Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Next year at Cambridge

So, I've had a great 4 months on my summer break, not doing very much academic work, exploring different countries and generally pretending that I have no other responsibilities. This has been great fun.

Somewhat unfortunately, I have to return to university now. Part of me is looking forward to this, because the topics I wasn't enjoying as much last year (read: Russian literature) are no more, and I am free to focus on linguistics, languages and language acquisition. There is, however, another part of me that wonders why I am going back into such a stressful environment. I am not sure how much of the reason that I am at Cambridge is because I felt that I couldn't turn down the opportunity, even though the environment is not always the best.

That's not to say that I didn't have fun last year, during my first year - I did. It's just that there are a lot of people who, possibly by dint of being so impossibly gifted in their particular field, are quite eccentric and even deficient in some other areas. This makes Cambridge folk rather tiring to be around at times, especially in greater numbers.

But did I perhaps ought to be as eccentric as they are? The problem with trying to work out whether you are doing alright or not is that, because all of the people around you also attend Cambridge, you are invariably comparing yourself to people who are at the end of any given spectrum, and what's more, you're only comparing yourself to the ones functional enough to emerge from their rooms and engage in social interaction. As a result you are left in a sort of limbo, where you know fine well that compared to the general population you are much more X than Y, and yet compared to the people around you at Cambridge you seem to be verging on nothingness, such is the extent of your non-eccentricity. And by 'you', of course, I mean 'me'.

Ah well. I suspect I will enjoy the chaos once I get back into the swing of it!

Photos from Russia

This post is a bit self indulgent, but there are lots of pretty photos to distract you.

The above photos are of the Winter Palace, which contains the Hermitage museum. A truly magnificent building, particularly Western.

The Bronze Horseman (see Pushkin's poem)

Church on the Spilled Blood, very reminiscent of St Basil's in Moscow.

The city was in parts very western-looking, in parts very Russian, and very Soviet. Quite an interesting contrast, that doesn't necessarily contradict itself.

Here you see several different types of meals - pancakes (called blini, can be sweet or savoury), the breakfast that we received in St Petersburg (accompanied by "You westerners like this sort of thing. We don't.") and a canteen ("stolovaya") meal. The latter is very cultural, and not limited to school but can be found everywhere around the city, even now. The prices are so cheap that it is cheaper to eat at a stolovaya than to cook for yourself, but on the downside I think I ate 5 fruit and veg in the entire 3 week stay. I'm gonna need a better plan if I'm staying longer next time...!

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

More thoughts on St Petersburg

I'm just back from St Petersburg, and in just a few days I will be heading back to university to start the 2nd year of my degree. Here are a few more of my thoughts about my time in Russia:

As per usual when abroad, I give myself away immediately with the volume of "please, thank you and excuse me"s. Something that did surprise me, though, is that no one once thanked me for holding open the door for them, nor did they do so for me unless really it was unavoidable, even though to me this is the most basic form of human politeness.

It seems that there are a few metro rules that we didn't get the hang of, since talking at all did get us looked at funny (even told off on a few occasions), and there is a massive temperature difference between outside and in the metro itself, uncomfortably so, yet it appears to be an unspoken rule that no one should remove their coat even when visibly melting on the tube. I possibly marked myself out as a tourist straight away by taking off a few layers in response to a 20 degree jump, but I was the only one in the carriage who could breathe comfortably, so who's daft now?

The metro in St Petersburg really is beautiful, lots of granite and casual Soviet symbols, and with the longest escalators I have ever seen descending down for a solid few minutes, you have time to admire your surroundings (seriously, when you are halfway down/up, you can see neither end of the escalator, very disorientating!). One journey costs about 40p and is therefore exceptionally good value, but should you want to see the city out of the window, there are also buses and minibuses available everywhere for a similar price. You really do have to speak a bit of Russian to navigate those, though. People are not particularly sympathetic towards speakers of English, whether they actually think you're English or not.

Foreigners are stupid
You don't realise just how intrinsic this idea is until you spend time with people who, because of your inability to speak Russian, also assume you cannot do the most basic thing for yourself. I have posted this image before and shall continue to do so until it's no longer applicable (which will be never):

There is meat in everything
Don't try to find an exception. There just is. Staff in restaurants will tell you otherwise, but there is probably still either pork or beef in whatever they just gave you.

St Petersburg is a mish mash of styles
Half of it looks like Vienna, the other half like a very Soviet part of Moscow. I suppose that's the result of the 'European' capital of Russia interacting with the actual capital. It makes for some wonderful photos, though! Now I see why there are so many tourists here..

Alcohol is very cheap
Well, that wasn't going to be a surprise, but yes, alcohol (especially vodka) is very cheap. And accordingly, any messing about in bars or clubs will get you swiftly escorted out not by the owners, but by the actual military. I saw this in action, and quickly made my excuses! The metro doesn't stay open very late either, so that is convenient for giving you an excuse to leave before things take a turn for the worse.

