Katarína Skačániová: I would miss interpreting very much
Did you know that the European Union is the world’s biggest employer of interpreters? Every day Brussels hosts dozens of meetings that require conference interpreting. As a result, European institutions are teeming with thousands of interpreters from all over Europe. They currently employ about 90 interpreters from Slovakia: over 60 of them are accredited freelancers and the remaining 30 work in Brussels on a permanent or temporary basis. Most of them are graduates of the translation and interpreting programme at Comenius University or the European Course of Conference Interpreting (ECCI), which our Faculty has been organizing since 2002. Perspectives talked to one of them, Katarína Skačániová, Head of the Slovak Unit at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Interpretation in Brussels, while she was on a lecture tour of Slovak universities in the spring earlier this year.
Perspectives (PP): We have heard that you graduated from the Faculty of Arts of Comenius University. Would you say that school gave you sufficient preparation for your present job? Where did you practice interpreting? Did you practice at school, at home, did you travel a lot, or did you simply have a talent for languages?
Katarína Skačániová (KS): Of course, school does not prepare you for everything that you can potentially encounter in your professional life. This especially applies to such unpredictable and adrenaline-rushing professions as interpreting. What I personally got from university was a great language training and a very good idea of what I wanted to do after graduation. I learned a lot of what I know today at school, I also used to practice by myself at home, and the rest I learned on the run. I am still learning things on the run even today. Not all of my classmates became interpreters and not all of those who became interpreters work in Brussels. The majority of Slovak interpreters accredited by European institutions are graduates from the Faculty of Arts of Comenius University. They either graduated from the faculty’s translation and interpreting programme or attended the post-graduate course titled “The European Course of Conference Interpreting” (ECCI). At the moment, there are 63 Slovak freelance interpreters working for European institutions. Twenty-one of them are ECCI graduates and the remaining eighteen graduated from the Faculty of Arts. Furthermore, out of the twelve full-time employees of the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Interpretation, six completed the ECCI course and another three, including me, studied at the Faculty of Arts of Comenius University in Bratislava. There is a similar situation in the European Parliament. Out of the current eleven employees, six took the ECCI course and three are former students of the Faculty of Arts. In other words, my alma mater continues to be the royal provider of interpreters for European institutions, as we say back in the Kingdom of Belgium.
PP: What is the European Course of Conference Interpreting? Does every interpreter interested in working for the EU have to take it in order to get accredited?
KS: The European Course of Conference Interpreting (ECCI) is a great way to prepare for the accreditation test that all future EU interpreters have to take. Although it is true that some graduates of translation and interpreting could pass the test without any special preparation, they would have a very tough time in the booth for the first few months and might in the end find the job unbearable. The reason why ECCI is a great way of preparation for the work in Brussels is that the interpreter is continuously in touch with topics that will be the alpha and omega of his future job. The ECCI course devotes a whole year to preparation for the accreditation test. The first semester focuses on consecutive and the second on simultaneous interpreting.
PP: What is the accreditation test? How many candidates usually pass it?
KS: For the Slovak booth there is one accreditation test a year and it’s usually held at the end of June. The ECCI course ends in May and interpreters have a whole month to prepare for the test. They are welcome to come to Brussels and train in a dummy booth for a week or two. We normally invite up to twelve people to come to the testing session (the number of people registered on the waiting list is between twenty and thirty). We select the candidates according to their language combination. Six out of twelve candidates passed the accreditation test last year, which is a record pass rate. A standard pass rate is about thirty per cent.
PP: What does the accreditation test consist of?
KS: The test consists of various disciplines. The minimum linguistic profile of the candidate has to be A-C-C or A-B (A-mother tongue, B – second active language, C-passive language). The candidate can choose whether he or she wants to begin with consecutive or simultaneous interpretation and also the language of the session. I recommend that you begin with your strongest foreign language, Language B that is. The rest of the session is determined by the testing committee. Some committees proceed by dividing the session into two blocks by language (let’s say, the first discipline was consecutive and simultaneous interpretation from English, and then from French) or by interpretation type (consecutive with English and French and then simultaneous with the respective languages). Candidates get excluded after each round, i.e. if a candidate fails, for example, the consecutive interpretation part, he or she cannot proceed to the next round.
PP: What is the best way to prepare for the accreditation test?
