First-time posters: please review the site's moderation policy
5
1

I'm wondering the same thing as Darksummmers in this question.

Why do a lot of people drop out of interpreting school? I realize that it's a demanding program and a difficult profession. Still, it's nowhere near as hard as engineering or life sciences. Then, why do a lot of people have trouble launching their careers and end up working as receptionists and secretaries?

Obviously, there's nothing wrong with working those jobs. Still, you're way overqualified for them if you have a Master's. Also, I read on other sites that a lot of people who get this degree are then forced to get additional degrees, diplomas and certificates, since foreign languages cannot be your only skill.

asked 13 Feb '14, 19:42

Myra45's gravatar image

Myra45
2418811

edited 14 Feb '14, 06:55

Vincent%20Buck's gravatar image

Vincent Buck ♦♦
3.9k203350

Andy, Gaspar,

Thank you for your detailed replies. Again, I realize that not every multilingual person has the ability to work as an interpreter. I've met a few people who've worked for the UN, other international orgs. and Ministries of Foreign Affairs in several countries - though not as interpreters - and they knew a lot of interpreters and translators. All of them said that yes, it is a difficult job and that you have to have an excellent knowledge of all your languages and some training. However, they said that it's not difficult as it's made out to be these days. They knew translators who worked for the UN about 25-30 years ago who didn't even have a Master's in Translation. They only had a B.A. in translation and were sent to work for the UN by their countries without having to take UN exams. What has changed in all these years?

Also, I know some people who used to occasionally work as interpreters with visiting business delegations or were called to interpret during interviews with immigration officials. All of these people either had a language degree or lived years in the country of their source language. They said that they had no difficulty interpreting and that the people who hired them were happy with their work. Obviously they had to be familiar with professional ethics.

You also write that there are millions of engineers and only a few thousand interpreters. Of course, there's more demand for the former. Still, not many people have the ability to handle very advanced math and science courses that are part of the engineering school curriculum. If you're an engineer, then people's lives are literally in your hands. One tiny miscalculation or a faulty design can lead to the collapse of a building or an airplane crash. Obviously, interpreters don't have such heavy weight on their shoulders.

(15 Feb '14, 19:26) Myra45
2

"They knew translators who worked for the UN about 40 years ago who didn't even have a Master's in Translation"

40 years ago, there weren't that many interpreting & translation degrees nor bilingual people. Nowadays, more people have foreign language skills, so there's more competition.

" I know some people who used to occasionally work as interpreters with visiting business delegations or were called to interpret during interviews with immigration officials. All of these people either had a language degree or lived years in the country of their source language. They said that they had no difficulty interpreting and that the people who hired them were happy with their work."

  1. Laymen are always happy about your work. They wouldn't be able to know if you're any good, since they don't have the language skills you have. And clients are polite and won't ever dare to tell when they are disappointed.

  2. Public service interpreting can't be compared to conference interpreting. It's like chiropractice and surgery.

(15 Feb '14, 22:32) Gáspár ♦

I should've phrased it differently. I'm not really comparing public service interpreting with conference interpreting. I know it's like comparing apples and oranges. It's just the people who worked for the UN and who came across both public service and booth interpreters said that the job is not that difficult. Interpreters had print-outs of speeches brought to their booths about 30 minutes before the start of the conference. And the speeches were about one or two pages.So, they had time to prepare. Also, whenever I watch CNN, BBC, or other news programs the quality of interpreting isn't always good. Are the people hired graduates of interpreting programmes or just journalists fluent in a foreign language? And isn't interpreting speeches of heads of state, diplomats and business leaders easier than interpreting/translating movies since the language is standard with no slang or idiomatic expressions?

(15 Feb '14, 23:26) Myra45

"It's just the people who worked for the UN and who came across both public service and booth interpreters said that the job is not that difficult" But how could they possibly know if the job is difficult if they don't do the job?

"Interpreters had print-outs of speeches brought to their booths about 30 minutes before the start of the conference" Yes some speeches are given to the interpreter in advance, but certainly not all. I don't work at the UN but elsewhere (eg the EU) its less than 5% in my experience. How difficult do you think doing the same written 2 page speech is when you HAVEN'T been given it in advance (followed by 20 other 2 page speeches you haven't got)? Very bl**dy difficult is the answer, I have do it all the time :( )

"Also, whenever I watch CNN, BBC, or other news programs the quality of interpreting isn't always good." Doesn't this suggest it is a difficult job? Not anyone can do it!

Often it isn't well done sadly. For lots of reasons. TV stations ring you up 2-24 hours before they need you (news is not predictable) so many of the best interpreters are booked already. They don't offer much money and the conditions maybe very bad - interpreting from a TV newsfeed over the phone for example.

