There are few situations where it’s ok to listen in on people’s conversations; and ones held in places like police stations and hospital are even less acceptable to snoop on, no matter how inquisitive we might be about what gets said there... There’s one role though where this is encouraged; where you’re actually trained to eavesdrop and you get to be as nosy as you like because you have to be in order to do your job well. Of course, working as an interpreter is not quite that simple; you also have to translate what the person you’re hearing is saying and usually under pressure, you can’t simply hang around listening in to satisfy your own curiosity (as much as we wish that was a job).
With this in mind, to say I was intrigued about talking to Silvina Katz and what she does for a living was an understatement – I couldn’t wait to pick her brain. As a board member of the NRPSI (The National Register of Public Service Interpreters) and a working interpreter for the likes of the police, the courts and the prison service, Silvina has a wealth of experience in interpreting spanning a 30 year career. Describing her role as like being ‘a fly on the wall’, it’s obvious she’s passionate about helping people communicate and loves the variety of working in such a role, not to mention the wedding invites...
How did you come to work in interpreting?
I started with technical translations, they were really complicated, and without the internet you had to hide yourself in a library and spend hours trying to find out what various things meant. So eventually I trained and did a community interpreting course that was provided by the local authority. They really encouraged people to acquire the proper qualifications in interpreting and that is how I got my DPSI (Diploma in Public Service Interpreting) in law.
So what languages do you speak?
I was born in Argentina and so interpret in Spanish and English. I was, once upon a time, fluent in French. I also have a smattering of other languages, but I can’t really use them professionally because you have to be highly proficient and qualified in the languages you interpret. I therefore just kept to interpreting my mother tongue and the language of the country I live in.
Do you think that once you mastered one additional language, it’s easy to learn more?
Absolutely. It’s an organic thing. I think if you start learning languages fairly young, you sort of place your knowledge in a different part of your brain. You can recognise the patterns in languages, see their roots and how they evolve. For example, I don’t really speak Swedish or Danish, but if I start watching a Swedish or Danish programme, within five minutes I have a feel for what they're saying.
So what is a typical day like working as an interpreter?
Well, there isn’t a typical day! I know that some of my colleagues who live and work in London may have continuous court work, or they might do the same thing all the time, but I live in the country and each day my work is different. For instance, this morning I had to get up really early because I have been interpreting for a psychologist providing therapy. And then, in the evening, I might have a call from the police about someone in custody who needs an interpreter to be interviewed. No day is ever the same.
Wow, that does sound varied! What would you say is the most rewarding part of the job?
A critical aspect is that you know that you’ve been able to help. You know that your presence has enabled someone to do something that they couldn’t have done without you being there. But it’s almost like, you know how people often say, ‘I’d love to have been a fly on the wall when that happened?’ Well, I actually get to be that fly!
It does sound like that! What do you find most challenging though?
Sometimes you have to deal with situations that aren’t particularly pleasant, especially when a crime has been committed. You have to be totally professional, even when you’re dealing with something that you might not be prepared for. That is a challenge; you can’t predict who your clients are going to be.
Do you ever feel uncomfortable interpreting something you disagree with? Or when you know that what they’re saying is wrong?
It isn’t difficult because you’re translating what somebody else is saying. Sometimes they can try to get you on their side, but you have to take a professional approach. As a registered interpreter I follow best practice and the NRPSI Code of Conduct, which means that I can only interpret exactly what is said. You have to remain totally impartial as a professional interpreter.
I think for an inexperienced interpreter that this is probably one of the hardest things to do because you’re never likely to deal with individuals at their best. Working as a public sector interpreter, you are almost always dealing with individuals at their worst; they’re often in situations where they are under stress or traumatised. You have to be adaptable, but always professional.
Are there any interpreting jobs you’ve worked on that have particularly stood out?
That’s a really difficult one to answer because the job is so varied. I had to work once with a lady who was arrested because she had stolen a toothbrush. It wasn’t a massive thing, but she totally mistrusted the police. She just couldn’t and wouldn’t cooperate, and she had a miscarriage as a result of the stress. It was horrific.
At the other extreme, I’ve probably got married five or six times! I go along to interpret weddings and that’s really quite exciting. I’ve never quite known where that’s left me though – was I part of the contract?
So you might have several husbands out there?
I might do! But yes, interpreting is so varied that usually the last job I’ve done is the most exciting.
How do you think the role of the interpreter has changed with new technology? There are lots of apps out there to help translate now, has that change your work?
I use a voiceover app quite a lot now. If, for instance, if there is a situation where an interpreter is needed on the spot, you can actually have a conversation on Skype and call other people into the conversation. You no longer have to travel to a site.
This is a bit of a weird question but it’s one we’re curious about...when you’re interpreting, which language are you thinking in?
This is something I have been asked before and I always have to think about it because it’s a bit like being a very young child with bilingual parents – there’s no distinction between the two languages, you move between systems. I’m not sure that I think in words, it’s more that I just respond in whatever way the situation requires.
I also actually have different voices! If I were to speak to you now in Spanish, you’d notice that my English voice is very different. It’s almost like I have a different personality! And that’s what it’s like with interpreting – your personality gets put into neutral, becomes ‘beige’, if you like, and when you’re speaking for another person you become another person. This is probably why I don’t think in any one particular language because it depends on the person I’m speaking for.
What do you think is the most common difficulty people have when communicating in two different languages?
Very often it’s not actually the language that’s difficult, but the culture. People have misconceptions and they immediately judge people they don’t understand. Part of the challenge with interpreting is lowering cultural barriers as well as linguistic ones. In fact, I would say that it never is language that’s the problem. Someone being in distress or pain and not knowing what’s going to happen to them is a far greater barrier to communication.
Have you got any last words for people interested in following in your footsteps?
I think there isn’t a better or more varied and interesting profession! If you’re interested in change then this is absolutely a fantastic profession to be in. It isn’t for everybody – you need to be sharp, you need to be alert and you need to have the power to concentrate for very long periods of time.
If you think you’ve got what it takes to become an interpreter, taking a course could be the start of an entire new career path. Whether it’s a full time career you’re after or a way to add to your existing skills at work, the possibilities for you as ‘a fly on the wall’ are endless.