Following last week’s popular post #Interpreters – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, I continue my blogging on what I have seen, heard and experienced as a professional interpreter and translator working in the UK.
A word of declaration – all incidents cited in my posts are real events, while caution is exercised to keep client confidentiality and in line with professional etique. All views are my own, although given my many years of research experience, I try to project them as objectively as I can. No offence is intended towards anyone and any organisation.
Part of the attraction of being a freelance interpreter, for me, has been its variety of assignments and associated flexibility – you never know who will call that day and where you would end up – it could be in a magnificent court house in the centre of a fabulous city, or a dodgey brothel tucked away in a residential area; maybe a high security prison in the middle of nowhere. Different locations aside, the nature of the job is varied too – one day in a posh hotel for a fancy meal with VIPs, and the next day ‘hanging out’ with criminals in Police cells. While some work in well-equipped conference rooms, jet-setting across the globe in business class, others risk their lives in war-torn countries like Afghanistan or Iraq – what’s the worst scenario that has ever happened to an interpreter?
I have not been to war zones; only read the dangers and horrors of interpreters working under tremendously difficult situations. Have you read the stories about the disputes over the interpreters’ rights to stay in the UK after they had helped the British army in Afghanistan during the war (BBC reports)?
I am not sure what I would classify as ‘happy’ interpreting occasions: I guess different people would have a different definition of ‘happiness’ anyway. There are certainly fun and joyful moments in interpreting. It could be a brief moment when you laughed to your heart’s content, despite it being a serious situation but it was so funny that you could not keep a straight face even if you try. I have had a few such moments, where a client made a silly or innocent remark, which was just too hilarious not to giggle or laugh out loud.
There are truly happy occasions too – I have come across a blog by a colleague Maria Elena in Italy who wrote about interpreters present in weddings, being a part of the celebration (mariaelenaleta.it/en/interpreti-e-traduttori-con-lieto-fine). About a few years ago, I was asked to interpret in a wedding in a Register Office, where a pretty, much younger Chinese woman married an elderly English gentleman. Although it was a joyful event, I was not there to celebrate their union, but to do a job, making sure that the bride understood the procedure. I must admit that I felt a little sorry for her, not because of the obvious age difference between her and her groom. I wondered – how are you going to communicate with your man, who obviously speaks no Chinese at all? I prayed that she would pick up English soon, as there would be no interpreter around once the wedding was over.
Due to the nature of my work, there are many emotional ups and downs, perhaps more than the average 9 to 5 office job. I remember vividly a visit to a police station in the middle of a winter night. A young Chinese student was detained, weeks after he had arrived in the UK – he was involved in an horrific road accident which killed one of his best friends and critically injured another, all because he wanted to show off his new sports car to his mates and drove dangerously in terrible weather conditions. This incident left such an deep impact on my psyche that I decided to include it in Land of Hope. I was saddened, drained both physically and mentally by the time I left him and the Police cell, after the long interview.
As a professional interpreter, we are not supposed to get emotionally involved with a case, but as with all flesh and blood human beings, can we actually achieve that level of detachment? In Land of Hope, I have created a character Pearl Zhang, a Chinese interpreter, a highly qualified, experienced, professional interpreter. While most of the time, she goes about her job as she was trained to do and doing her best; at times, she acts beyond her professional instinct and gets entangled with the web of danger and deceit of her clients, which eventually costs her dear.
Although the stories in Land of Hope are fictional, they reflect reality in the modern world and were inspired by many real-life events and people; I know some of my colleagues have come across powerful and heart-wrenching incidents, and in my book, I could only shed light on a small part of an interpreter’s life. With what I have seen and heard in my career, I could easily write half a dozen more books on this still mysterious, little-known profession.
Some days being an interpreter can be a pell-mell, roller coaster ride – I have more heart-breaking and horrific stories to share, so come back next week for the second part of this blog. In the meantime, if you are curious about Pearl’s adventure in Land of Hope, download a copy from Amazon.
- “A totally, captivating, and powerfully potent suspense thriller. The book is cleverly written with the emotions, lives and outcomes of all the main characters, interpreted and told through the eyes of the book’s main character, Pearl Zhang, the story sucks you in immediately.” – J J Collins’ Review.
You can also check out: An Insider’s Review of Land of Hope: From a Romanian Interpreter’s Perspective.