Young people like speaking English to you
And as nice as that is, I could really really do that any time I like back in England, so I have had to develop some techniques for keeping the conversation in Russian. I am really not proud of this(!) but my most successful one is just to respond "Sorry?", as if the person's English is so incomprehensible that you cannot even respond properly. People normally switch straight back to Russian to explain, and then the conversation doesn't switch back, now that their ego is dented. That trick doesn't work on me, because I already know how bad my Russian is, so luckily nothing is really going to knock my confidence substantially. I am sorry to every single person I have done this to, and I hope you understand why I had to.

I can actually say some things in Russian
...which I found a bit odd, to be honest! I wouldn't say I am conversational just yet, but after 1 year of university I am perhaps at a B1 level, maybe pushing B2 in some areas but definitely not in speaking! It's a bit tricky to gauge because my French and German are so much better and more comfortable than my Russian, but it's definitely coming along better than I had anticipated. Perhaps I will succeed in the end, stay tuned to find out if I ever figure out Russian verbs....

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Russia so far

As I write this post I am 2 weeks into a 3 week stay in St Petersburg, Russia. Having followed language courses in Belgium, Austria, Ukraine and Germany so far (!), it’s really fun to compare the course here to my previous experiences. I’m staying in a homestay, with a retired couple and another student from our course, which means I’m speaking more Russian in one day than I usually do in a week, and also means I’ve had to get over the multitude of mistakes I’ll inevitably make (and I will!).

I am staying in a part of the city that is well connected and has lots to do, but that is far enough away from the center that it takes 1 hour each way between the flat and the language school. The walk between the flat and the nearest metro station also basically involves risking my life on a daily basis, because some town planner several decades ago thought it would be a great idea to have a complex motorway and public transport system running directly between the metro and the estate where thousands of people live, without a proper crossing in place.

Paradoxically the woman we are staying with does not trust us to get dressed warm enough for the journey to school in the morning, and will happily call us ‘молодцы!’ (good girls!) if we manage to put on what looks like a vaguely appropriate attempt at dealing with September in St Petersburg (rather like England in December), but she expects us to survive this catastrophe of a journey in its entirety. She is brilliant - in any given conversation she manages to mention how the different members of her family have each survived different wars and conflicts, how great the Soviet Union was, and also how there was never anything to eat and how they took in student lodgers in an attempt to survive and get enough money to exist. None of these things seem to contradict each other for her.

She is also trying to save money to support her grandson in England. I don’t have the heart to tell her that the exchange rate and sheer cost of an education in the UK makes it almost not worth bothering.

One thing that has surprised me is how positive everyone is about Putin. I suppose compared to leaders like Stalin there is nothing to complain about, and the relative stability that Russia is experiencing is welcome, with any instability able to be blamed on the West or at least on Ukraine. Things are not exactly as you would expect, which makes you aware of how much of your idea of a foreign country is due to the media portrayal of it, but also I am decidedly not in the UK here.

Going well here anyway, very interesting to say the least, here’s to a good return to England!

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Interpreting courses

Here are a few links that might interest you if you are thinking about picking up or improving your interpreting skills.

International Association of Conference Interpreters
The AIIC's website has lots and lots of information, including a list of their registered members and where they are based. This can be handy for giving you an idea of supply and demand for particular languages in various cities and regions.

They also have an events page which lists courses that they are linked with, and there is a certain quality that goes along with this. There are many short courses, for example a course on note-taking in York, UK, which might be preferable if you are already working or studying full time, but what if you are looking for a longer course?

There is a school finder that lets you search for universities that offer courses with your chosen languages, and gives you information about the courses, for example whether you need to sit a test before entry, or how many students pass their final exams on this course. You can also then go onto the university's website itself to find further information.
This website is really useful for any questions you have about interpreting, especially asking about courses and getting answers from actual interpreters. If you find a course in the database that you're interested in, but don't know anyone on the course to ask more, you can post a question on this website and someone will get back to you with a response. However, as with anything, if you ask basic questions and haven't made the effort to check any related website for the answer, it may be less well received than if you ask something new or from a more informed perspective.

My first time interpreting

A couple of days ago I had my first go at conference interpreting, which consisted of approximately 90 minutes of simultaneous interpretation from German to English, shared between me and my booth mate. Considering that we had hardly practised this before being thrown in at the deep end, finding ourselves interpreting for a room full of people, we emerged relatively unscathed, and with an interpretation that made some actual sense.

I recorded my interpretation throughout this time, and although it's very useful to go back and check how you did, it is also quite daunting to listen to. Here are some points I found and that I would like to improve on:

I met my target of getting across the vast majority of the content, but crucially in the few moments where I had misunderstood a particular point, I was able to correct myself before carrying on. It is of course incredibly important to not give false information to your listeners, so I was very pleased with myself on the whole, and of course with more practice I will move towards getting all of the source content into the interpretation.