(16 Feb '14, 04:58) Andy
3

"people who worked for the UN and who came across both public service and booth interpreters said that the job is not that difficult"

Only because some can do it, it doesn't mean it's easy. I've seen astronauts on TV floating around space, didn't seem difficult to me.

"Interpreters had print-outs of speeches brought to their booths about 30 minutes before the start of the conference"

Surgeons prepare some of their operations. It doesn't make things easy, it makes them easier. And when they have people in the OR who come straight from the ER, they don't have time to prepare. As Andy said, in 95% of the cases we don't have the speeches. In 99% of the cases, when we do have the speeches, the speed at which they are read doesn't make things easier at all (read out statements are MUCH more difficult to interpret, without as well as with a copy provided). Also, barely any speaker sticks to his text. Interpreting is tightrope walking. It might look easy and fun, it might be easier with a balancing pole than without, and the best way to get an idea how it is, is to try it out. :-)

"And isn't interpreting speeches of heads of state, diplomats and business leaders easier than interpreting/translating movies since the language is standard with no slang or idiomatic expressions?"

We don't just interpret statements before the cocktail party can begin. We do technical meetings about fisheries, atomic questions, medical devices, drugs, polymers. Meetings where chief veterinary officers and plant health experts will discuss how candidatus phytoplasma vitis does impact the vine products within the single market. Translating slang would probably be easier than to prepare to understand the technical details of maritime rescue and salvage operations and legal issues that arise in the Mediterranean.

(16 Feb '14, 05:50) Gáspár ♦

12

Hi Myra,

I think you may be very wrong when you say "it's nowhere near as hard as engineering or life sciences". How many engineers are there in the world? Millions. How many conference interpreters. Thousands.

There is a big difference between the jobs you quote and conference interpreting too. Interpreting is a skill (like playing tennis or making pottery), rather than the use of acquired knowledge.

The following filters get applied to the pool people wanting to be conference interpreters. With each "filter" more and more people drop out.

  • be articulate in your own language
  • know at least one foreign language to educated native-speaker level
  • have excellent general knowledge (and the curiosity to develop it)
  • be able to interpret (getting on a course means you may have the potential to interpret. It doesn't mean you can!) And this includes being pretty intelligent, quick-thinking and having excellent and rapid analytical skills from spoken input. NB... a disproportionately high number of EN interpreters I have ever come across went to Oxford or Cambridge universities.
  • cope with, and enjoy, the stress of being seriously challenged as you move up through the levels: admission to interpreting school, 1st year, 2nd year, final exams, accreditation tests, real work & real world, first technical meetings, first high-level meetings etc

The drop out rate is high at every stage of the process. (All these figures are based on my own reasonably extensive experience, not on any official stats).

  • Admissions testing for interpreting school, maybe 25 % get in. Reasons for failure - insufficient C language knowledge/ B language ability; lack of articulacy in own language; unable to distinguish main message from details.

  • Then the drop-out rate at school is something like 70%. (Split between mid-term drop outs and final exam failures). Reasons: insufficient C language knowledge; B language ability (even the best admissions tests remain a very superficial test of language knowledge); or just turns out they don't have the skills to, and so can't, interpret.

  • The EU institutions accreditation test pass-rate was only around 35% in 2012. (And you need to have an MA in interpreting to take the test). Many people call it a day at that. Reasons for failure - it's a huge leap from uni exam level to accreditation level; added stress; and having a bad day (it happens to everyone sometime)

  • the private market is very competitive and it can take years to get established. Some people don't like not working very much and not knowing where the next contract is coming from. And there's a nasty vicious circle on the private market - getting work depends a lot on your reputation, but it's tough to be a beginner and really good, so you get less work than experienced interpreters, so you have a hard time getting better.

  • And there a very few full-time staff jobs, certainly not for beginners.

These are some of the reasons for the high drop-out rate during and after interpreting school.

permanent link

answered 14 Feb '14, 08:16

Andy's gravatar image

Andy
6.8k212839

edited 14 Feb '14, 11:55

Why do a lot of people drop out of interpreting school? I realize that it's a demanding program and a difficult profession. Still, it's nowhere near as hard as engineering or life sciences.

You can practice maths exercises. You can learn anatomy by heart. It's demanding, no doubt, but there are procedures, so to speak, allowing you to get there.

Interpreting is a niche market and so is the training: There is no bachelor specifically tailored to prepare you for the masters programme. So-called translation & interpreting bachelor programmes give you some language skills, some general knowledge (economy, politics, law) and some training in (mostly) written skills.