KS: The best way is to take the ECCI course first. Then, use web-based speech repositories, acquire good general knowledge in various fields and follow what is happening in the EU. In addition, all candidates have the right of access to the Speech Repository, which is a collection of public speeches from European institutions and organizations. I would also recommend practicing by recording yourselves interpreting. You can work in groups of two, but it is even better to practice in larger numbers in order to simulate the testing atmosphere. Before the test itself, you can, as I’ve already mentioned, practice in the dummy booth. You are allowed to come for two weeks, but you can also stay for a couple of days only. It is fully up to you. The travel expenses and accommodation for the night before the test are fully covered by the European Union. All other expenses are to be paid by the candidates themselves, and it is up to them to decide how much use they will make of the dummy booth. Those who have successfully completed the ECCI course have the highest pass rate.
PP: Can anyone become a successful interpreter?
KS: No, I don’t think so. However, if you have at least some basic talent and do your best to improve your skills and knowledge, then it is not impossible. You should have a love for languages and enjoy working with them.
PP: Which languages do interpreters mostly work with?
KS: We mostly interpret from English, but also from French, German, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian. The biggest demand is for English, French and German in whatever combination.
PP: In the previous years, only one foreign language was required from applicants, but nowadays they are required to speak two foreign languages. Why is it like that?
KS: Yes, we used to require only one foreign language from our applicants, but the current situation is different. A large number of colleagues managed to extend their language combinations to A-B-C, A-B-C-C or A-C-C-C and a newcomer with only one passive language would hardly get any work from the EU institutions. Hence, we decided to increase our expectations and made the knowledge of two working foreign languages a requirement.
PP: It is said that working in Brussels inspires people to take up new languages. Is it true?
KS: Brussels exudes a multicultural atmosphere. Every day one comes into contact with a great variety of languages, which in turn motivates interpreters to take up new ones. The greatest polyglot in the Slovak cabin is one of our colleagues, whose language combination is A- EN(B), DE(B), FR(C) and SV(C). Of course, the pay is the same for all freelance interpreters regardless of the number of working languages or combination.
PP: Could you describe a regular day in the life of an interpreter working in the EU?
KS: On average, an interpreter works eight hours a day. Nobody is allowed to work for more than ten hours. Our unions have won very good working conditions for us. They are much better than what we’d have in Slovakia and they even surpass those in the United Nations. From time to time, there are exceptional events, such as sessions of the Council of Ministers, European summits etc. In that case, we agree in advance to work for more than eight hours in return for an extra day off.
There are always three interpreters in a booth who take turns every twenty to thirty minutes. The third one can go for a walk, have a breath of fresh air or check his or her email. After four hours of work, we have a lunch break, which cannot be shorter than ninety minutes. The meetings usually start at 9:00 a.m. in the European parliament, at 10:00 at the Council of Ministers, at about one we have a ninety-minute lunch break and then go on interpreting for another four hours.
Some conferences take place at night and may last until the break of dawn. (Imagine the topic discussed is “Fishing quotas in European waters”.) Some parties may use the strategy of having negotiations last through the night in order to tire their opponents and force them to make concessions. The rules, however, say that we cannot be assigned more than one late night meeting a week and when we are, we have a day off the following day.
PP: Is it possible to be well-prepared every day?
KS: A different theme is interpreted every day; nevertheless, it is always possible to get well prepared. You have access to the next day's programme the night before the conference. Each document starts with an explanatory memorandum, which is an introduction to the given topic (it is usually about five pages long). You can usually get by with reading this only. In addition, you also have glossaries at your hand and other documents, which are printed out for you and placed in your booth each morning.
PP: In your experience, what is the optimal psychological makeup of an interpreter?
KS: There are several myths about the minds of interpreters. In one famous study, simultaneous interpreters were connected to an encephalogram and the results obtained showed that their brains’ activity was identical to that of a person with schizophrenia during a nervous breakdown. Furthermore, it is also said that the stress a simultaneous interpreter works under is comparable to that of a pilot flying a supersonic aircraft. However, it is all a question of talent, practice, preparation, but also of relaxation, and of your interest in the topic to be interpreted. You may interpret topics like GDP or the slaughter of baby chickens, and in that case you may become a vegetarian as I did (laughs).
PP: Could you give some advice to those interested in becoming interpreters in European institutions?
