Helping People Understand Each Other

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Елена Толмач

In my childhood my father worked first as a translator and then as an interpreter. So I was able to see both positive and negative sides of the two jobs. I can still visualize him sitting well into the night with sheets of technical texts and dictionaries all over the table. There was no Internet at that time and he had to have my mother by his side as a counsellor on the technical part (she was a computer programmer). I didn’t envy him at all at such moments.

As an interpreter Dad visited more than 30 countries. I could have envied him then if I hadn’t noticed that he was not his own master. He had to accompany foreigners whenever and wherever it was necessary: to the circus, theatres, cinemas, restaurants and so on. His working day wasn’t over with the sunset. He could hardly afford to make any arrangements with friends and I don’t remember a single time when he was able to accompany Mum, sister and me on holiday.

So even entering the faculty of foreign languages I had a very clear idea that I didn’t want to be an interpreter like most of my fellow students. I was sure that although the profession may suit men and unmarried women, it can’t be the choice of a family woman… until I met Elena Tolmuch (ladywdele.org) who seems to be quite happy in her job. I couldn’t miss such an opportunity and asked Elena to answer my eager questions.

Olga: Elena, what exactly does your job entail and how do you manage to combine it with having a family?

Elena: Well, at first I’d like to clarify that these days I work as a translator only. When I was single, I greatly enjoyed working as an interpreter. Yes, I agree with you, Olga, this is an extremely hard job because you need to be always ready to interpret, even if you’re very tired or not feeling well. But this job gives you much more opportunities for self-education than any other job is able to give.

When I was a fourth-year university student, one of my friends invited me to interpret for a group of American surgeons. They brought new orthopedic surgery equipment to Russia, and the clinic in which they were going to demonstrate that equipment invited 2 interpreters. So me and my friend got this job. At that moment I thought that I was quite a professional translator because we had had translation and interpreting classes.

I thought that I would just spend a couple of days getting prepared for this job, and that would be enough. I made a list of anatomical terms, examined a site devoted to that very equipment – the site was in English – and I decided that I was absolutely ready.

To my great surprise, at the very first day I found out that I was blissfully ignorant about this job. Of course, I could speak English and simultaneously translate from English into Russian and vice versa. But when the doctors started examining patients they were going to operate on using the equipment that they had brought from the US, I was taken aback. I didn’t know how to describe symptoms and diagnoses in English and translate them properly from English into Russian. Despite all my preparation, things didn’t go as planned.

I’m so glad that those American doctors gave us a second chance. They liked the fact that we were eager to learn and tried to memorize all the terms as quickly as possible. Two days later, we knew practically everything concerning orthopedic anatomy, surgical instruments, symptoms, and so on. We had to interpret for them almost everywhere – in operation rooms (it was an unforgettable experience), during numerous conferences and business meetings, in restaurants and on picnics. I had to come to the clinic at 8 a.m. and I could go home no earlier than 10-11 p.m., because we were to accompany the doctors everywhere they wanted to go.

When this practice was over, we went back to our classes at the University, but at that time we had a great experience of interpreting and could teach our teachers a lot . As a result of that experience I received an invitation to take part in a multi-national medical conference held in Germany as an interpreter (the working language was English but I also studied German and at that time I could speak it quite fluently). Then followed a job in the International Language Center where I worked both as a translator from Turkish and English into Russian and as a teacher of Turkish, English, and Russian as a foreign language. The most outstanding event at that time was interpreting for the Ambassador of Turkey to Russia during the opening ceremony of the Turkish Language Center.

By the way, that first interpreting experience influenced my friend’s career choice. She graduated from the University, went to the USA and entered one of the best medical schools. She’ll become a doctor soon!

Four years ago, I got married and a year later became a mother. I quit my job and decided that I had to devote all my time to my baby. But very soon I started forgetting foreign languages. So I tried to find a way of combining both my motherly responsibilities with professional skills, and started working as a freelance translator.

