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Hello all,

I'm planning to begin a Masters in CI next year with the language combination English A, French/Russian/Chinese C. (I've just been accepted at ISIT with this combination, but am unable to start this fall due to a family situation.) I know that my Chinese C basically serves as a placeholder to get me into schools like ESIT/ISIT that require 3 C languages, and that it has essentially no practical use on the market; if I want to use Chinese professionally I will have to upgrade it to a B.

This is certainly a possibility, since my parents are Chinese and I have family there, and I would be able to live there for some time in order to improve my Chinese. But I find myself wondering if this is something worth pursuing, given that English A + Fr/Ru C is already a promising UN combination, and Chinese would be useless in a UN context. On the other hand, EN A/ZH B could be useful on the private market, or so I've heard; but in that case my French and Russian would be of little use. On top of that, I'm worried that the best locations for a UN combination would not be the best for an English-Chinese combination, and vice versa: Would I have to be based in Asia in order to have any chance of working with an EN A/ZH B?

I don't particularly want to live and work exclusively in Asia, so I'm wondering if it might be better to just drop Chinese altogether instead of spending more time on it, and perhaps work on adding another C like Spanish or German. Perhaps that would make me more interesting to the EU as well as the UN? But on the other hand, I feel that it's a shame to give up on the language of my parents, a language that has deep personal significance for me and that may become increasingly important globally.

Do you guys think it would be possible to work with a Chinese B and a French/Russian C at the same time, in the same location? Or does it have to be one or the other?

Thanks so much for any advice/opinions!!

asked 26 Sep '14, 20:54

permfmt's gravatar image


Hi again permfmt,

First off, Germany (my main market) is not THE market for English/Chinese and therefore my remarks are probably biased and are based on my subjective experience. The fact is that there are rather few EN/ZH interpreters and we need one here, we scramble to find some available interpreter with this combination. Maybe some colleagues with Chinese can give you a better and more objective advice than mine.

As for you learning another language: When you begin your studies at ISIT you will be very, very busy as the program is extremely demanding. You will hardly have any time to learn more languages and you will realize that all your time will be focused on the languages you already have. If you want to learn another language, consider it to be a long term process. Learning Spanish or German from scratch will take you 5 years –give or take– more exotic languages like Polish or Czech might require 7+ years of hard work. You mention that Eastern European languages would be easier for you because you already speak Russian. This will certainly help you to grasp the grammar quicker but it won’t help you with the vocabulary, regional accents, etc., etc.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you learn Bulgarian because of its close similarity to Russian and after 5 years you are ready to go, you pass the accreditation test (and that is not a given!) and the EU institutions hire you. The fact is that you will work very little from Bulgarian into English because there are very few parliamentarians or civil servants with this language; also delegates often decide to speak English or French or they just do not come to the meeting. After all the effort, you will get very little practice and you will sweat and swear the few times that someone decides to speak Bulgarian. On top of that, in order to keep Bulgarian (or Latvian, Maltese, Slovenian or even Croatian for that matter) up to par, you will have to dedicate to Bulgarian double the time to watch TV, read or visit the country compared to other languages that you use on a regular basis. It would be some kind of continuous and neverending process. On top of that, Bulgarian (Croatian, Slovene…) will only be useful for the EU institutions but not on the private market, unless you decide to move to Bulgaria. Exotic languages are a beautiful and rewarding challenge but please be aware of this fact if you decide to learn such a language in order to be more marketable vis-à-vis the EU institutions. The situation would be different for me if you had some personal connection or interest that leads you to learn this exotic language.

My point is: focus on the languages you already have and try to excel at them; ZH B will be enough of a challenge to begin with. Once you are done with your MA, you can begin your career as an interpreter and decide what new language you want to learn depending on your wishes and personal situation at that point in time.

If you ask me, something that will make you more interesting (particularly for the private market) would be specialization in some field: medicine, engineering, law, renewables, economics, mining, oil … you name it. Being an acknowledged specialist will help you a lot. Or: Some interpreters do not really know how to market themselves. Remember that on the private market we are both interpreters and entrepreneurs, in most cases a “one man/woman company”: we take care of our books, invoices, insurances and we try to find clients who require our services. Many young graduates (and a number experienced interpreters by the way) do not know where and how to start. Even as a conference interpreting student, you can enroll in marketing and clients acquisition courses, or web marketing workshops, and, and,… This will help you a lot once you graduate.

Best of luck


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answered 01 Oct '14, 17:58

Conrado's gravatar image


edited 02 Oct '14, 06:18

Thanks very much for your detailed response, @Conrado. I definitely agree that picking up a new language, whatever it may be, would be pretty much impossible during my CI studies, so I guess I was thinking more long-term - i.e., what I could do to make myself more appealing once I'm already on the market. I can see now why Bulgarian or a similar exotic language might not be of much use. Do you think there is any language I should think about eventually adding to my combination once I'm out of school?

