lunes, 10 de febrero de 2014

Interpreters around the world: Switzerland - Bern

The interviews to interpreters of other parts of the world are still coming, I have been working way too many hours lately but I owe you one so today we are visiting Switzerland thanks to Scilla Di Donato.

[La entrevista también está en español aquí]

In the booth, ready to start in 3,2,1...

- For the last two and a half years, you have been working as an interpreter, but you have many more years of professional experience as a translator, why did you decided to start interpreting? What motivated you to do it? Can you tell us a little bit about your training as interpreter?

How football and the police lead me to become an interpreter…

So I’ve been working as a translator for longer than I care to remember, both free-lance and in-house for various companies. Since 2005 I worked part-time as an in-house translator for the Bern Police in Switzerland. One day, they asked me to be the “translator” during a peer review session on security and organization of the UEFA Euro 2008, for which Bern was to be one of the host cities. At the time, I had no idea what it meant to be an interpreter. I was asked to “translate” from and to English, German, French and Dutch, since those were the languages spoken by the peer review team. Luckily I am fluent in all 4…. But as you know, that doesn’t make you an interpreter! Anyway, it all went rather (too) smoothly and next thing I knew, I was *the* “translator” for all security briefings held in Bern for the event. The police force from the host city had the assistance of police officers and hooligan specialists from France, Italy, The Netherlands and Romania. 
At the end of that exciting but extremely difficult assignment, I decided I needed training in order to be prepared, should such a situation ever occur again.

Finding evening classes for interpreting in Switzerland proved delusional. So I went for the next best thing: an introduction course to Court Interpreting at the ZHAW (more about it here:

The course was very interesting and I thought I would be prepared should there ever be such an opportunity to interpret again.

Meanwhile, our teacher (and for this I am eternally grateful to her) thought I had an ounce of talent and suggested I should become a conference interpreter. This implied passing the admission test, starting a fulltime MA degree at 38, with a 4 hrs commute 3 times a week, while keeping my job at the police!
Getting my degree at the ZHAW in Winterthur (near Zurich) was obviously an excellent thing. They offered a custom-made program for my language combination (we were only 3 students with French A, and I was the only one in the combination Dutch-French, for which my teachers flew in from Paris and Brussels twice a month). Also the advantage of having state of the art facilities at our disposal and working in small groups made the study very efficient and of high quality.

Honestly, I never regretted the hard work and sacrifice this study implied (like giving up my social life for 2 years). I had discovered my (rather late) calling in life. I still work as a translator too, as I find both professions are complementary. I’m sure that being a translator before helped me become an interpreter, and working as an interpreter has made me a faster and more confident translator.

- You have worked part time with the Bern Police Department and now you have decided to be a freelancer full-time, that is an interesting change. What can you tell us about the interpreting market in Switzerland (from the point of view of a freelancer)? Where do you work most of the time: your city, all around the country/Europe? Which are in your opinion the usual topics for interpreting projects and, what are your areas of expertise?

The Swiss interpreting market is a very interesting one, as it consists of a private sector and of institutions, both national (governmental) and international (e.g. UN).
I work mainly on the private market, and occasionally for the public sector with the odd incursion at the Swiss parliament (photo) in Bern, which is exciting and daunting at the same time J
The majority of my assignments take place in Bern, Zurich and the area of towns and venues in between, as well as occasionally in Montreux and Lausanne.
Most clients hire me for corporate events, which are often held in 2 or 3 languages in Switzerland. I also work for sports federations, trade unions and NGOs. So the topics are immensely widespread and diverse (insurance, sports, environment, education, marketing, gastronomy, car industry…). This variety of topics is really what I love so much about my work. You get an insight in all kinds of professional environments, meet people of all walks of life and, for one day, become an expert in a field you knew nothing about the previous week…

Swiss parliament

- Do you work as consecutive and simultaneous interpreter? What are the clients asking for?

Most of my assignments are in simultaneous interpreting. I’m quite lucky as many venues in Switzerland are fitted with rather modern booths. Of course, sometimes we have to use the mobile infoport (or “bidule” as we call it) for smaller assemblies.
The only times I do consecutive is in police interpreting. I’m doing less of that nowadays, but I still get called regularly by my old colleagues, as they’re happy to have a professional to rely on when interrogating witnesses, victims or the accused. I find this area of work is often underestimated, as it is quite demanding and doesn’t have the aura of prestige that conference interpreting has. Also police interpreting is often done by non professionals; therefore it tends to suffer from poor reputation.
As a matter of fact we’re trying to tackle that problem with a training scheme to professionalise police and court interpreting in Bern. I’m currently setting up a course with a colleague. As a first step, we will provide a one-day intensive training for non professionals already working as police or court interpreters. The aim is to provide basic training in consecutive interpreting and to convey the essentials in work ethics and role understanding.
I’m aware that this is but a small drop in the ocean, but we have to start somewhere. A year from now we’ll see if the results are satisfactory and if we can take the whole scheme to the next level…

- Switzerland has 4 national languages, of which 3 are official languages. That must offer a challenge and an interesting setting for interpreters. Can you explain us a little about this? Is it necessary or just a plain good idea to work in all the 3 official languages? Which languages in general are the ones clients require the most?

