I met Bianca years ago in a sweaty, dingy boxing gym in the 13th arrondissement of Paris. Her huge smile won me over, as did her charming South African accent. Between watching her kick ass in the gym, we bonded over our shared 'southern-hemisphere girls' attitude, and although my boxing gloves are pretty dusty these days, our friendship has endured and I am lucky to call her a good friend.
In time, I learned that just as Superman has a day job, Bianca does too, working as a translator and interpreter. She has been in France for 10 years now, and has built a strong and successful business.
Nobody will ever mistake me for a French national, so I’m fascinated and impressed by the way Bianca has completely mastered the language, and the mental gymnastics she performs every single working day.
In exchange for Thai takeaway, Bianca let me grill her on the ins and outs of her fascinating job.
What are the different kinds of interpreting?
What I do is Liaison Interpreting: and that’s typically sitting in on meetings and accompanying delegations… I take notes and interpret idea by idea back and forth between French and English. So you’re working as a kind of lynch-pin between two parties. I also do chuchotage, which is whispered, simultaneous interpreting.
Then you’ve got Consecutive Interpreting, which involves much longer note-taking... think long official speeches.
And then you’ve got Conference Interpreting: which is simultaneous, with the interpreter sitting in a booth, typically at a conference.
And that third sort is what you’d like to get into.
Yes, I’d like to get into Conference Interpreting, and I’m making my first forays
What attracts you about that?
I like the immediacy of it. It’s the ultimate challenge, the holy grail of interpreting. It’s very exciting and I really enjoy getting into the groove, into the zone of interpreting. You are in a place where there is nothing else in the world as fascinating and as important and as enthralling as whatever this person you are listening to is saying. And as you really get into it you can sometimes get into their skin and be able to anticipate what they are going to say, and you really start understanding where they are coming from. It’s just fascinating.
So you lose yourself a bit when you are interpreting?
You do, completely. You get lost in time. You’re 100 percent focused. It’s the ultimate gratification for the language and communication nerd that I am. It’s being able to apply everything that you’ve learned over the years… It’s quite an adrenaline rush and very stressful at times… I guess it’s like bungee jumping in a way. You come out feeling on top of the world. Of course it can also go wrong!
I’m really interested in that idea of going into the zone… like if I’m at the shop and I have to interpret for tourists, into English or into French...it’s very clunky... And if people talk to me at the same time I can understand them both, but I can’t … I freeze. I can’t talk at the same time. So I guess I’m curious of how you get to that point.
It’s practice. There are a lot of exercises you can do to tap into getting the left and right hemisphere to work in tandem.
Personally, I like listening with my left ear. I learned that in simultaneous interpretation a lot of interpreters prefer to wear their headphones on their left ear. The left ear links to the right hemisphere of the brain, the analytical part where the first segment of information in the source language is processed. The output in the target language is formulated in the left hemisphere of the brain, the linguistic part. As you speak, the right ear, which channels to the left hemisphere of the brain, monitors the quality of the output produced by the interpreter in the target language, while the left ear tunes into the next source language segment.
It’s juggling. It’s a kind of circular process. Learning how to tune into that is a skill that you have to build up, and there are different exercises that you can do.
So I guess interpreting is an exercise in getting the left and right hemisphere to work together in a steady flow.
Wow. It reminds me of the circular breathing Aboriginal didgeridoo players use.
Do you take notes in French or English?
It’s a mixture and there are a lot of symbols. It’s a very personal system. There are some basic rules and there are some symbols that you can find online. A lot of my symbols are ones that I’ve made up and ones that I’ve learned from colleagues, or online, or from school. And it’s a mixture of French, English and my own squiggles.
Can you give me an example?
Well I could show you!
Bianca pulls out notebook and begins to draw….
Yesterday, today, tomorrow, from now on, progress, improve, basic… increase, increase a lot, decrease, decrease a lot, industry, environment, etc…
I watch in fascination as Bianca covers the page in hieroglyphs and symbols in fluid, rapid strokes. [I intended to upload a photo of the page, but inevitably lost it.]
