How to Become an Interpreter by Jitka Parobeková

15/01/2011 10:41

Photo source: Graur Razvan Ionut/

Have you ever been asked to interpret at an event? To do a real interpreting job? And what was your reaction? Were you ready to agree, feeling well prepared and self-confident? Or did you hesitate a lot and finally declined the offer because you felt incompetent? To be honest, I greatly incline to the latter option. It would not be that bad if I had not been studying interpreting for almost five years.

After nine semesters of our interpreting lessons, I see myself incapable of real interpreting. If you study interpreting at Comenius University, you probably do not ask why. I gradually started to recollect the interpreting lessons I have had and tried to find the clue to the mystery where we were supposed to learn it.

It was maybe our fault that we learned almost nothing from just murmuring articles about airplanes to our microphones without any previous training or at least feedback. Or were we supposed to acquire the skill in lessons where each of us uttered a sentence an hour on average?  Maybe we were supposed to learn it while “interpreting” articles from the Slovak Spectator at 7:20 AM. Another possibility was not to learn by heart difficult economic articles with sentences not shorter than five lines. It does not matter that trying to really interpret them meant getting an FX each time. We had also an opportunity to “interpret” easy scientific articles from various magazines. If you were lucky, you uttered two sentences an hour. If not, you “interpreted” twice a semester. But it did not matter; grades were definitely not given according to your performance. And finally there was one lesson where we all felt like Alices in Wonderland. We had an opportunity to experience what a real interpreting class should look like. However, to have such an opportunity just one semester in your fifth year makes you only more angry and disappointed since what you mostly get from the class is that you keep realizing how much you have missed out on in the past four years.

I tried really hard but I was not able to find why I should call myself an interpreter. I was not able to find where I was supposed to learn the skill. Maybe it was a self-study task and it is my fault that I did not use the time when I watched television for this purpose. The only problem is that there is no TV-time for me. I rather learn half of an etymological dictionary by heart, study the weirdest grammatical rules or build my literary awareness by reading the 222 books I am supposed to for my state exam.

And the conclusion? I hope everyone has his or her own. But do not forget that studying interpreting does not make you an interpreter. Definitely not at Comenius University.

Photo source: Graur Razvan Ionut /


A Reader's Response:

Yes, I have been asked to interpret at an event. I mean to do a real interpreting job. And what was my reaction? An interpreter never feels well-prepared and self-confident but as long as she enjoys interpreting, she will agree and responsibly prepare – studying terminology, reading parallel texts, etc.

After five semesters of our interpreting lessons, I see myself more and more capable of real interpreting. If you study interpreting at Comenius University, you probably do not ask why.

It is the fault of students that they learn almost nothing from their lessons. Let´s face it. Of all the students in one year, only about 10-15% want to be interpreters and to earn money (only) by interpreting. The Slovak Spectator interpreting is absolutely adequate for the remaining majority of students. Once when we had an article about pension reform, a wave of protest arose among students that “we don´t know anything about it, how is it possible that you want us to interpret it?”

Well, students take and learn from lessons only what they want – neither more nor less than they really want. What is the result? The professor agreed because students were offended and therefore he chose “an easier article”, dear students, who on earth can fulfil your absurd requirements? On the one hand, you keep complaining about teachers who have strict rules and want you to study that “they want too much from you”, and on the other hand, you keep complaining when teachers who make your classes easier and more relaxing “that they are not able to teach you anything”.

I suggest we stop complaining, study for subjects in order to get a pass grade and choose our favourite subjects and for them work harder than is needed and become real experts? Our university is here for giving us foundations, showing us all kinds of things we might do in our future lives, and giving us the certificate. The responsibility how much we will take from these 5 years is only with us. It is our decision which way we will take in life and in which areas we want to specialize ourselves. Come on - do not tell me that you though that university has to teach you everything?!

Concerning interpreting, there are three perfect teachers at our school. This is their 2rd year. You complain about Slovak Spectator interpreting? Yes? So why did you not sign up for seminars where they teach? Probably because they teach on Fridays? And because you would have to be at school from 7:20? So what? Either you want to learn interpreting and then you don’t mind spending at school even your free Fridays and waking up really early, or if not, interpreting is not of such importance in your life. Then you have, of course, no right to complain.

Learning interpreting is similar to learning any type of arts and crafts. It is a skill  that needs years and years of practice. One Italian proverb says, “Where the pupil is willing; teachers will appear;“ and another German proverb says, “Whoever cares to learn will always find a teacher.“ If you have passion for something, go for it, and if you look carefully, you will be certainly surprised how many experts exist and how many doors will open.

