Interpreting schools – beyond their best before date?
Working interpreters were already feeling the pinch when Covid-19 arrived, and they tended to think that one cause was the overproduction of newcomers by interpreting schools. People would suggest closing them, or at least putting the courses on hold for a couple of years to give the market time to right itself. Louise Jarvis is a professional conference interpreter and a trainer at the University of Bath Interpreting School and in this interview with Phil Smith she considers the role of interpreting schools and the work they do to remain relevant to current market needs. The comments and conclusions – if any – refer to interpreting into English. The situation may vary for other active languages.
Although the current crisis has hit demand for interpreters, it is important to keep our eyes on what will happen post-Covid. Demand for English booth interpreters remains high in both the UN and EU sectors: the UN is particularly keen on people with passive Russian and the EU needs new blood with German and Italian. Despite Brexit, demand for English language interpreters will hold up because of the wide use of English in all international organisations. In the language architecture of the EU, English is the load-bearing wall.
Entry testing at interpreting schools is stringent, and this is in part due to the fact that once someone has been admitted to the course it is not easy to expel them – there is a tension between academic rigour and the administrative demands of being part of a university. That same university system also makes it well-nigh impossible to put a course on hold for a year or two. Universities simply don’t work that way.
Which languages should a student choose? The UN works with six languages which do not change so the answer here is: French, Spanish and Russian – bearing in mind that the Arabic and Chinese booths are bi-directional. In the EU requirements change, but there does appear to be a looming shortage of English language interpreters working from German and Italian. Add to that the age profile of staff and freelance interpreters in the EU and there is clearly a need for new recruits. The good interpreting schools have close contacts with the international organisations so can tailor their offering to future needs.
The first thing an interpreting school impresses upon new entrants is the need to work on their mother tongue – clarity, diction, the ability to express an idea succinctly. Students also learn how to analyse a speech, what is the actual message, the structure of the speech, what are the different points and how do they relate to each other, how do you home in on the message and the intention behind the message.
Such skills are very useful in any job, so even if a student decides that interpreting is not really for them, the ability to speak in public, to analyse a speech and discern the “truth behind the words” will serve them in whatever career they choose.
Budding interpreters sometimes ask which languages they should choose, perhaps with the idea that something truly exotic will get them more work. Experience teaches that in general interpreters are best placed if they have what we might call mainstream languages (EN, FR, ES, DE, IT) and perhaps one exotic language such as Danish or Slovenian. It is also quite good if an interpreter can straddle markets, in other words appeal to both the EU and the UN.
Demand for interpreters fluctuates, language requirements change, and schools do their best to meet those demands whilst being candid to their students about future career prospects. It is something of a balancing act.
The medium and long-term prospects for the English booth remain good so interpreting schools continue to fulfil a useful and a vocational role.
And learn Italian and German. Remember, you read it here first.