This I made up, this I made up, this I learned…Things like “so that” I’ would write ‘afq’ which is “afin que” which is from French. So no matter what language I’m working in, it will be a mix of English, French and symbols.
It’s like shorthand?
It’s not quite the same as shorthand… also I don’t really write in a line. I mean, it depends. Some people write in a circle, some people will write diagonally, I tend to work vertically and use a lot of arrows to refer back to earlier ideas..
It’s very graphic. I like using arrows a lot and circling... There is no right or wrong system, it’s really what works for the individual. Some people don’t even need to take notes and just use it as a bit of a crutch. I always have a pen and my notebook in hand in case a number or name comes up - I can remember concepts easily enough, but names and numbers, you don’t want to get those wrong.
What does it sound like when you say it back? Is it natural, do you pause?
So the most important thing at the end of the day is for whoever is listening to understand.Your voice is also a very effective tool to convey a message so you might not get use the exact same words but you can compensate or emphasise your words with tone of voice. Ideally, in the same way as a translation needs to read as a natural text, as if it was written in the target language, people need to leave that meeting knowing that they understood everything. They don’t even have to remember that there was actually somebody doing the relay...
So the more invisible you are…
That’s ideal. You know like at these fancy restaurants where the waiter should be invisible and everything should just happen by itself without us even noticing? It’s kinda that.
So does the way you dress, the way you speak that play into that?
Yes, I think dress is very important. So if I have an assignment at the bank, I’ll wear a suit.
If I’m going on site in industrial areas, which I do a lot of, that’s a different kettle of fish. You dress to adhere to safety standards, so “bleus de travail”, coveralls, and often hard hats, safety gloves, safety goggles and hearing protection for noisy areas. The general idea is that you want to look the part.
I don’t wear jewellery that’s going to make a lot of noise, that’s going to attract a lot of attention or distract. The first day I’ll always try to dress neutrally and then I’ll get some tips, visual clues about what people are wearing and adapt.
The other day I had an assignment for which we had little information beforehand. I pitched up in my very fine suit, collared shirt, well heeled and all the rest, and it turned out to be an interpreting job for two technicians who were there to do a maintenance job. So I was completely overdressed! The next day luckily I had some more casual clothes. But on the first day I felt a bit silly!
Do you need to stay detached personally from the people you work for in order to do your job? Do you think that the more they know about you personally... can that get in the way?
I think it’s good to have a friendly rapport. It puts people at ease. For example, I worked at the Salon du Livre [Book Fair] and one year they had a very well known South African writer, Elinor Sisulu. And when she found out I was South African, she was so happy. And it was quite funny because I was interpreting in the first person, and at one point she said “and this is my interpreter who is also South African!”.
So how did you say it?
“Je suis moi-même, l’interprete, Sud-Africaine!”
What’s the best part about the job?
It’s really exciting. I love the adrenaline, the travelling and the people. I love going on exciting missions. One of the areas I work in - safety inspections in the energy sector - is quite a sensitive area, so I get access to places that are closed off to the general public and require security clearance.
I specialise in Banking & Finance on the one hand and in energy on the other. Those are my two big eggs where I do most of my work. But then I have all these little eggs in between, which is really nice because it takes me out of the heavy technical stuff. I can find myself working in a government audiovisual department, then subtitling a children’s video, then translating an academic article on Moroccan mysticism, back to financial statements.
What is the hardest part about interpreting?
What my interpreting trainer called “the little voice”. That little voice in your head that can make or break your performance. Either the voice that says “hey you’re doing great, this is cool! Hey wow! You’re sounding really good, oh that was a good one, high five!” and you’re like “Hang on! Focus, focus lady!”. Or there’s a little voice that says “What do you think you’re doing. Honestly, who do you think you are, interpreting this. Really? Did you just say that? Are you kidding me? You should have said this!”.
I guess it’s the interpreter’s ego, whereas as an interpreter you shouldn’t have an ego. You’re invisible.