French interpreter Anna C. Mason spoke to RedLine in February 2014 about her work. A graduate of the Monterey Institute of International Studies, Mason is an American who works as a freelance interpreter in Washington, D.C.
RedLine: Anna, you’re a French interpreter, but could you tell us what an interpreter does, regardless of his or her language pair?
Anna Mason: An interpreter converts a speaker’s words into a target language. As a French interpreter, I work in French and in English, which is my native language. There are two types of interpreting, generally—simultaneous interpreting and consecutive interpreting.
RedLine: What’s the difference between the two?
AM: Simultaneous interpreting is done simultaneously, as its name suggests, but really there’s a delay of a few seconds, and usually this is done in a booth. So the interpreter listens to the speaker and then translates into the target language, speaking into a microphone, while people in the audience listen with headsets. Consecutive interpreting is done with notes. The interpreter takes notes while the speaker delivers a speech, and then after a certain amount of time—say, 30 seconds to four minutes—the interpreter then delivers his or her rendition.
RedLine: What is “chuchotage” exactly?
AM: Chuchotage is whispering interpreting. It’s a variant of simultaneous interpreting, really, and it’s usually done for one or two people: the interpreter usually sits beside or behind the person and whispers into their ear simultaneously.
RedLine: Tell us a little bit about the training that a person needs to have in order to become an interpreter.
AM: Well, there are a few paths that interpreters can take. The professional French interpreters I know have all come to interpreting in a slightly different way, but I will say that they all have extensive language training. They all have at least an undergraduate degree, and many of them also have a master’s in interpreting, which is what I have, or they have a master’s or even a PhD in another field of study. And those people have typically come to interpreting later in life, perhaps after they’ve had another career, and that career experience, combined with their language experience, is great training for an aspiring interpreter.
RedLine: Where do interpreters work?
AM: Well, when people think about interpreters, they of course think of places like the UN and international organizations, which bring together people who speak different languages. But you also find interpreters in hospitals, in courtrooms—basically anywhere where two people who speak different languages need to communicate with each other.
RedLine: In the United States, what language pair or pairs would you say are most common for professional interpreters?
AM: Most of the interpreters I know are French interpreters, but I also know many interpreters who work in Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Arabic, and Korean.
RedLine: Is it true that the need for a certain language is a function of the geographic area? For example, will you find Spanish court interpreters in Arizona and Korean medical interpreters in hospitals in Los Angeles, that sort of thing?
AM: Definitely. I know there’s more work for interpreters on the West Coast who have Spanish or Chinese, Japanese, or another Asian language, whereas you don’t necessarily find those as much on the East Coast. Of course, in a city where there’s a specific group of people—a group of immigrants, perhaps—who speak a certain language, then you’ll need more interpreters for that language in that area.
RedLine: How did you get started in the field?
AM: Well, when I started studying French in high school, I instantly liked it. So I always sort of had it in my head that I wanted to do something with languages, and then as I went through college and studied French more—I also studied Spanish after college—I heard about the Monterey Institute [of International Studies] from a family friend who had gone there, and I just thought it would be a good fit for me. And when I went there, I didn’t really think about translation so much as interpreting. I can’t even really explain what drew me to it. It was almost like an instinctive thing. I just felt like it was the right fit for the things that I like to do.
RedLine: What kinds of assignments have you had so far?
AM: A lot of the work I’ve done has been for the State Department, and it has a program in which people from all over the world are invited to spend three weeks in the United States studying the topic that relates to their professional interests. So I’ve accompanied a lot of those delegations and I’ve interpreted at all of their official meetings, and the topics really vary. It could be something like good governance, democracy, NGO management, entrepreneurship—the topics really vary. And then I’ve also done some work for international organizations in [Washington] D.C. and for embassies when they have delegations here, as well as for other private clients.
RedLine: What, so far, has been your career highlight?
AM: Well, it actually happened just the other day! I was part of the support team of French interpreters for the state visit of the French president, which included the state dinner at the White House.
RedLine: You attended the state dinner at the White House?
AM: That’s right.
RedLine: Nice! Could you tell us a little bit about that evening?
AM: Well, it was a whirlwind. The French president was accompanied by a delegation. That delegation included a few of the ministers from his government, and so I was assigned to interpret for one of those ministers. She was sitting at one of the tables at the dinner, and on either side of her were people who spoke a little bit of French but not much, so I sat behind them so I could facilitate conversation between the minister and the people on either side of her.
RedLine: What is your least favorite part about interpreting?
AM: Probably the unpredictability of freelancing. Freelancing is great because I get to pick my jobs to a certain extent, and I don’t really have a boss, which is nice. But at the same time, if there’s a slow period and I’m not getting a lot of work, it can be frustrating to feel idle.
RedLine: What would you say to someone who’s thinking about interpreting as a full-time career? I gather that it’s not five days a week, 9 to 5, 40 hours a week.
AM: Right. There are staff interpreter positions. I can’t really speak to that because that’s not what I do and from what I’ve understood, there aren’t that many staff interpreter positions, at least not in the U.S.—unless, of course, you’re at the UN. So it’s most likely that if you become an interpreter, you’re going to be a freelancer at some point in your career.
RedLine: So a French interpreter—or any freelance interpreter, actually—would have multiple clients, correct?
AM: Exactly. In my case, I work mainly for the State Department, but I’m free to work with any client that I wish to work with. But that can be challenging, especially initially when you’re trying to find clients, trying to get your name out there, and it does take some time. So if people are in that position, I would encourage them not to become discouraged. It just really takes time to build that client list and have people get to know you.
RedLine: Where can people go to find information about interpreter salaries?
AM: Pay for interpreters varies widely, but the [Department of Labor’s] Bureau of Labor Statistics has information about salaries for translators and interpreters. [Editor’s note: Data is from 2012.]
RedLine: Is there a dress code for interpreters?
AM: Well, even if I’m going to be in a booth all day, I think it’s always good to have professional attire. I think that [dressing professionally] just sends a better message to your client.
RedLine: Should students interested in the profession go to an interpreting school?
AM: I would say that for me it made a lot of sense to go to an interpreting school. I think I really needed that in order to learn the skills of interpreting and also learn other professional skills. It was really useful for me, and I don’t think I could have done it any other way. But that’s not true for everybody. Either way, though, interpreting is a very demanding profession and it requires that you constantly practice and learn—not necessarily even to improve your skills but just to maintain a certain [skill] level.
RedLine: I’m hearing you say that simply knowing two languages is not enough.
AM: That’s definitely true. You have to know those languages so well—better even than you think you know them. There’s also just so much general knowledge that you need to have, and I remember hearing that constantly when I was at Monterey, at the interpreting school I went to. You have to read the newspaper every day. You have to be up on current events. You have to really explore a lot of different fields because [any topic] can come up at a meeting.
RedLine: It sounds like interpreting requires a deep skill set.
AM: It does. Successful interpreters have the language ability, obviously, and they have good, broad, general knowledge in addition to perhaps some specific subject matter knowledge. And then on top of that, they also need the skills of interpreting and knowing how to do simultaneous, knowing how to do consecutive.
RedLine: How can potential clients get in touch with you?
RedLine: Thanks very much for talking to us, Anna.
AM: You’re welcome. It was my pleasure.