I also appreciate your tip about specializing in a certain field. Before I decided to pursue a career in interpreting, I had majored in environmental biology and done a few years of graduate studies in ecology. I'm not sure how useful that would be on the private market, and I would certainly like to specialize in something that would be looked on as an asset, like one of the fields you mentioned. My question is, would this would require getting a separate degree and/or taking classes? How do interpreters usually acquire expertise in another field (aside from having already worked in such a field before turning towards interpreting)?

Lastly, thanks for the note about marketing/client acquisition workshops. I will definitely keep that in mind when I begin my studies. Thanks again and I truly appreciate all of your advice.

(01 Oct '14, 18:20) permfmt


I’ll try to be brief this time☺

Another language: I feel that, with your current FR/RU/ZH in C, ES would be a natural extension as it is used both on the private market and for the institutions (UN system and EU). DE is very important in the EU institutions and partially on the European private market, however its relevance on the private market has been declining for the last 7+ years because due to the market shift, many conferences are now held in English only (with interpreting into FR/ES/DE...) and German delegates prefer to use EN in international contexts. Of course if you want lo live and work in Germany you’ll need German.

Specialization: Wonderful. You have one already: environment and renewables. That’s great. If you want to add something on top of that, choose something you are really interested in. My list of fields were just examples.

How to specialize: Take a look at the websites of Translators and Interpreters Associations in France, UK. They usually offer continuous education courses and workshops in different marketing and thematic fields. That would be a start. Try to find some distance seminars or onsite courses in the city you live in.

(02 Oct '14, 06:42) Conrado

Thank you very much Conrado, you've been incredibly helpful!

(02 Oct '14, 18:13) permfmt

Hi permfmt,

If you have such close personal bonds to China and Chinese culture and, I presume, a good command and understanding of the Chinese language I personally feel that it would be a real pity to drop Chinese altogether, even more so if you have been accepted at ISIT with RU/FR/ZH. I'd recommend you to follow through instead of trying to add another language (ES or DE) maybe from scratch and of which you'll have a lesser command - at least in the short and medium term - compared to your ZH.

RU and FR C with EN A is already a good language combo for the UN sector. You've probably read in different posts here that ZH C doesn't go a long way if you plan to use it for UN work. I do not know how many private market conferences there are out there in which your ZH C might be need. The fact is that very few interpreters have/offer ZH C so it is very difficult to say/ascertain how much a ZH C is sought after but this could give you a competive advantage being this your USP. When Chinese speak, we all rely on the Chinese booth retour into EN/FR but it is always good to have a couple of relais to choose from. On top of that, if you already have a good and near native ZH command you can consider upgrading it to a B. The combination EN/ZH bi-active is very promising on the European market. This way, with FR/RU you would have a good language combination for the UN and with EN A/ ZH B you will be very interesting for the private market. Remember: Do not put all your eggs in one not tie yourself down to a market or a single client.

Regardless of your combination, you do not need to live in Asia even if you have ZH B. However, I would certainly recommend you a 1 or 2 year stint in China if you decide to upgrade your Chinese to a B.

These are just subjective remarks based on how I see the market. Maybe other colleagues have other tips or another insight based on their own experiences.

Good luck! Conrado

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answered 30 Sep '14, 06:42

Conrado's gravatar image


edited 30 Sep '14, 09:47

Thanks @Conrado! Yes, I figured that to be able to use my ZH I'd have to upgrade it to a B; I was just concerned that in order to use even a ZH B I'd need to be based in Asia. I'm very encouraged by what you said about EN A/ZH B being very promising on the European market -- is that something you know firsthand? I would love to be able to keep Chinese and still work in Europe with my French/Russian.

Also, so you think I shouldn't bother eventually adding a new language to my combination? I don't know how rare an EN A, RU/FR C is for the UN sector, but I figured ES could only be an asset in that regard. And for the EU, I just checked out their 2014 in-demand language profiles and for EN A, they'd like an A+CC combination, with C1 being FR/DE and C2 being IT/NL/FI/..a whole lot of other languages/EUR13 (which includes languages like Bulgarian, Czech, BCS etc. that are relatively similar to Russian), and a possible C3 being RU. So if I were to add another language that would make me more attractive to the EU sector, perhaps a Slavic language that might be easier for me to master, then maybe I would be a little more marketable? Sorry if I'm rambling, I guess I'm just worried about not getting enough work once (/if) I finish school...

(30 Sep '14, 16:43) permfmt


I work quite often for UNESCAP in Bangkok, and the English booth is always looking for passive Russian. A colleague of mine is the pillar in that booth, and the second interpreter is usually brought in from Europe or Nairobi. So if you could bring your Mandarin to a B level, I guess you could be based in China and work there most of the time, while being shipped in from time to time to work in Bangkok in the English booth. However, you wouldn't use French a lot. Hope this helps!

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answered 08 Nov '14, 01:30

GuillaumeF's gravatar image


Hi Guillaume, thanks a lot for your answer! Just to clarify, the English booth in Bangkok would be bringing in interpreters with passive Russian regardless of the interpreter's Chinese level, correct? Or would Chinese be an asset in Bangkok? I ask because I would rather not be based in China in the long run.

