Brussels – Brüssel – Bruxelles – Brussel – Brusel
Some time ago, our teacher Pavol Šveda, who works as a freelance interpreter for institutions of the European Union, came up with an offer to go to Brussels for a group study visit with a chance to try interpreting in a dummy booth in the European Council. Although only 12 students were allowed to go, the competition for participation was not tough as the students had to cover all the costs on their own. I was one of the lucky ones to go and spend three days in late February in the mecca of interpreters. My brain had probably never absorbed so much information in such a short time. So how did the Belgium adventure start?
5.30 AM. Some distant singing from a karaoke pub. Kicked out of the bus, all of us squinting, and nobody knows where to go. Our group of five students must have looked pretty desperate when a young girl approached us, asking whether she could help. “Coffee?” She suggested some place that could be open in the underground station and then disappeared in a taxi, probably heading to a cozy, warm bed... unlike us. We found us a place to stay, at least until dawn. The coffee and croissants were not much more expensive than in Bratislava. “But where's the toilet?” “Opens first at 8 AM.” So the morning rituals had to wait until dawn, too.
When the sun rose, there was not a single cloud in the sky. “Is this the rainy Brussels everybody keeps talking about?” Everything looked perfect in the morning sunshine: parks, historical buildings, the new offices. As we “only” had our baggage with us, we decided to do a little bit of sightseeing. Since we wanted to make a good impression on our first day and come on time, we arrived at our meeting point – The European Council – 15 minutes earlier. But we could not see anyone else coming. Of course we were waiting in front of the wrong building! So we ran along the glass jungle to where we should have been, luckily not causing any trouble.
Ms Skačániová, the head of the Slovak booth, made a short introduction, which was followed by a presentation given by an interpreter called John. I must admit that compared to all my presentations, it seemed like a speech of a president (and I mean the president of the US more than the Slovak one in this case). He was a real master of the word and managed to get our attention almost instantly. He explained how life of an EU interpreter looks like, while illustrating his point with interesting stories from work, like for example the loss for words when interpreting the Pope who was just announcing his abdication. Then two other presentations followed, with the speakers encouraging us to work hard on our interpreting skills to be able to get the accreditation for our dream job. “You do not have to fear the accreditation committee because they want you to pass as much as you do. Just be cool because that is 50% of the job.”
In the afternoon, we were supposed to see the European Parliament, but a change in the program occurred. “I have a plan B,” said Ms Skačániová. Of course she had. As you would expect from a great leader, this woman looked like she also had a plan C, D and E. She took us to the European Council to watch a summit and listen to the interpreters at work so that we could prepare mentally for the following days spent interpreting in a dummy booth right there. I'm really proud to say that the Slovak booth is one of the best ones and anybody we met was extremely friendly and talkative. What I'm not so proud to admit is that I hardly understood the language of the summit, no matter whether I switched to English, German, French, Slovak or Czech on my head phones. “It feels like landing on a different planet,” said Ms Skačániová, “but in about a year you'll get used to it.”
In the dummy booth
The next day, another interpreter named Braňo listened to our interpreting in the dummy booth. We received some material to prepare for the interpretation, but after reading it twice, I still did not know what it said. Something about “the technical roadside inspection of the roadworthiness of commercial vehicles circulating in the Community”. Sounded fun. We were divided into groups of two and three and were ready to experience the “human aquarium”. After we got into the topic a bit, we started to speak into microphones, which of course were switched off. “Never press this button!” we were warned. “Nobody would hear you, but one never knows anyway.” Braňo listened to our interpreting and gave us very mild but useful feedback. “Of course, if you were able to interpret this, you would no longer need to study because you could start working here tomorrow,” he said and he was right. Although the summit seemed to go on forever, we could leave at 5.30 pm.
During our second day in the dummy booth, we were disappointed to find out that the speakers were far more difficult to interpret than the previous day. The topic was “timber import”, nevertheless, the word “timber” was used only twice. Abbreviations of institutions, a stammering chairman and phrases we had never heard before were making it almost impossible for us to understand. “You can still become interpreters, if you do not come out of the booth crying,” said Katka, our second supervisor and an incredible interpreter with a voice you could listen to for days. She told us a lot about how the EU (or maybe I should say the whole world) works, enriched our vocabulary with dozens of terms, but never criticized us. I was surprised that everybody we met talked to us as if we were going to be colleagues very soon. Well, we better not give up!
The best part of the trip was when our teacher Pavol Šveda showed us around and introduced us to some of his Slovak co-workers. Over a glass of some amazing Belgian beer, we found out that although interpreting for the EU means really hard work, it is actually possible to have a family or teach at a university (or both), too. “Many interpreters are greedy, that's why they're too busy to have a real life.” I was surprised to find out how tough and rough the competition among them is. “It's nothing unusual to see a newcomer running out of the dummy booth with tears in his/her eyes.” On the other hand, I could tell those people sitting in front of us were friends for good and for worse and could rely on each other any time, and not only in the Slovak booth.
I think I will speak for everybody when I say that during this stay we learned as much as in a month at school (if not more). As the saying goes “it’s better to see once than hear a hundred times”. Although the trip to Belgium was an expensive one, it was definitely worth it. In our free time we managed to do some sightseeing, while often unwillingly walking in circles. So instead of getting somewhere in 15 minutes, it usually took us about an hour. For me the historical center with a touch of the middle-age gloominess to it was breathtaking. However, the famous statue of “Manneken Piss” (Little Man Piss) was a big disappointment because of being so small. Speaking of “the dark side of the city”, the homeless people going through garbage on every corner would not make me feel very safe, if I were walking around alone at night. In any case, if you ever plan to visit Brussels, don't forget to plan a trip also to Ghent, Antwerp or Bruges because there you will find the “real Belgium” with all its romantic corners and narrow buildings. Just watch out for hundreds of hardy bikers – they might be dangerous if you walk their path!