You do not have to call yourselves interpreters. You do not have to choose this way – there are many other ways, in my opinion, at least 15.

What is the conclusion? Do not forget that studying interpreting does not make you an interpreter. What makes you an interpreter is your attitude, decision, discipline, and passion. Definitely at Comenius University.

Anna Kosperová


What do you think of interpreting studies at UK?

Date: 18/01/2011

By: Katka

Subject: philology vs interpreting

I completely agree with Jitka; when we are to study "translating and interpreting", then our main subjects should be translating and interpreting , otherwise students will feel deceived and disappointed, as I feel now. I applied for this university because I really wanted to do the translating and interpreting, but what I found here is far away from what I expected. I don't agree with Anna's suggestion to move English Lexicology to the 4th year, for I think the master studies should be more about the practice and not about the theory again. For Example, at Charles University in Prague they have completely different system of study: they have actually 3 different departments for studying languages. One of them is the Institute of Translation Studies. The students of this institute have to do several courses of philology and literature as well, but their main focus is really on translating and interpreting. What's more, for their master studies they have to choose, whether they will be doing just translating, or just interpreting. By the way, they are doing subjects like Translating into English in the 2nd year and they are even better than we in our 4th or 5th year, dealing with the same subject. How riddiculous it seemed to me to call myself "a student of translating and iterpreting in the 4th year of study" during my one-term-stay there.
What I am trying to say is - it is possible to study what we are supposed to study and to do what we are supposed to do, and to do it properly - but the whole system, the whole curriculum has to be changed. It is not so difficult, but we should really speak about the problems openly and complain when we are not satisfied. And if every single student who feels the same way opened his/her mouth at least once, perhaps the change would gradually come.

Date: 17/01/2011

By: Pavol

Subject: Several thoughts from Strasbourg

Dear all,

Lynda asked me to participate in this lively debate. As a matter of fact I'm now in Strasbourg, working for the European Parliament as a freelance interpreter, accidentally I studied OPT combination several years ago and as a matter of fact I voluntarily teach on Fridays with my friend Ivo on the faculty. All this means, that I find your conversation very attractive and urgent.

First of all, I have completed my studies as an interpreter and I dare say that it is only thanks to the UK and its teachers that I work as an interpreter today. I’m not the only one; there are three other interpreters who graduated the same year as I did and work for the EP. Therefore, I can say that yes, UK can somehow educate young interpreters and provide them with necessary skills; the reality in the professional life however is often quite different. I very much understand the depressive analysis of the status quo offered in the original article and I equally applaud to the first reply. I had to go through the same early-morning-Slovak-spectator-classes and felt it is useless and also had a chance to meet some incredible teachers that inspired me and guided me all the way to professional career in interpreting. Everything depends from three factors: 1. Personal capacity, 2. Teacher and atmosphere, 3. Market.

1. Not everyone is born to work as an interpreter. Honestly, after two years of teaching, I can say that only 10-15% of students have the necessary preconditions: talent, language, general overview, stress management… you name it. Therefore I find it very confusing, that everyone finishes with the same diploma, no matter what their skills and talents are.

2. Teachers are a very difficult challenge. The only reason why Ivo and I teach on Fridays is that we feel a certain moral obligation. It was only thanks to our teachers that we started to earn our living by interpreting and therefore we should pay it back. Those teachers are now all gone. The institutional setting however, is quite demotivating. For example, we have to teach illegally just because we do not have a PhD degree, that disqualifies us from any teaching activity.

3. Currently, it is very hard for any young interpreter to become professional. The market in Slovakia has shrunk as did the salaries. Compared with the situation 5 years ago, there is less work and less opportunities. That doesn’t mean however, that we do not need good interpreters…

Solution? First of all students should fight for better teachers and better curricula, shouldn’t just secretly complain and grumble, but openly communicate their needs. Talk to head of departments if you are unhappy with the performance of certain teachers or quality of their classes, it is your right and equally, communicate your satisfaction with other teachers. Second, if you are seriously interested in interpretation or translation start actively looking for jobs. Some of my students have interpreted on large events already in 3rd year… And sign up for our classes on Fridays, we still have some seats left! It’s easy to complain on the institutions and status quo, it’s much more difficult getting your hands wet trying to change the course of our rocking boat as Ivan put it.

Date: 16/01/2011

By: Tomáš

Subject: Also...

