly seen at CI admissions exams. The case of immigrants' children is similar but less blurry. If a Mexican-American spends his whole life in US schools and living in the US, and becomes a conference interpreter, he is going to be an English A, despite what some outsiders might think. His Spanish would be, depending on a lot of factors, many of which are out of his control, anywhere from a C to a good B.

Finally, if someone's vocabulary is limited to family-style arguments and conversations, that is not an A language. Remember, the AIIC ABC combinations apply ONLY to conference interpreters, not the general public. So a French maintenance worker who is incapable of reading Le Monde without a dictionary is not a French A.


Yamato (X)
Local time: 23:55
Russian to Spanish
+ ...
An analogy Mar 27, 2011

I have had the pleasure of having this same debate with Williamson in other forums, over and over again.

Now, let me, dear Williamson, make an analogy of your arguments. They fall into two cathegories.

The first one is:

- Oh, my dreams of being a professional NBA player are shattered, because I'm 1m56 tall. I'll start insisting that tall players are privileged, and how it shouldn't be like that, because it's the team who is paying, and they could also pay me to do basketball, why wouldn't they do that??

The second one is:

- Oh, my dreams of being a singer in broadway are shattered because I can only sing in Georgian. Let's start insisting that it's unfair and that I don't get a fair chance, because I should be allowed to go to Broadway and sing in Georgian.

That's what it boils down to. Yeah, it's unfair, Armenian interpreters can't work in the EU. But it will not do to lower the demands for quality in interpreting until an Armenian C is accepted into the English booth. All interpreters with proper training and experience can tell when someone is just not up to scratch.

To end in a humorous note, I see your proposals, dear Williamson, as a version of affirmative action. Sure, it's unfair that Bahasa Indonesia A's don't get THAT much work. Let's fire people from the English booth and get them to work into English, why not?

Well, because they are not English A's.

Also, how come you consider Japanese a major interpreting language? Seriously? Could you please tell me your reasoning behind that? I'm a bit surprised by that, I never considered it one.

[Editado a las 2011-03-27 20:53 GMT]


Williamson  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 21:55
Flemish to English
+ ...
Dreams of an a-lingual person. Mar 28, 2011

In addition, in the meantime he will probably have to do also some translation/consulting/teaching work in order to support himself

Unfortunately? Not if you look at your activity from a business point of view.
A combination of M.T., CAT and Voice-recognition generates a higher turnover than typing and using voice-recognition is a form of on-sight translation. Translation is paid per word and an average speaker, who mastered Dragon Dictate, produces some 120 w.p.m.
If you grew up switching between Dutch and French since age 14, that does not make you a French A.

---->I am aware of linguistic theories. If I it had been since age 12, it would.
Ah well, my first fiancé's, with whom I got acquainted with at that age, her native language was French, she did not speak a word of Dutch and we had only French as language of communication between each other. For me, French was a language of daily use both at their home, in the kitchen, in the bath and in bed: French, the language of loveicon_smile.gif. I have known her for 12 years. It still is a language of daily use I grew up in the BHV-region (see you tube movie). My neighbour's native language was French. My mother's native tongue was a Flemish dialect full of French words and she used the restricted code. So what does that make me? A-lingual?

In Belgium ( = to broaden your knowledge about the linguistic situation), there are three schools (lesser Gods?) which offer an interpreter's training with French as A.

As I mentioned before: at the time, I was not as clever as I am now and did not take advantage of the possibility of going to a school for interpreters with French A.

I am aware of AIIC's rules made by conference interpreters for conference interpreters.
Whatever the rules: The rule of supply and demand is much stronger than any other principle. This is why you were forced to work into your B-language.

A youngster of 18 has dreams. However, for me being 18 equals the year 1978.
The analogy with basketball players does not apply to me in the sense that I take life as it comes and grasp opportunities as they occur. I can live with the fact that some things did not turn out as I wanted. At my age, you are grateful for every day you are alive.
My life experiences have opened my eyes and made me see that there are no failures only outcomes.

Between 1978 and now, I have had some experiences which added to my competencies and broadened my world-view, such as an obligatory holiday as a translator/interpreter (languages: French, Dutch, German and sometimes English) at a Belgian Court-Martial (la mili) in Germany (near Dortmund) when The Wall was still standing, earning a living with translating and working for a fledgling multinational corporation where American English was the corporate vernacular.

It gave me the opportunity to see the world (mainly US, Canada, Far East, and the UAE from another angle (the cockpit).
Being obsessed by one goal, one view is not my piece of cake any more. You cannot control things in life. They occur and you react/adapt to them.