To be admitted to a masters programme, you'll be submitted to a short test which will allow to speculate on your abilities to get your diploma in the end, provided you put in the continuous effort and have a personality that'll allow you to withstand the constant criticism and judgement that is inherent to our training.

Yet, feedback gets under your skin. When you get a maths exercise wrong, your personality is not under scrutiny. When your interpreting is evaluated, your voice, your public speaking skills, your general knowledge, your shyness (or excessive swag) are being criticized.

You will have the impression that you're being told that YOU, as a person, are not good enough and that you will have to change who or how you are (or rather, appear to be).

Many students can't take it, because understanding what exactly isn't on par with the expectations is very difficult, and actually changing those things is even more. There's no bachelors degree that will craft an open yet discrete and self-confident personality. Studies most of the time are about what you know, not who you are. You can't overall prepare for a masters degree in conference interpreting, except for your foreign language skills and general knowledge. The time lapse to accept the feedback, lick your wounds, swallow your pride and rebuild your self-confidence is very limited and you have to advance fast.

And there's the A language. Having a very strong A language isn't something you can improve within a few months. If you had a chance to read and write a lot even before you ever knew that conference interpreting was a profession, your chances are good. Otherwise, you might just not be up to the required level. And you might only find out during the final year.

You will need also to focus on your interpreting technique, while developing your other skills. Foreign languages are never strong enough (I was often told that my English wasn't worthy of being a C language, and it took me some time to realize that indeed this language can be a real pain for me in the booth) and when it comes to general knowledge, you're expected to be more knowledgeable about recent events that the US President's advisors, while you also need to understand financial and legal topic as if these had been your minors.

In short, you need a wide range of skills and competences plus the right personality to make it. And whenever you believe you have reached a milestone that would mean that you're almost there, life reminds you that you're not even close.

Very few people get admitted to interpreting school, and the few lucky ones might get the impression they are quite unique. Well yes, compared to those who do not get admitted, they are. But being admitted doesn't mean they'll get their diploma. And getting a diploma doesn't mean they'll make it on the market. Which brings me to your second question/remark:

Then, why do a lot of people have trouble launching their careers and end up working as receptionists and secretaries?

A masters degree in conference interpreting is a bit like having a degree as an architect. It means that you can draw (a certain type of) fancy buildings. But it doesn't mean that you'll be able to sell yourself to a client who doesn't want to pay you decent wages. Nor that you're able to compete with all the other talented architects out there.

So, you freshly graduated. Your school taught you how to behave in a professional setting. Your personality has undergone a few mutations, you're one of the 30% who can pride himself with a degree which tells as much about your interpreting technique as a driving licence tells about your driving. But you want to become a racing car driver. What your school did not have the time to teach you sufficiently (if at all) is how to approach sponsors, what a race is actually like, and how to beat your fellow graduates - who suddenly became competitors.

Also, you have embraced a profession that many do not know about. You're expensive, too. While your potential clients did not have engineering or architecture classes in high-school and therefore will have to hire engineers and architects, they did have foreign language classes. So, you want to sell them language services? For THAT much money for just what, two hours of work? And you need to work in a team of two AND rent extra equipment? You must be kidding! I mean, interpreting can't be that difficult. And well, times are rough, they already have to pay for the architect so, well... The company certainly could ask someone who's already on their payroll to translate orally. You know, they have Pamela at the reception who speaks a bit of French and a bit of German, so she'll interpret for the business meeting scheduled at 2p.m. instead of hiring you. Or they'll just hope that the Lithuanian and the Hungarian experts who are in their mid-fifties do understand enough English to just fly without an interpreter. After all, everybody had English classes in the USSR and other Eastern bloc states, right? Oh, no. But come on, English is supposed to be an easy language.

So, nobody really told you how to close deals. Nor where to find clients. Maybe you don't even have a B language, so you realize that you have no chance at all on the private market. But! There are the European institutions and the International organizations. There, you need to have the right C languages.

Your school only offered you a conference interpreting training, they assumed you had done your research for the languages in demand and knew what you were doing. If you did your research too late, you'll need four to five years to add the one language that'll get you invited for an accreditation test.

You'll need to pay rent during that time. So, off you go finding a part-time job where you could use your language skills. And eventually, work will alienate you, you'll lose touch with your former fellow students and you won't have the energy to pursue the ambition of adding a language, while also maintaining your interpreting technique two hours per day.

Obviously, there's nothing wrong with working those jobs. Still, you're way overqualified for them if you have a Master's.

Overqualified for the above mentioned jobs, yes. More qualified than your competitors to get a job as a PR advisor, a journalist or a language teacher: No. Employers wanting a journalist will hire somebody who has studied journalism, and so on. A masters degree in conference interpreting will make you the second choice for any position for which more relevant degrees exist.