Olga: Elena, thank you very much for such an expanded answer which gave me an opportunity to get an insight into your professional life. You’ve had a bright and exciting career. You mention simultaneous translation. I’ve never met a person with such a skill before. To me it is something beyond the mind’s capacity. Could you go into more detail about it, please? How does it feel to listen and speak at the same time? What does it take to learn doing it?

Elena: Simultaneous translation — to be more exact, simultaneous interpreting — is one of the hardest tasks that I’ve come across during my career. As rules say, the interpreter sits in a special booth wearing headphones and speaks into a microphone. But in reality most of simultaneous interpreting is done in a form of whispered interpreting, or chuchotage. In this case no interpreting equipment is required and the interpreter stays close to the listener and interprets in a low voice.

Here’s one important thing to note: simultaneous interpreting is not actually simultaneous. It is performed with a short delay between 3 to 5 seconds, since you have to get at least some information to start interpreting. And it’s extremely difficult, because you have to interpret, listen to the speaker, and try not to make mistakes while interpreting. According to general recommendations simultaneous interpreters should request breaks every 30 minutes, but practice shows that usually it’s not possible, especially if there’re no other interpreters who can change you.

So this is a very stressful job. I believe it suits really stress-resistant people, and I’m not one of them. If I had to choose between simultaneous and consecutive interpreting (and during consecutive interpreting you start interpreting after the speaker has expressed his/her thought and made a pause), I would choose the latter.

As far as learning is concerned, I’d like to thank our university teachers for their professionalism, patience and a strong desire to teach us to translate and interpret. But knowledge alone is not enough, and to become a good interpreter one should practice a lot.

Olga: Elena, I am very much impressed. What is it that appeals to you most in the profession?

Elena: I guess it is both freedom of choice and an endless variety of texts for translation. I’m speaking about freedom of choice because as I’ve mentioned before I’m a freelance translator now. I do not depend on my company policy anymore, and no one tells me what I have to do. I’m my own master now, and it’s what I like most of all.

For instance, I’m asked to translate a manual to some equipment. Well, I have an opportunity to say “no” and translate an article on healthy eating instead, just because the latter one is what I’m personally interested in. I didn’t have such freedom when I worked for a company, because I had to translate what I was told to translate, even if I didn’t like the task at all.

Well, maybe one day I’ll get fed up with the Internet and start longing for an office job, but right now freelancing is quite OK for me.

And I like the fact that my knowledge helps people understand each other, conclude contracts and agreements, and use texts translated by me for their research work, etc.

I like teaching, too, but it gives me much less moral satisfaction than translating. I believe it’s because teaching is a long-term process and usually you can’t see a result right away. Some time should pass before you start receiving some feedback from your students. I’m probably too impatient to wait for the results

Olga: I see, Elena. As far as I understand, you like English very much. What makes you learn other languages?

Elena: Curiosity and a desire to be a good translator. In my opinion one foreign language is not enough if you want to be a very good translator.

Oh, by the way, there’s one more reason for learning other languages. Have you ever heard that learning foreign languages boosts memory and concentration? I believe that learning new languages can be compared to a youth potion for the brain.

Olga: You know, Elena, there is something in what you say. Learning languages does develop lots of learners’ abilities among which I can list not only memory and concentration, but also self-discipline and organization, logical thinking combined with creativity, communication skills and many others. And what I like most of all about knowing a foreign language is that it gives a slightly new perspective on life. Would you like your child to follow in your footsteps?

Elena: It’s a difficult question. I would like my daughter to be a good person, first of all. As for her career choice, I’ll leave it up to her. If she decides to learn foreign languages and follow in my footsteps, I’ll support her decision. But if she says that languages are not what she’s dreaming of, I won’t insist upon learning them, because the process of learning should not be stressful.

Well, I would like her to know English since it’s become a language of international communication, and if a person speaks English, he or she has more career opportunities than those who don’t know speak it at all. I’ve started teaching my daughter English recently – of course, we don’t have classes, we just play and speak English at the same time – and I see that she certainly likes it. But if she says “No” to English when she grows older, I won’t be a tyrant.

I think it’s necessary to listen to your child and try to develop your child’s talents — and every child has a talent. We as parents need to support these talents and remember that our children are individuals with their own inclinations and desires, and their desires may not coincide with our opinions and viewpoints.

