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

Why you should visit Belgium

Having lived in Belgium for 10 months last year and worked there for a further month this summer, you might have guessed that I am rather attached to this little country. As paradoxical a place as it is, there are lots of things that make Belgium the perfect place to visit:

It's rather little
Unlike France or Germany, you only have to travel for an hour or two to get to where you want to be in Belgium. Liege, Antwerp, Bruges and Ghent are all within an hour or less of Brussels, so you won't be spending all day travelling. This means that even if you aren't staying for long, you can get the feeling that you have got to know the country quite well.

Public transport is wonderful
Especially for young people! I am a fan of public transport anyway (something about a mathematical mind?) but the Belgian system really is something special. Did you know that in summer, young people can get a month's unlimited train travel for 25 euros? Can you believe how ridiculously cheap that is?! 25 EUR wouldn't get you very far on one train in the UK. For this reason alone it is worth visiting Belgium as a young person. Additionally, transport tickets can be uploaded to travel cards, meaning that you can take any method of transport within the capital, any bus in French-speaking Belgium and any train in the entire country using just one travel card, which has predictably good value offers. Admittedly I didn't intend for this post to consist solely of praise of the public transport system, but, c'mon, it's pretty damn good.

Breakfast cereal is often quadrilingual
It really motivates you to up your linguistic game when the cereal box knows more languages than you do.

The national cuisine
Essentially consisting of chips, chocolate, waffles and beer, Belgian cuisine is envied the world over. It is entirely unpretentious, and while getting a beer in the centre of Brussels can be pretty pricey, it's nothing compared to high end French restaurants. Sure, you might not be getting many (any) vitamins, but since when did that matter?

Friendly regional banter
Different regions of Belgium may not like each other, especially the French vs Dutch speaking areas. This seems to stem from the years of Dutch and French rule where communities were suppressed, and it seems like people are still not over it yet. However, it's easy enough to unite them (and indeed much of Western Europe) – just mention how much you dislike France and you should have them onside.

Being European and its repercussions

'European' as an identity is something I very much identify with. As an identity that unites a region that has largely been fighting each other over history, and that allows me to travel and benefit from what the different European cultures have to offer me, what's not to love?

I have surprised quite a few Belgians over the past few weeks by stating my intention to remain European, whether legally or in spirit, even though many of 'my' people appear to have other ideas. But for me the entity of the European Union and the concept of 'Europe' are two different beings altogether, 'Europeanness' is a identity that many outside of the EU identify with (and that many inside the EU disagree with), and encompasses a set of values that prioritises cooperation rather than alienation. That is why, during Brussels' national celebration, I was proud to wave a European flag alongside the Belgian one, whilst still being very happy to be from the UK – our European identity allows us to cooperate and celebrate each other, rather than being entirely separate entities.

It remains to be seen whether my government's increasing distance from the EU institutions will heavily impact on my life and the lives of other young British people, e.g. whether or not we will being able to travel as freely as we can now, but one thing is sure – my dream career as an EU linguist is looking more and more infeasible by the minute. However, I must admit that I have it pretty good, and if the only thing I have to complain about is choosing a slightly different career later on, then I am perhaps missing the whole point of Brexit.

I am stuck in a place whether I am really trying to sympathise with the issues that led people to be dissatisfied to such an extent, whilst also feeling that Brexit is really not the solution we should have been going for. It is clear that the financial crisis and our last government has left many people significantly worse off (citation below), feeling powerless and disenfranchised, and so I'm not sure we can blame these people for voting in a way that various newspapers would have them believe was the logical solution to these problems. We do, however, need greater media and governmental responsibility to convey the truth and reliably, too, and this is the only way I can envisage the rest of the EU staying together for the time being – if people are being lied to from all sides, why do you expect them to vote for the status quo? Why wouldn't they vote for the radical option?

Citation: BBC article from 27/7/16 “UK pay: British workers see biggest fall in wages”. 'Between 2007 and 2015 wages in the UK fell by 10.4%, a drop equalled only by Greece', 'As an average real wages increased in OECD countries as a whole by 6.7%', 'People aged 34 and under earned £8000 less over the course of their 20s compared to the generation before them'

How this year went

Now that I'm outside of the university routine, I'm starting to look back at my first year of university and ask myself how it really went. Everyone seems to think that going to Cambridge must be an amazing experience and that everything must be great. In a way I suppose it has been very positive, but not always what I expected.

The students
Coming from the somewhat impoverished East Midlands (or the North if pushed to choose a side), many people from my area had the same attitude that I did: going to Cambridge sounds like it'll give you an advantage, but everyone will be insufferable. It is true that there are a few people who really have no understanding of 'real life' e.g. the cost of food, but this comes from their upbringing rather than an intrinsic desire to be ignorant. I have found that almost nobody actually wants to be rude, although sometimes the things people come out with (the quote “oh, I've never met a poor person before!” comes to mind) can be a bit baffling. People might be a bit confused as to why you're not going out all the time or going to the most expensive places, or as to why you pronounce 'grass' correctly instead of like 'grarss', but it's generally harmless curiosity.

The staff
It has to be said that a lot of the staff members are a bit odd – bearing in mind that many have never lived outside of academia or even outside of Cambridge University, it's almost inevitable that there will be some little quirks here or there. Indeed, some of them might not be able to survive in the real world, having been away from it for so long. Essentially just use your own judgement when getting feedback from the staff. Just because someone has a doctorate doesn't mean they know everything about everything – it means they know a lot about one very specific thing, and have probably neglected a lot of 'normal' life experience to get there.

The work/ life balance
Well, this seems to depend a lot on your subject, your personality and essentially how much you care. I more or less got by with just doing the homework that had been set, and then doing some targeted revision before my exams, and got a grade I am very happy with, but it must be said that Russian especially set a lot of homework, and people doing other subjects would have needed to do more than just the homework they had been explicitly set. Some people didn't even do that, and got a grade they find acceptable, but really you will be working for most of the day, most days, unless you have resigned yourself to getting a 3rd already. I found the balance alright, seeing as I had things to do in my free time, but some people were driven a bit mad by it. As with everything, it depends on the person and how much they are willing to sacrifice for the final result!

Re-introducing myself

It has occurred to me that my current intro page is now several years old, and that I'm getting a lot of new web traffic, so let's have another go, shall we!:

I'm Rensa. I study German and ab initio Russian at Cambridge, and I'm from Lincolnshire (UK). I speak French at C1+ level thanks to my (enforced) gap year in Belgium, where I worked full time as a social worker in a children's home. I can also use BSL (British Sign Language) at ~B2 level, because I studied it for 2 years at evening classes and then kept using it, and I generally think it is the coolest language going.

I have spent about 11 months in Belgium (here and here), 2 in Austria (here and here), 1 in Germany, 3 weeks in Ukraine, as of August 2016, as well as using my time in these places to visit other cities and countries. I prefer to work abroad or volunteer rather than be a glorified tourist, and that also means you get a more authentic view into the culture and chance to use the target language, without paying a ridiculous amount for the privilege. (NB: my blog's tags are a bit disorganised, sorry!)

I am a linguaphile, lover of any music heavier than rock, of composing and playing, I am a teacher, an evangelical linguist, I work in university Outreach and Access because I think people's preconceptions shouldn't stop them getting a world-class education, and to be honest, I'm in the dark about why hundreds of people per month read my blog, but hey, I'm writing for myself and if you happen to find it interesting then that's a happy coincidence.

Comments, suggestions and messages are welcome, and thanks for reading!

Rensa Gaunt