I would also like to add something about the cramming way of education in our country. Students here are so used to cramming, that when they get to college, and have to write essays or do short-answer questions that involve analysis and critical thinking, they like experience a culture shock. I was one of the worst literature students in high school in the States. We had a senior teach-in every year and when I asked my English teacher if I could substitute in her class, she kindly encouraged me to do Spanish instead, that English wasn't my forte. Over here at Comenius, I'm one of the better literature students when compared to the rest... And it is not the language barrier, since everyone reads the books in Slovak...

Date: 16/01/2011

By: Lyn Steyne

Subject: the Wall

Many students come with expectations and are disappointed. Most teachers also have expectations and are also disappointed. This would be an easy dilemma to solve - if both sides had the same expectations.
Unfortunately, the Wall of the Status Quo stands squarely between the two interested parties, for is that not the expectation of most of the faculty at the department: the status quo? "It's been enough in the past, so it's enough now." It doesn't matter that no one has actually checked to see if it really WAS enough in the past. Quality control is quite unnecessary when the target is the status quo.
If you doubt that the target is the status quo, please consider that to get into the ELT major one does not have to take entrance exams.

Date: 16/01/2011

By: Ivan Lacko

Subject: Re: the Wall

The Status Quo seems to be so self-confident that it seems nearly impossible to break it. It may seem useless to even discuss it. Comenius University seems to be the kind of boat which is rocked, but nothing ever happens. It may be shaken, but is never stirred. Lyn, I agree that most teachers aim for the status quo. But I also think that those who don't should try to challenge it.
This is how it can be done: students who are dissatisfied with any class, teacher, administration, ANYTHING, please please please communicate this to those who are in charge. This is the only way to bring about any change. This, in fact, IS quality control as it should be. Give feedback, criticize, complain, whine, whatever, just don't let it be. If you do, you're also responsible, you become a cog in this heartless machine.
This is all about being consistent and persistent. It's like dealing with toddlers (and hey I know what I'm talking about). You have to say everything 20 times to drive the point home. You have to do the same thing over and over and over again to feel a trace of improvement or change. But in the end, it's worth it. Let's break the Wall and kick the Status Quo in the groin.

Date: 16/01/2011

By: jitka.

Subject: re:

You're right, Anna, that interpreting is not my desired job, but when I study something that is called "Translating and Interpreting" I would expect that the whole major will be focused on translating and interpreting; that we will have enough space to practice translating and interpreting. Maybe there will be much more students interesting in interpreting, if the interpreting lessons looked like those Mr. Djovčoš gives. It was for the first time that we did special exercises, for the first time that we tried something very similar to real interpreting. Each of us had enough space to practice, to try various techniques. We always got feedback and advice and weren’t forced to prepare for the lessons by getting an FX each time our performance was not excellent (= without any mistakes). We prepared because we wanted to, because we wanted to be good, to try what interpreting is about (and it wasn’t always easy). And I got up every second Friday at 7 AM and was disappointed that it wasn’t each Friday. Because the lesson was worth it. I don’t think teaching interpreting should be about making students learn loads of vocabulary each week or about making their life more pleasant by not bothering them. It should be about teaching the skill itself, about giving enough space to practice it, about feedback, about advice, and again about a lot of practice.

However I disagree with your suggestion to study for subjects just in order to get a pass grade and to choose only a few of them to concentrate on. I know it’s a common practice, since if you have 14 or 17 subjects each semester, there’s no other way. I do my best to be prepared for each lesson (including the interpreting lessons) and exam and if I want to have also some private life and interests there is not much space for doing an extra job concerning the school. But do you really think that three good teachers are enough for the whole school? Do you really think that it’s enough if the three teachers teach only on Friday (or Monday, Tuesday... in doesn’t matter)? Do you really think that if you study interpreting, you have to choose an optional subject on Friday morning to learn at least something from interpreting while in your compulsory subjects you can just sleep and you will miss out on nothing? I agree that there are many activities I like more than interpreting and I’m really interested in them, bud it doesn’t definitely mean that interpreting Slovak Spectator for myself or uttering a sentence an hour in an interpreting class should be enough for me. I study something called “Translating AND Interpreting”; therefore I think that good interpreting lessons should be included in it and not only as optional subjects on Friday morning.

