The article Spreading the Word by Sarah Griffin-Mason in the May-June issue of the ITI Bulletin struck a chord with me. It encourages us as linguists to educate the general public about the value we bring as professionals within a bigger picture. We are not talking about the grand scheme of things, but speaking at local business networking events, writing short articles for specialist periodicals or doing awareness sessions at primary schools would do the trick.
I was lucky: just before Christmas last year the primary school my son goes to offered me an opportunity to talk to the Year 5-6 pupils about what I do as a translator and interpreter. I didn't even have to float the idea to the school so I embraced it with welcome arms.
The children and teacher found my introduction to the profession very revealing and challenging. I started off with a linguist’s favourite: I asked the children to explain the difference between a translator and interpreter. One answer came quite close and I was pleased to put them out of their misery eventually and I hope they remember the distinction between the written and the spoken word.
A few children in the class were from multilingual families so when we got to discussing the qualities a linguist should possess, they came up with good ideas. It seemed natural to them that the job is about speaking both languages proficiently and the work often involved stressful environments (they did give an example of police interpreting). I was able to build up on that by showing them photographs of my own projects: interpreting on the stage of the Royal Albert Hall for a high profile event, working with a delegation of Russian officials and being an interpreter for a group of businessmen who came to the UK to examine British agricultural equipment, to name a few. There was a good example to give: an interpreter should be like a duck, above the surface look calm and unruffled, below the surface paddle like hell!
I emphasised the importance of skills which may not appear apparent to primary school children: the knowledge of the subject matter, good writing and IT skills, cultural understanding, the ability to work to tight deadlines and accept late night call-outs, working with vulnerable people and with those who pose a threat to personal safety. Another factor the children agreed with me about as being challenging was the unpredictability of our job when we work for ourselves. I explained to the children that when you run your own business, there are certain sacrifices we have to make.
By giving personal examples, my message was clear: good translators are not born overnight, it involves training, experience and determination to succeed, with a bit of luck. I was trying to put a message across that linguists need to have an enquiring mind, a broad outlook and be a positive force regardless of the job: may it be interpreting in a doctor’s surgery, at a conference, or translating a product description or a children’s cartoon.
There was no doubt in the class about the job being fascinating and rewarding, and what we do certainly seemed unusual to them. The second part of my session was about the language I work with – Russian – and that was also a good opportunity to enrich the children’s knowledge about the Russian language and culture. At the end of my lesson they had to tell me one phrase in Russian which they remembered and one significant number about the Russian language or culture based on the stories and facts I related to them. For instance, they remembered that the Russian alphabet has 33 letters and that Russian Orthodox Christmas is celebrated on 7th January.
Could more linguists suggest such sessions at local schools? I certainly think so. My lesson didn't involve any advanced high tech, just books, photographs, worksheets, colouring pencils, use of the school projector, an online video and a skilfully-designed and thought through lesson plan. A bit of preparation and at the end there was one happy visiting lecturer and a bunch of amused children with their grateful teacher!
A version of this article has since been published in the July-August 2016 issue of the Bulletin, a bi-monthly magazine of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting.
[Tip: if you need a Russian interpreter or require a translation, please call us on 0207 0436940 or email email@example.com.]