“You’ve got to begin some day! There is no other way but practice if you wish to discover yourself and the world.” That was the answer to my fear of working as a first-time interpreter; it was given to me by the person who actually assigned me to assist a foreign journalist in my country. It was for the first time, and, sure enough, that was a «pro bono» activity kind of work. I was 19.
To my surprise, even in spite of a very Japanese English of my “assistee”, I’ve coped with the work quite well for the first few days. Basically, I think, that was possible because the journalist’s meetings with his interviewees were devoted mostly to rather general cultural topics. The latter were, to a varying extent, sufficiently familiar to me. My first "client" seemed content and at times he sort of almost wouldn’t notice my presence, which was a good sign as I intuitively guessed. So, all went smoothly. Not until the day and the moment in time, when our car drove up to a building of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs…
We were met by a tall calm elderly noble man who had a very charismatic appearance and the kind of wise look in his eyes that one develops after having lived for not less than 300 years or so in the sublunary world. Having been greeted, we proceeded into an in incredibly huge (as it seemed back then to me) brightly lightened (yes, at daytime) and almost lavishly well decorated meeting room where, for some reason or other, not much furniture was present except, probably, for several luxurious armchairs and an elegant low table, which made the room space look even larger than it already had been. As the three of us entered the room and the big doors slowly closed behind us, I realized that I started being confused. Hundreds of chaotic thoughts flashed in my mind. The rigid eye of the huge sparkling crystal-n-gilt chandelier under the ceiling was hypnotizing me and just like Alice in Wonderland I felt as if I were growing increasingly smaller. My voice was getting lost, my face was growing red but there was no way back.
When we settled, the journalist and his interviewee exchanged a few polite courtesies, and the conversation began. They discussed complex issues in international politics that took place for the last few decades, and it wasn’t just a plain chat, it was obviously a dialogue of two professionals. As they talked, they mentioned legions and legions of terms unheard of by me ever before. The amount of unfamiliar words got so overwhelming at some point that I merely went silent in confusion and couldn’t continue interpreting. The pause that lasted for an instance “sounded” like hours of silence to me. All I heard was my breath and my heartbeat.
Just the picture of the three of us (two senior men and a 19 year old teenager) all dressed up in suits and ties and sitting in large armchairs in a huge brightly illuminated meeting room of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs IN TOTAL SILENCE is in itself quite a strange image from any point of view as I’d say now but at that moment I was far from literary reflections. As a matter of fact totally numb-brained from all the stress, I was already sort of trying to invent the kind of face with which I would later on approach the person who had entrusted me this project. I also thought that at my career as an interpreter was finished not even having just started and my inner pictures of future prospects somehow got very dismal all of a sudden. I was full of shame.
In the middle of my coma with my eyesight glued to the floor, I felt a sympathizing and approving pat on a shoulder, it was the interviewed representative of the ministry. «It’s ok, son, everything is all right.»-- he said in a calm fatherly tone. Having finally lifted my eyes, I saw that the journalist was kindly smiling and nodding at me in polite encouragement too. In a moment the two men continued their dialogue without my “assistance” as if nothing had really happened. The person from the ministry spoke perfect English of course.
Needless to mention, how much I learned on that day about a difference between a victory and defeat, a mistake and a lesson and most importantly – about the human touch that can change things from worse to a better so immediately and for the long run. The rest of the project days went on quite well, I worked hard and a lot and even deserved the traditional Japanese ‘thank you’ politeness bow from my client which he awarded me with moments before we shook hands for the last “good bye”. Somewhat confused, I thought for a second, and then, too, bowed in reply, not as gracefully maybe but just as sincere in my gratefulness to him.
In the middle of the 90-th, my boss, a native English speaker, told to me a sad story about his local neighbor, formerly a secondary school teacher of English. The lady, as he told me, spoke excellent English but her job was extremely underpaid. As she explained it to him, she’d never felt confident enough about her language skills so she never even tried to find any additional source of income or a better paying job. Stories like this one are abundant around us.
Lately, I have run across a few articles on the Internet cautioning about dangers and risks of mistakes and errors for a translator and how quickly those can ruin one’s career. Reading those pieces makes me smile and ponder how much a mistake the authors are making by their highly-perfectionist statements. How perfect do you think those article writers are or have always been by themselves?
It is important for a beginning translator/interpreter to remember, that the perfect faultless translators (or let alone doctors, lawyers or people as a whole) do not exist in the world of real.
The difference between a highly skilled pro and a beginner has always been and will remain to be mostly in their respective experience coupled with how well one learns from it. Mistakes and hardships are just as natural as forces of gravitation are. It takes hundreds of falls for a child to obtain walking skill, and no grown-up is ever guaranteed from stumbling over in fact everyone is guaranteed to slip at least once in a while. If I have ever learned anything about people for over a decade of my work, then it’s a clear understanding that a person is not a machine.
Joint effort of people involved in a translation project whether clients or interpreters is (like any other sort of cooperation) not a science but art. Art takes study by trial and error. There is no place for fear of mistakes if you wish to learn something. Remember?... “You’ve got to begin some day! There is no other way but practice if you wish to discover yourself and the world.”