Addendum: Some schools do adapt the language combinations they offer, so they don't pour large quantities of soon-to-be unemployed people on the market but only train people who'll have a chance on the market. Some (usually the same, since the two aspects are closely related) also do care about the professional insertion of their graduates. Some others, too many of them, will train anyone having two C languages, while they know that there is no chance that they'll make it later on, despite having their diploma.

In my school, out of 13 students, 8 did not have a combination that later would allow them to make a living (or even work at all). Only two of us did have a viable combination, got our diploma and are able to live off interpreting only.

And there's also the change in demand that can't be predicted. For the EU for instance, to be invited for the French booth, having EN and DE as C languages was the best option in the last years. Many students had heard that their German would allow them to get invited for the test, hence they pursued their studies until the final year and we're pretty sure that at least, they would be invited for a test - knowing they had a 25 to 35% chance to pass (which isn't a guarantee of regular work, though). A few weeks ago, some of these students went to a study visit at DG SCIC, where the head of the French unit told them that rules had changed. You now need EN, DE and a third C language to be invited. So, provided these students get their diploma, they'll need to find a way not to lose their interpreting technique, add a language and find a way to pay their bills in the meantime.

permanent link

answered 14 Feb '14, 10:01

G%C3%A1sp%C3%A1r's gravatar image

Gáspár ♦
6.7k141829

edited 15 Feb '14, 05:37

Hello Myra!

I am answering late, as this question only just came to the top of the list again. You asked above about what has changed since UN interpreters and translators used to be taken on years ago.

Well, for one thing, technology. Rare is the speaker who doesn't get up with his speech written out on paper, computer, iPad, etc., and who starts reading much faster than in the past. Speaking time per delegate has shortened as IOs have less money in their budgets for long conferences - general conferences and assemblies that used to take six weeks are now taking at most two, and time has to be cut from something. But the delegates don't cut back on how much they want to say - hence they now read at breakneck speed, sometimes using slides if we're lucky! Back when I started, it was only Soviet delegates who read that fast; nowadays it's everyone, and few people speak their native languages anymore.

You also say that engineers hold people's lives in their hands. We also do, sometimes directly, if interpreting for a doctor, lawyer, immigration official, or if you prefer, for the ICC, ICTY, ICTR, STL; sometimes indirectly, if interpreting a border dispute between two Latin American countries that will involve fishing rights and livelihoods (ICJ) or planning safe storage facilities for storing unused nuclear warheads.

So on top of having an excellent mother tongue, excellent comprehension of at least one - if not 3, 5, 7... - other languages, possibly excellent expression in one of those non-mother tongues, excellent knowledge of all domains of human endeavor, plus a brain that allows you to extrapolate from first principles and make connections between seemingly unconnected things, there is also all the stress of performing that an actor/musician/comedian/circus acrobat/dancer has.

Add to that the fact that - especially in this economic climate - there are fewer interpreter days available for a growing number of graduates. This means that you have to be really good to be able to get started, and even better if you went to an interpreting school that isn't in the market where you want to work, so you won't have the same connections that people who went to the local interpreting school do. Moreover, if you are a freelancer, which is what 99% of graduates will start out as, you have to be a marketer, negotiator, accountant, PR and social media specialist, all while studying for your next conference on POPs or your next economic arbitration.

It's not for nothing that in the US, it has been said that interpreters have just as stressful a job as air traffic controllers!

I don't want to be completely pessimistic - there are students who do make it each year, some very quickly, some taking longer, some only interpreting, some also translating. There is an enormous amount of non-conference interpreting work out there, but you have to have the imagination and energy to find it. And if you are trying to get a degree, you are still getting the degree in conference interpretation, with juries made up of conference interpreters - so you will still have to show you can do that job to get the diploma.

I hope that helps answer your questions.

permanent link

answered 23 Oct '14, 07:56

JuliaP's gravatar image

JuliaP
2.9k249

In the same vein as my previous message:

There’s a topic that no one in interpreting enjoys talking about. You might call it the “dark side” of interpreter training. Simply put, it is this. As an interpreter trainee, you can take some heavy psychological hits. You might even be told that you are not ready to continue with your training.

I know what you’re thinking. It isn’t all sunshine and lollipops in other professional training programs either. Sometimes, people have to drop out of engineering programs and out of law school too. But somehow, interpreter training can seem like a bumpier ride. I think this is for three reasons.