(08 Nov '14, 01:54) permfmt

In Bangkok, the English booth works almost exclusively from Russian, very rarely from French. If your Chinese is a B, then I don't think you would be working in the Chinese booth. Two reasons to that: they need Chinese As, not Bs, and there are already 3 staff interpreters there. You are an English A, with Russian C, and that would work in Bangkok. However, the volume of work would be less than in Europe, that's for sure. That's why I was hinting at the possibility of being based in China most of the time (provided you can bring your Chinese to a B), and being shipped in from time to time to Bangkok to work from Russian to English. The private market in Thailand is Thai<>English (covered by native Thai speakers), but there is also a demand for European languages. In that case, the most common languages are English, French, and Spanish. I'm not sure that Russian would be an asset. Hope this helps!

(08 Nov '14, 02:07) GuillaumeF

I feel that it's a shame to give up on the language of my parents, a language that has deep personal significance for me and that may become increasingly important globally.

You can keep up your ZH skills without actually using them for work. On the other hand, people will always tell you not to put all eggs in one basket and rely on the good will of one institution or international organization to pay your bills until the rest of your life. And what if you don't pass the UN test?

FR C, RU C is an interesting profile for the UN. You could add Spanish C to it. While it is an EU language, you'd be unlikely to work both for UN and EU with these C languages: Geneva will recruit you if you're based in the Geneva area, while Brussels will recruit you if you're based in the Brussels area. Also, for the EU, German would be more useful (but couldn't interest the UN less).

Do you guys think it would be possible to work with a Chinese B and a French/Russian C at the same time, in the same location? Or does it have to be one or the other?

If you're willing to be based in Geneva for your UN work, you probably could get hired now and then with EN-ZH in Paris.

Last but not least: The EU does accredit people with non-EU languages. So you could have ZH and RU in your combination and maybe get hired for those languages for the odd meeting happening in Brussels, even if you're based in Geneva.

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answered 27 Sep '14, 05:24

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

Gáspár ♦

reverted 27 Sep '14, 05:51

Thanks @Gaspar for your response! Assuming I don't pass the UN test, do you think passive French and Russian would be useful to me as a freelancer? And would Chinese be in any way an asset if I were based in Europe? And lastly, when you say "If you're willing to be based in Geneva for your UN work, you probably could get hired now and then with EN-ZH in Paris", do you mean that even if my professional domicile is Geneva, I could still get hired by private market clients in Paris?

Thanks as well for the tip about the EU, I had just about ruled it out as an option due to my combination but I'm glad that I might potentially get some work there as well.

(27 Sep '14, 13:54) permfmt

There are no limitations as to working outside of your professional domicile - you could get hired by private market clients in Paris or anywhere else. Obviously, your services get more expensive this way (as the clients are expected to cover traveling and accommodation costs in this case), so you are not as competitive in Paris as a Paris-based interpreter.

(27 Sep '14, 14:39) Joanna

@Joanna I just saw your response, thanks! I was more asking whether it would be at all likely for me to be hired in Paris if I were based in Geneva, given that I would be less competitive compared to local interpreters.

(29 Sep '14, 16:03) permfmt


I can only agree with Conrado's detailed answers - they are excellent. But the political side of your combination is being mentioned only tangentially.

Chinese and Russian are both hugely political languages. For example, in international organizations, both delegations monitor what the interpreter is saying; both delegations try to have a say in who will be hired in their own booths, and also in the EN booth (through multiple complaints about how an interpreter is rendering the other language into EN). Most chief interpreters can stand up to delegations about who interprets in the EN booth, but can't always do so as easily for the other booths. And other interpreters will have a say as well, as most organizations have to rely on your colleagues for reports on how good an interpreter you are. All of this can also be true for the private market.

I apologize for having just added another layer to your considerations. It may be that, geopolitically, if you add a ZH B (or even simply work with a ZH C), your personal background may make it either easier or harder for you to find work. But if you are a good interpreter, always act professionally, market well, and have the time and a thick skin, you will build a good, solid career.

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answered 05 Oct '14, 05:50

JuliaP's gravatar image


Thank you, @JuliaP! Do you mean that Chinese and Russian delegations try to ensure that EN interpreters are rendering their statements "sympathetically", in a manner favorable to Chinese/Russian policy? That is certainly something I'll have to keep in mind (although if I were to work with ZH B on the private market only, perhaps these political considerations would be less relevant?). Also, what kind of personal background might affect my ability to find work using these languages? Thanks so much for your insight!

(06 Oct '14, 19:54) permfmt

If you were from a country that China does not recognize officially, it might be more difficult to break into the market, for example. Familiarize yourself with history and geopolitics, and you should be able to come up with possible objections, and prepare yourself with appropriate arguments. It isn't so much sympathetic interpreting, as interpreting in line with policy.

(08 Oct '14, 10:07) JuliaP
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question asked: 26 Sep '14, 20:54

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