KS: It is necessary that interpreters, like workers in other fields, organize their time well. Upon coming home, one should find time to relax. It is also very important that people are not possessed by their work and that they do not waste their energy dwelling on the mistakes they may have made while interpreting. Interpreters are usually perfectionists but they have to come to terms with the fact that although they may put all their energy into their work, the results will not always be perfect. Sometimes even the best interpreters receive negative feedback from delegates (for various reasons). Very often, we are looking for the right word during the whole meeting and we only find it afterwards, when we go down in a lift. It is the so-called “lift syndrome” (laughs).
PP: Where should those interested in an interpreting career start? What kind jobs should they apply for? How did you get your start as an interpreter?
KS: During my university studies I did several jobs. I taught French and German at a language school, I gave private Slovak lessons, I worked for an Austrian News Agency and later I became an assistant professor at the Department of Romance Languages. I also worked as a guide/interpreter for a French businessman in Slovakia, which was very interesting, and I like remembering those days. The job allowed me to visit several manufacturing companies. I could see how sports bags are sewn for example or how spare parts are produced. It all taught me a lot and it was probably at this time that I became infected with the interpreter’s virus. The virus forces you to plunge into new territories, which may be unknown to you and which you will never completely understand, but you will try hard to learn the relevant vocabulary in order to bridge the communication gap between real professionals of the respective fields. An interpreter never stops learning, acquiring new knowledge even after retiring from his or her active career. It is addictive. That is probably the reason why there is hardly any staff turnover among interpreters. However, outside observers usually think that one cannot stand the life behind the glass for very long as it involves working with one’s brain at ultrasonic speeds.
I started doing some serious conference interpreting by taking a suicidal step into the unknown when I accepted an offer to interpret at a conference about the quality of water. The job involved consecutive interpreting in front of a large audience and honestly, I do not know where I mustered all that courage, because not even today, despite my experience, would I cope with such a task easily. I survived the ordeal though and after some time I took up another adrenaline rushing job. Later on I dared to enter the booth. I developed contacts and step-by-step I began to interpret on a regular basis. I never specialized in a specific field during my days in the private sector, except for several loyal customers for whom I provided translation and interpretation services. Of course, this was an ideal situation because after some time I began to actually understand what I was interpreting. As far as aspiring interpreters are concerned, it’s not a bad idea to accept the post of an intra-company or an institution interpreter/translator at the beginning, and after gaining some experience and contacts and connections, to become a freelance interpreter. Another possibility is interpreting for European institutions, which provide opportunities even for young and less experienced interpreters. Several colleagues of mine from Slovakia jump-started their interpreting careers this way just a few years after graduating from university. It was, of course, very demanding for them. But if you are interested in a career of conference interpreter in Brussels, the best way to get prepared for it is to sign up for the ECCI. I know, however, that the current situation for interpreters in the Slovak market is not very optimistic and finding a place in the private sector right after school is quite difficult.
PP: If we understand well, you are in charge of a whole team of Slovak interpreters. How did you manage to obtain such a post? What advantages does your job bring?
KS: I was appointed Head of the Slovak Unit at European Commission’s Directorate-General for Interpretation in April 2009 when Annica Ostlund, the then head of the Slovak booth, resigned for personal reasons. It is a temporary appointment until the selection process is completed. I was the most senior employee in the Slovak unit, you see. The job of the head of the booth involves making sure that there is a sufficient number of high quality interpreters available for our clients, overseeing the quality of interpreting, communicating with customers, in our case, Slovak diplomats based in Brussels, and leading the team. Unlike other colleagues who have managerial jobs, I have the advantage of being able to continue interpreting, let’s say, at least three days in a week. My work does not differ much from that of my colleagues – I have to get prepared for meetings, write down the relevant vocabulary and work with the interpreting team the whole day. Otherwise, I would miss interpreting very much.
PP: Is there a motto that you live by? That helps you in your everyday life?
KS: Of all historical figures, I like Gandhi the most. He is the author of many wise quotes and I especially like the one which says that one should be the change that one would like to see in the world. It may sound like a cliché, but it is very easy to apply in everyday life. When we are whining about something, we should always ask ourselves whether we can take the initial step to change.
Anna Kosperová & Tomáš Buš
Photos: Katarína Skačániová