My dreams are all but shattered because of a rule of an interpreter’s trade union.

When the time is ripe, I can be also be satisfied with attending a shorter training at one of the lesser gods where I passed the French admission test years ago, but I decided to focus upon business first. What I heard in those classes vs. what is taught at interpreter schools is very detrimental. Whether or not you use a lofty expression or an idiom, is of no interest. Understanding concepts and making correct calculations is.

FYI: At the E.U., you only get to prove your worth as an interpreter if you pass verbal (in 3 languages), numerical, analytical and starting from 2011 situational judgment tests, which counts for most points in the preselection phase and if you score among the 44 highest on this test. If you pass the interpreting test, you are not out of the woods yet. You still have to pass a group exercise working together with people who probably have opposite views, give an oral presentation and pass a structured interview.
Now, I focus upon a financial three figure (€) legal issue, which I hope will be solved by the end of 2011. That comes first.

Meanwhile I hope you" don't mind", I interpret (chuchotage, escort interpreting) before a hall, full of execs, who don’t even know what ABC-principle is or during an legally obligatory meeting of social nature.

From experience, I know that the only thing those type of participants care about is getting the message across.
Don't worry, without the proper training, I'll stay out of the booth.

With regard to Japanese being a major language.

Oeps, I am thinking too much in terms of economics and even with what happened in Japan, it remains a major economic power. Given that not many Japanese master two or three languages, isn't there a need for/market for interpreters?

On the other hand, isn't the interpreter, who interprets at NHK about the disaster in Japan when people are being interviewed not a properproper interpreter. My apologies, if I forgot Russian on that list.

Back to my basic point: If your mother-tongue is one of the major (economic) languages, I can understand that you are a staunch advocate of the A-language principle. All other should steer away from interpreting, right?

[Edited at 2011-03-29 08:03 GMT]


sonjaswenson (X)  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 15:55
Spanish to English
+ ...
Ya basta. Mar 29, 2011

I'm not exactly sure what your aim is and what you are trying to prove. Ordinarily I wouldn't even bother engaging this sort of argument but I think it is unfortunate that someone continually and knowingly posts false information on a place where a lot of people new to the profession might be trying to learn more. This sort of thing contributes to a lot of confusion and shock for aspiring conference interpreting students/interpreters.

There is no need for personal autobiographies or elaborate hypothetical outcomes of different paths that we might have fallen into. Hindsight is 20/20 but completely useless most of the time.

Yes, we have to follow the market. All of us are forced to obey the rules of the market, while also being ethical and professional. A Turkish A is probably not going to work too much if he lives in Rio de Janeiro. He probably won't work much at all anywhere unless he has English in his combination, preferably as a B. That's the way the cookie crumbles. So that means he's going to have to work extra hard on his English, probably a lot harder than a French or Spanish A might, depending on their market. That doesn't mean he's going to have to decide that since he has cousins in Germany and even had a German girlfriend for several years he is a German A.

If I am an X-ray technician and see that where I live everyone is only hiring anesthesia technicians, that doesn't mean I can go around presenting myself as such to hospital HR departments because I am following the market. Imagine the results of that. How would I explain myself later in court? By saying that I was just obeying the rules of the market and that he who pays the piper calls the tune, and they were calling for anesthesia this time?

Finally, I'd like to reiterate that the ABC classifications do not apply to non-interpreting civilians. They apply only to conference interpreters and noone else. A native-English speaker from my home town who didn't finish high school and thinks that the New York Times is too hard to read is not an English A. English is his mother tongue and probably the only language he ever learned, and he'd probably be an ideal candidate for linguistic studies, yes. But he is not an English A or B. If for some reason he spoke Polish at the same level, that would not make him any combination of AA/AB. He would be an "alingual" Polish and English speaker. Once again, "alingual" in the sense that he doesn't have a CI A language. Not that he is a drooling chimpanzee.


To report site rules violations or get help, contact a site moderator:

You can also contact site staff by submitting a support request »

Interpreting : A privilege for natives of the major languages?

Advanced search

Wordfast Pro
Translation Memory Software for Any Platform

Exclusive discount for users! Save over 13% when purchasing Wordfast Pro through Wordfast is the world's #1 provider of platform-independent Translation Memory software. Consistently ranked the most user-friendly and highest value

More info »
BaccS – Business Accounting Software
Modern desktop project management for freelance translators

BaccS makes it easy for translators to manage their projects, schedule tasks, create invoices, and view highly customizable reports. User-friendly, integration, community-driven development – a few reasons BaccS is trusted by translators!

More info »

  • All of
  • Term search
  • Jobs
  • Forums
  • Multiple search