On the morning of the first day, we entered the building of the Directorate General for Interpretation (SCIC). After passing through security check and humbly admiring the blue flags with yellow stars now greeting us from all sides, we ascended a vertical series of escalators to the third floor.
There in a large meeting room we listened to presentations on the accreditation test and how to prepare terminology for meetings. After this brief initiation, in the afternoon 10 of our Spanish booth students underwent mock accreditation tests. We were told the Screening Committee conducts mock tests frequently because it saw many promising applicants fail the real ones due to nerves. It holds mock exams with students from the various interpreting schools when they visit Brussels, as well as via videoconference. (Just at La Laguna we’ve had three such videoconferences this year – the last one even supported simultaneous interpretation, which is a first!) Personally I must say these exercises have greatly helped me to feel less unnecessarily anxious around the Committee. They truly want candidates to succeed and they have a healthy sense of humor to boot.
Far from a competitive environment, as one might expect from the world’s most comprehensive interpreting service, I got the impression from both its initiatives and its staff that SCIC really wants to bring out the best in its staff and applicants alike. Despite the fears we students sometimes conjure up, their goal is not at all to point out all of our shortcomings or be an inaccessible ivory tower of the interpreting world. Rather, SCIC actively engages in outreach and two-way dialog to educate students on the qualities they are looking for and they are constantly looking for new ways to get involved in our training.
After the mocks, that was it for the first day. On the second and third days we were ready to go to the Council of the European Union, where council meetings take place, to work in dummy booths under the guidance of staff interpreters. This experience yielded some invaluable feedback. We students of the English booth also saw how infrequently its interpreters worked due to most of the delegates speaking in English, testament to a globalizing world. But when they did work, many delegates depended on their interpretation and other booths did relay from it. This was also a great opportunity to listen in on various booths (and perhaps feed my own Romanian curiosity…) to learn from their technique, especially how they distilled the delegates’ interventions to produce a more concise, but no less meaningful version in the target language. Within those soundproof walls we were like sponges, absorbing all the nitty-gritty details that no traditional classroom could ever convey.
Beyond the chance to observe professional interpreters, the visit was also an exercise in European Union citizenship. (This is an important topic for everyone, not just interpreting students, in light of the recent European Parliament elections). We were granted a window into the inner workings of Council meetings and observed firsthand the complex interplay of interests between the European Commission representative, the meeting chairman, and the country delegates — an interplay that the interpreter must pick up on if she wishes to be successful. Our first day’s topic dealt with public legal cases in Europe and the creation of a single online database to host their materials. The delegates spent most of their time deciding on the priority of projects for the database and there was quite a bit of heated debate. The second day brought us a different and more mellow session, this time on competitiveness, that touched on sectors ranging from apparel and textiles, to pharmaceuticals. This seamless back-and-forth in several different languages to hammer out political policies is nothing short of novel, especially for someone like myself who comes from outside the EU and has only ever witnessed monolingual policy-making sessions.
Whatever the day’s meeting topic was, it was gratifying to see the delegates use the interpretation, react to it, and even thank or otherwise acknowledge the interpreters.
More than anything, we students left with a feel for the working culture of the Council and an appreciation for the wide range of interventions a professional interpreter is expected to handle. The short interjections made by delegates, some to the point, others more meandering, were a far cry from the well-structured and fleshed-out speeches given to us in class. But that variety and the need to think on one’s feet are what make this profession so interesting.
On the evening of the third day we boarded the train for Luxembourg City. The three-hour ride through the countryside and under the setting sun was perhaps the most peaceful and serene of my life. Good thing because the early morning of the fourth day saw us assembled at the entrance of the architecturally domineering yet elegant seat of the European Court of Justice in the east of the city. Once inside, we were debriefed on the structure and operations of the Court, as well as the case whose public ruling we were to hear shortly. The hearing concerned the rights of third-country nationals staying illegally in EU member states, in this case, France. This meant the judges and legal representation spoke almost entirely in French, which is also the dominant working language of the ECJ, so the English and Spanish booths worked briskly for the next two hours. (The dummy booths of some more exotic EU languages also trained during this particular session, though I can’t say if that’s a regular occurrence.) The language of the hearing was legal and technical in nature, a far cry from the more organic tone of Council meetings back in Brussels, and it soon became clear why a degree in law or jurisprudence is required for staff interpreters at the ECJ. While not as convoluted as, say, astrophysics, the material does demand familiarity with the rules of the game and the boundaries of the playing field you are standing on, if only so that you as the interpreter can deftly transit along its accepted and well-trodden pathways of expression.
After the ruling, we met with one of the staff interpreters from the Spanish booth that we had just been tuned into. During this informal encounter we picked up invaluable nuggets of information, such as the fact that the ECJ brings freelance interpreters in a day early to study case materials for the session they will work, for which they are compensated. This is due to both the difficulty of the material and how much is riding on a quality interpretation service; the decisions handed down in Luxembourg will reflect in all the EU member countries, after all.
If one were to describe the European Court of Justice and differentiate it from Brussels, the word “ethereal” for some reason comes to mind — from the aesthetics of the Palais building, down to the nature and wide-ranging repercussions of its work (compared to the Council, which is more hands-on).
All in all, we left Brussels and Luxembourg with a renewed sense of pride in our profession, knowing that somewhere our work was highly appreciated. On an individual level, each one of us now better understood whom we were doing this for and for what purpose. Some of us even became quite engrossed in and attached to our meeting topics and wished we could return to the Institutions for the follow-up session! Proof that these are stories worth telling, and we interpreters are the lucky ones who get to bring them to a wider audience.
Lily Zhang, MIC student 2014.