I’m very grateful that my parents let me learn what I wanted to learn, though they wanted me to be a lawyer or a doctor. Now being a mother myself I understand that it was not an easy decision for them, and I hope that I’ll be wise enough not to obtrude my opinion upon my daughter. Talking is always easier than doing, isn’t it?

Olga: Yes, definitely. I am sure you will succeed in instilling a love of English in your daughter. Elena, I’m glad our interview has taken place. I’ve learned a lot about your profession, though it may be more appropriate to call it a lifestyle. Thank you very much and good luck to you in your job and family life.

chicaandaluza аватар

Great post - I am in awe of interpreters. Although I speak a few languages, the skills needed to do this are incredible. And then to combine this with being a mother....lost for words!

Елена Толмач аватар

Thank you! Your comment has really made me blush Happy

amblerangel аватар

Very interesting. I so admire people who can speak multiple languages!

Елена Толмач аватар

Thank you so much!

Michi аватар

This was a very helpful and interesting post! I am currently getting my Master's in Specialized Translation and am getting to the level of being able to translate from English into Spanish, and vice versa, simultaneously. Normal day-to-day conversations are easy enough, but the more technical and specific the conversation, the more difficult it gets! Translating texts are a bit better, though more tedious and less thrilling in my opinion. Thank you for writing this post! This helps me sort things out a bit while I try and figure out my true career.

Елена Толмач аватар

I do agree, Michi. Translating texts both less thrilling and less stressfull than interpreting. BTW, good luck with your career choice!

Ariana@Pearl's twirl аватар

Olga, I love your interviews. You find the most interesting people. Elena, thank you so much for allowing us to see part of your professional world.

admin Olga-ekb аватар

Thank you, Ariana. Happy

Елена Толмач аватар

Thank you, Ariana!

Be аватар

Hi Olga - I really enjoyed reading your interview with Elena, its filled with a lot of info and gives us all a real insight into her career.

Hello Elena - you sound like you have had wonderful experiences and are enjoying your life greatly. I so agree with you about allowing children to follow their own dreams. Parents sometimes forget that their children are individuals and have their own talents and ideas about what they wish to do in life.

lovely to hear from you Happy

admin Olga-ekb аватар

Hello, Beverley. Glad to see you. Happy

Елена Толмач аватар

Thank you, Beverley! I’m so glad I’m not alone in my opinion Happy

kitchenmudge аватар

Very interesting post. Maybe Elena has something to say about the folowing:

I'm guessing that when people meet with the use of an interpreter, and it's very important for communication to be accurate, they need to restrict their own speech to what's in the dictionary and avoid anything new or obscure in their conversational language, to avoid tripping the interpreter up.

Any stories to tell about getting tripped up?

See my own language-related posts for some oddities in the way English-speakers use their own language:
http://kitchenmudge.wordpress.com/2011/06/18/watch-your-language/
http://kitchenmudge.wordpress.com/2011/07/05/a-good-whine-i-believe-ill-...

Елена Толмач аватар

Thank you! Luckily I have not come across such situations))

kitchenmudge аватар

What do you think of the babelfish hypothesis, mentioned toward the end of this video clip:

If people could understand each other perfectly across cultures, would that lead to less, or more conflict?

Anastasia аватар

Elena, you mentioned you would like your daughter to learn English. I would suggest to think about Chinese also Happy It may be good for the carrier.

Елена Толмач аватар

It’s a good idea! Happy Unfortunately I don’t speak Chinese(( So maybe we should start learning it together?))

marinamybusychildren аватар

Elena:
This is so awesome and impressive how you learned about all the medical terms so quickly!

I used to be an interpreter when I was in the university (German and English to Russian) and I thought it was the most amazing professions. I got to learn so much and go to so many places. I could not imagine doing this now when I am married and have kids

thissweetwife аватар

This was very interesting. I too was impressed with how quickly you were able to learn the medical terms. I'm awful with languages so I speak only english but have so often wished it were not so. It's wonderful that you're skills have brought so many great opportunites for new experiences.

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