Voice quality
This too has improved steadily since I first tried shadowing (simply repeating without translating), where I wasn't confident enough to give a convincing response. There are still some gaps and some fillers that I would like to work on, so that people actually want to listen to my interpretation because it is nice to listen to, and not just because I'm speaking English!

Quality of English

It's worth saying that this conference was on genocide and mass exoduses of people, which isn't a topic I talk about every day, and so some of the vocabulary wasn't as fresh in my mind as it could have been. Also I find it a bit tricky when the German word, as is often the case, is very logical and is made up of parts that perfectly define the word itself, because the most obvious translation would be an equally literal one into English, which then sounds unnatural. I feel like this will get better with time, though, so I'm confident my output will one day be at the right standard!

Monday, 15 August 2016

An expert meat shop

For the native English speakers among you, the title of today's post might strike you as a bit odd. All will be explained...

Last week I found myself in a translation class, where I had to translate, amongst other things, the phrase "Fleisch-Expertenshop" from German into English. The problem with translation is that you have a lot of time to stare at a word or phrase, until you no longer know what people actually say in your native language, and after a while you may just want to write down a direct translation instead of struggling to find the appropriate native term.

This is actually why I prefer interpreting - you don't have time to dislike the specific translation that your brain has given you, you just get on with transferring the message from one language to another, and you can actually see in front of you whether people understand your message, rather than waiting months for feedback on a translation project.

I have got a lot more satisfaction out of informal interpreting between other travellers, other volunteers or even between my sign language teacher and college management, than I have ever got out of translating, and so I am very glad to be able to work more on my interpreting technique.

I think I might need to improve a little first though, seeing as it took me a full day to come up with "an expert online deli", which is what the title of this post is actually meant to mean... Oops!

Sunday, 14 August 2016

The problem with language levels

You probably know by now that European (and many other) languages can be measured using the following system:

As you can see, the definitions rely on you being able to gauge 'native speaker level', or whether your speech uses 'complex' or 'standard' information. This means that even between exam boards the level required to pass a certain exam can differ.

On my course in Germany there are many people who have passed a C1 exam in German, but who can hardly say or understand anything at that level. I'm not even sure I qualify for C1 myself - it has to be said that even after 2 weeks of speaking German every day, there are still words and phrases that come to me automatically in French and not in German, in which case 'almost native speaker level' seems like a bit of a push. But could I pass a C1 exam? Possibly.

I suppose the only time it matters is when it comes to qualifying for a course or for a job - until that point you don't really need to worry or compare yourself to others, just focus on improving the best you can.

Consecutive interpreting

As we all know, interpreting is rather badass, and it follows that you need an equally badass notation system to help you remember everything you're meant to be interpreting. For the past two weeks I've been taking a course on notation for consecutive interpreting, which is where you deliver a speech after the speaker has finished, using notes and your own memory.

These are some of my condensed notes from the introductory classes, including symbols I use but that aren't the official versions. As you can see, some are very logical (e.g. DE = German), some are easy enough to remember (e.g. a cup of coffee = invite) and some are based on their equivalent signs in BSL (e.g. again, place), which makes sense to me but not necessarily anyone else.

Here is a section of a speech we were asked to note down. You might think that this makes little sense, but especially immediately after having written it down, this carried the same meaning for me as the speech did, and would have enabled me to read my version of the speech out in English. It's also worth pointing out that these are not very good notes and the more you practise, the less you need to write down - I'm looking forward to getting the hang of it!


I recently completed my 3rd Workaway project (1 and 2 here), which involved renovating a house in Brussels, Belgium. The particular project I was working on was fantastic, as the host was also a volunteer herself and really embraced the concept of a cultural exchange. We also travelled a lot together and with the other volunteers, and in just 3 weeks we managed to visit lots of places in Brussels, Bruges, Leuven, Antwerp, Durbuy and more.

(Protip: Belgian train tickets are cheap. Take advantage of this. This is slowly becoming my blog's motto..)

There is a nice building or castle everywhere you look in Belgium, so much so that it would be counterproductive to spam you with all the photos, but here are a few nice ones from my trip:

- the chocolate shop you can see is just outside of Brussels, a short walk from the Erasmus metro station, and they let you have unlimited samples of their entire (very expensive) range. This shop can put you into a diabetic coma with ease
- the street festival was for Belgium's National Celebration, which was exceptionally good, and there were thousands of people there, a significant proportion of which were military or police officers. I'm glad (and surprised, frankly) to say that there were no major incidents, although there were a lot of fireworks and other loud noises that did make me rather nervous!
- the shot of the garden is my handiwork, creating a path towards the vegetable garden and the numerous other projects we were working on