With German, French and Italian as official languages, Switzerland provides the ideal playground for an interpreter. Of course, many Swiss are bilingual or at least have a basic notion of a second language. The 4th national language is Romansh, spoken by a very small minority of bilinguals and thus factually irrelevant for interpreters. On the other hand, English is taking over an increasing important place in Swiss society, as it happens that French and German speaking people will use it as lingua franca if they’re not fluent in each other’s language. For now, the impact this has on interpreting is limited, as many are aware that their fluency in the other language is indeed too limited to communicate properly and without restrictions.

In the private sector, most events take place in German and/or French, Italian being sadly neglected as the majority of Italian speaking Swiss are also fluent in a second national language. For corporate events, there will be a French/German booth (with retour) and sometimes an English booth if the client is a multinational company.

In the Swiss Parliament, debates of the National council are multilingual and simultaneously translated in all official languages. So there’s an Italian, French and German booth. It’s possible to follow the debates live in Internet streaming in all 3 languages here:

- As we are talking about Switzerland, it is impossible not to think of the UN institutions. Does having the UN have helped the way people (clients) see and understand what an interpreter is?

Clearly, international organizations such as the UN but also FIFA, UEFA, the IOC and many NGOs based in Switzerland have probably contributed to shed a light on our profession. Yet, as everywhere else, interpreting remains a bit of a mysterious profession to most. Therefore, it is important to explain to our clients why we work in pairs, why it’s useful to get documentation and gather as much information as possible before an assignment, etc.

- What can you tell us about the working conditions in Switzerland? I mean, how do you agree on payment terms, working details, do clients send material for research, do you have to be part of a specific association, etc.?

Professionals pretty much work according to AIIC standards, even if not affiliated. So we have a written contract with the customer, and, if all goes well, we get paid within 30 days.
As to material for research, it really depends on the client. Some will give you their PowerPoint presentations or speeches in advance, but more likely, you’ll get the whole batch the night before the assignment or not at all. I found that it also helped to debrief with the client after the assignment, stressing again how useful it is to have access to research material beforehand and how it increases the quality of our work.
In Switzerland there are several associations of translators and interpreters. I’m affiliated to the DÜV – Interpreters’ and Translators’ Association, which also runs its own agency.

- Networking seems to be the Holy Grail in the industry, do you agree? How do you approach networking?

Of course, being affiliated to an association or an agency does not guarantee that you will work. Here too, networking is the ultimate recipe. During my studies, I’ve had the good fortune to have teachers who are also active professionals. They introduced me to the market, having me as booth mate on their own assignments, some of them recruiting me repeatedly and becoming regular colleagues. It’s incredibly helpful to have this kind of support when you start out. Then of course, the quality of your work is your best asset. Switzerland is a small country and word spreads fast. Once a client is happy, he’ll call on you again, tell people about you. Sure, this knife cuts both ways: mess up, and it’ll be known all around…
I’ve not yet devised a networking strategy. In fact, I’m not even listed in the phone book! Until this point, direct contact with clients and fellow interpreters has proven successful.

- What has been the most peculiar (weird) thing that you have encountered in the job?

Somehow, I always hear funny anecdotes from your colleagues, and they seem to have many up their sleeves. It’s true that due to the stress in the booth, sometimes awkward and hilarious situations arise. But they would be “inside jokes” and not fun for our readers.
Instead let me tell you of a moment that I found both deeply moving and extremely challenging:
After giving a speech on motivation, sports and work-life balance, a former Swiss politician answered a few questions from the audience. It was my last turn of the day, my booth mate already packing her stuff and preparing to leave. Everything was going smoothly until a question from the audience got an unexpected and very personal answer. The speaker, who had just published his autobiography, started telling about the recent and unexpected death of his son and how this was affecting him and his wife. He was so candid about this deeply touching tragedy that everyone in the audience was in tears. As it happens, the booth was located in such way that I could see the audience as well as the speaker. At that point, seeing all these people so moved and realising what was actually being said, I had to choke back tears of my own, and found it very difficult to keep a steady voice. I pressed the mute button, closed my eyes, took a deep breath and started talking again, in a lower voice, closer to the microphone concentrating on my breathing. This got me through it, and I managed to finish in a tone that was as close as possible to the one of the dignified speaker. Afterwards, I realised that this was probably the only situation my training hadn’t prepared me for.

- Is the economic crisis affecting the market in Switzerland? If so, how?

I can’t speak for the whole Swiss market, but in my area things seem rather stable at this point. Now and then it happens that a client turns down a quote, saying that it’s too expensive. But I’m unable to determine whether this is crisis related or simply a matter of trying to negotiate rates. Anyhow I never lower my rates in order to get a job; this would have a very negative impact on our line of work. We would never ask dentists or surgeons for example to lower their rates, as we expect a professional service from them. I don’t’ see why this shouldn’t apply to interpreters or translators.

- Final question, one a bit more personal: Why are you the Elusive Interpreter? ;)

I find that interpreters are elusive by definition. We are ghosts, a mere voice in people’s ears, mostly invisible… and yet essential. It’s a job that suits my shy yet extrovert nature. I love being tucked away in the booth, far from people’s scrutiny, and yet getting their attention.
Just like actors, we become the speaker’s voice, so what we do does matter; but who we are, is ultimately of no consequence.
Another contradiction that makes this job such a fascinating one….

A booth with a view (a tasty one!)

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