(...)

language is personal. For a lot of us, how we speak is closely tied to who we are. When we are told that we are not interpreting well enough, it can feel like we are being told that we are not good enough. It’s hard to separate our interpreting performance from our own identity, and criticism hits very close to home. I don’t think the same is true in other kinds of professional training.

Continue reading: The Dark side of interpreter training by Andrew Clifford

permanent link

answered 02 Mar '14, 17:10

G%C3%A1sp%C3%A1r's gravatar image

Gáspár ♦
6.7k141829

edited 02 Mar '14, 17:13

Worth reading:

In 1999 only a dozen out of the original 400 who started the undergraduate course, passed the interpreting exams.

So what makes it so tough? Well it is not just techniques-it's your personality too.

(...)

Imhauser knows of interpreters that have high adrenalin hobbies to let off steam like champion sailing, rally driving, or even crochet "to stop the mind whirring." She is worried however, by the high rate of nervous breakdowns and alcoholism, she believes is prevalent in the business.

(...)

An added dimension for freelancers today is not only how many but what languages they can speak. With a Belgian freelance market saturated with interpreters who can work with the common European tongues, like say English, French and Spanish, the hunt is on for those who can also speak the less widely spoken European ones like Greek or Portuguese.

Source: http://aiic.net/page/364/interpreters/lang/1

permanent link

answered 20 Oct '14, 15:52

G%C3%A1sp%C3%A1r's gravatar image

Gáspár ♦
6.7k141829

They drop out because they correctly realise they made a big career decision mistake and are smart enough to back out before it's too late. Why should anyone use their tremendous skills and training only to be shafted by interpreting agencies?

Unless extreme luck intervenes, interpreting is poorly paid considering the effort and intelligence required as agencies compete for contracts and self-employment provides often unreliable source of income.

What's more, the profession is hardly ever appreciated and at the best of times very stressful due to having to deal with people that are best to be avoided. Unless of course one seeks to make themselves feel terrible day in day out.

The good feeling and motivation stemming from helping strangers to bridge their language gap, while using a very unique skill set and experience, unfortunately won't pay the bills and won't guarantee a good quality of life or retirement. God forbid the interpreter suffers a burnout.

To these drop outs I'd say well done you.

permanent link

answered 08 Mar, 12:01

buggybug's gravatar image

buggybug
112

1

In my experience, even final year students are far from knowing what to expect and what their career, if they ever have one in the booth, will look like. Many have no realistic plans for the year after graduating and are considering clients or markets they don't have the languages for. For many, they are blissfully ignorant (so was I) and only hear what they want to hear, 'till the day comes when they get to experience all those things they were warned about.

Most students don't drop out on purpose, as it'd mean that they'll go out empty handed, while the game is to get at least an MA diploma to be able to find some other meaningful employment, knowing that a BA won't get them far.

Also, but that must be region, market and language specific, I don't find many newcomers who are disgruntled by the working conditions, pay or the clients they have to work for, provided they're as good as one would expect them to be. Most graduates from courses within the EU countries hardly get enough work to get to hate their job (90% will have under 10 paid days a year) and their biggest dream would be to work enough to be a burn-out risk.

Those who do get to work seem to have a rather high job satisfaction rate, because the job is exciting and you do feel accomplished because you finally made it. The good vibes don't seem to vanish with time either: 53% of AIIC respondents, i.e. senior colleagues, say they have a high job satisfaction, 22% a very high job satisfaction. 75% being happy, that's rather good news.

But how pros, either beginners or seniors feel, is a different topic entirely, as the OP is about drop outs during the studies. Students seem to be human, as in they'll do their own mistakes and learn the hard way, no matter how many horror stories you'll tell them. And I'm not sure that the drop outs are any better off. If you don't find a satisfying job that pays bills with an MA, I wonder: How do things look without one?

(08 Mar, 12:45) Gáspár ♦
Your answer
toggle preview

Follow this question

By Email:

Once you sign in you will be able to subscribe for any updates here

By RSS:

Answers

Answers and Comments

Markdown Basics

  • *italic* or _italic_
  • **bold** or __bold__
  • link:[text](http://url.com/ "title")
  • image?![alt text](/path/img.jpg "title")
  • numbered list: 1. Foo 2. Bar
  • to add a line break simply add two spaces to where you would like the new line to be.
  • basic HTML tags are also supported

Question tags:

×480
×86
×6
×2

question asked: 13 Feb '14, 19:42

question was seen: 21,926 times

last updated: 08 Mar, 13:50

interpreting.info is a community-driven website open to anyone with questions and/or answers about interpreting, i.e. spoken language translation

about | faq | terms of use | privacy policy | content policy | disclaimer | contact us

This collaborative website is sponsored and hosted by AIIC, the International Association of Conference Interpreters.