Date: 16/01/2011

By: Anna

Subject: BREAK the WALL DOWN project

Jitka, I agree with your comment about studying. I believe I have done my very best for every subject since the 1st year and I have mostly enjoyed them as I have always been able to find some valuable about them – a trace that will forever remain in my skills, abilities, character, or ideas that will change my mind. I meant it this way: for instance, to interpret the whole Friday and then to spend “only” 3 hours on Sunday night doing my homework translation – as well as I can – instead of doing it a few days before and spending half a day over it.
I do not think that 3 good interpreters are enough for the school but it is better than just one. Have you ever given any positive feedback on the classes you really liked? Students are not used to giving any positive feedback. We rather keep complaining. I distinguish 2 types of “complaining” – the first type is just the negative complaining which, unfortunately, I have heard all my life from people around me. The result of it is only anger and bitterness, and it leads nowhere. The second type is some kind of strong dissatisfaction with the current state, the result of which is action and practical ideas in order to change and improve it. I am fed up with the first type of complaining…
…therefore I propose that all the students who are strongly disappointed with anything concerning subjects, etc…think practically and propose without anger some really good solutions and suggestions in order to improve the current situation. I propose BREAK THE WALL DOWN PROJECT in which students add their comments and come up with their suggestions.
For instance, to move English Lexicology 1 (which is now in the 3rd year summer term) to for example 4th year winter term (and Lexicology 2 to 4th summer term)–that would give the students preparing for their Bachelor exams far more time for writing their thesis and studying for state exam subjects.
Or students asked whether Doc.Vilikovský could teach translators at least 1 semester.
You would be probably surprised that there are teachers and authorities that want to hear good and practical ideas from students and improve the current state. You would be surprised that some teachers and authorities stand on our side – on the side of students. And if we break down the wall of ignorance and lack of communication, I am strongly convinced that, step by step, changes will happen.

Date: 16/01/2011

By: Ivan Lacko

Subject: This debate is ESSENTIAL

I'm glad this has come up. The major "translation and interpreting" has no substance in how it is incorporated into the faculty curriculum. Some people I know, who work as professional interpreters in the European Parliament, believe that while translation studies qualify as a college major, interpreting doesn't. As such, it is only a skill - like surgeons learn how to make incisions. But we all know what it takes - language command, psychological readiness, political, social, historical and whathaveyou overview. It clearly isn't a subject that everyone can study in first-year BA classes.
But there's more to this specific problem at our faculty than meets the eye. The problem, in my view, is something the management and teachers are not willing to admit, something the students seem to be too resigned and apathetic about. There is A WALL between the teachers (and/or faculty management) and the students. It seems insurmountable and hopelessly high.
The Faculty introduced translation and interpreting majors several years ago because THEY felt it was attractive, interesting and academic enough for prospective students. But what was done? Only a few subjects were added to the curriculum and that was it. Essentially, no change occurred. I think this wall between the teachers/staff/management and the students should be knocked down. The teachers need to know (and should want to know) what students think and how they feel (e.g. by reading Jitka's article or Anka's and Tomas's response) and then discuss these issues and relate them to their work. Likewise, students ought to complain and revolt, and bring their issues to their teachers. I know this sounds just like nice but empty phrases, but we're not going to get anywhere unless something happens. LET'S HAVE THIS DEBATE. I think the key to this is a more OPEN curriculum, one in which the students will have more freedom to choose their subjects, one in which linguistics (philology), translation, ELT, literary studies, and interpreting could be studies as separate (or combined) majors and not as a potpourri of subjects with a meaningless name. LET'S HAVE THIS DEBATE.

Date: 17/01/2011

By: Pavol Sveda

Subject: Re: This debate is ESSENTIAL

A very short reaction: As I wrote before, only a small fraction of students studying interpretation are capable of being interpreters and even a smaller fraction of them will ever interpret. The same applies more or less to translation. My question is, why should we bother everyone with the same set of classes with only a very limited degree of variability?
My proposal is to establish a fully-fledged two degree system. The first three years should be called English Philology (Bc) and should cover all the crucial things from lexicology, grammar and literature to initial introductions to translation, interpretation and teaching. After the introductory three years students would have a chance to select one from a selection of master courses: Interpretation, Translation, Literature and Writing and Teaching. This would enable a better distribution of students according to their preferences and talents…

Date: 15/01/2011

By: Tomáš

Subject: philology vs interpreting

Anna, don't you find it strange though that a major called "Translating and Interpreting" places so little emphasis on interpreting and heavily focuses on philology ? One person told me that when they went to Spain through Erasmus, their university actually had a Faculty of Translation and Interpretation where they intensively focused translating and interpreting as opposed to the Comenius University, where the study programme is essentially philological. Literary Studies and Interpreting are quite different cups of tea, don't you agree ? Especially, since conference interpreting is the most common form of interpreting in today's business world...

1 | 2 >>

New comment