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James Lougheed

James Lougheed
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Interpretation: For the ever-curious only?

Published by jloug099@uottawa.ca on 2012-06-13

          As I stated in one of my last blogs, I think about words…a lot. But all those studying or working in translation are essentially programmed to think critically about words. We work to ensure their accuracy. After all, our job is to examine the written word. I often think critically in terms of the spoken word too; this, however, is a whole different ball game. As a translator, I forget about the differences between the domains of translation and interpretation. Although I categorize them under interlanguage communications, the skills and work involved are quite distinct.


          Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Michel Mertens, a retired interpreter from Belgium who spent most of his career working in the House of Commons and the Senate. He has thus done his fair share of interpretation with the federal government in Ottawa and has accumulated a great deal of experience in the field. During our discussion, I wanted to find out the principal challenges and benefits of the profession.


          Having grown up in a trilingual French-English-Dutch environment, Michel says that he naturally chose interpretation as his field after graduating in 1969 because it was the “fashionable” thing to do at the time. “Those were good years for interpreters because what with the common market then, now the European Union, the demand for interpreters was huge…We could be pickers.” After a few dozen job offers, Michel chose to come to Canada because he wanted to see North America, where he would spend most of his career. And although he is now considered a retired interpreter, he still performs interpretation work on demand.


          Michel starts by stressing the importance of knowledge and comprehension in the field. He explains that in order to be a good interpreter, you must be continually learning. “It’s one of those specialities where you have to, by definition, learn as you go.” What we know as a human race is perpetually growing and developing; since interpreters need to stay in the know in order to work in any domain, they have to be more than just well-read. “Interpretation is a lifelong learning experience.” “And how does an interpreter keep up?” I ask. “Well, you keep reading.”


          Much like translators, interpreters have an incessant need to be mini-experts in any field. Despite the fact that there are translators and interpreters with very strong backgrounds in many specific subject areas, there are many who only have a limited time to learn as much as they can. Michel recounts that in his last ten days of work, he has needed to read up on nuclear energy, criminal justice and cattle-raising.


          In contrast, Michel also describes a distinct difference between the two professions to this effect. Translators are able to flip through documentation and retrieve knowledge as they go, whereas interpreters do not have the time on their side. While interpreting, one has to deal with the intense pressure of fully understanding a subject and extracting it instantaneously. It doesn’t always come at the drop of a hat. According to Michel, it is a five-day process. Once he has read through his assignments, he may spend the first couple of days lost in all the jargon, terms, abbreviations and specificity. The third and fourth days come to him more easily as the material begins to sink in. By the fifth (and maybe final) day, he’s cracked it. “The funny thing about it is…once you have it, you won’t touch it again for years.”


          We can all agree that as a demanding profession that requires constant professional development, interpretation is in no way for the faint of heart.