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You're a what? Simultaneous interpreter.

You're a What? By Michael Stanton

When President Reagan met with Soviet leader Gorbachev in Washington last December, the two men sat down for several solitary sessions. Almost. An interpreter accompanied each man to assure that their conversations were clearly communicated across language barriers.

Interpretation demands special skills and talents. "You have to have a quick mind, quick reflexes, and, ideally, be totally transparent," says Fernando van Reigersberg. "If I do my job well, it should be as if I'm not there." That sounds like the perfect description for an athletic, invisible man. But mental gymnastics are van Reigersberg's specialty. He is an interpreter and the director of the language services division at INTELSAT, the international telecommunications cooperative.

Born to a Spanish mother and a Dutch father, van Reigersberg was a practiced globetrotter at an age when most of us are just venturing around the block. As a child, he lived in the United States, the Netherlands, France, Portugal, Spain, and north Africa. In each place, he kept his eyes and ears open.

"I went to an English school in Spain, and a Spanish school in north Africa," he says. The phone rings. He answers, "Alo, como vai? Tudo bem?" Portuguese. That's only one of several languages he speaks as fluently as his native Dutch. At INTELSAT, he interprets in English, French, and Spanish.

He obtained his first assignment as an interpreter while still a teenager. Looking for a summer job after his freshman year at Georgetown University, he learned that the U.S. Department of State was looking for interpreters to help with their foreign visitors program. He took the job and worked with the program each summer until he graduated, earning enough to pay for his schooling. At graduation, the State Department offered him a position. "I've worked continuously as an interpreter ever since," he says.

People sometimes confuse the work of interpreters with that of translators, but significant differences exist between them. Translators work strictly with the written word. Interpreters work orally. They are seldom interchangeable. In most cases, says van Reigersberg, translators cannot interpret and only rarely do interpreters translate.

There are two different types of interpreting--consecutive and simultaneous. In consecutive, the interpreter listens to the speaker, takes notes, and then interprets several sentences or paragraphs of the speaker's address. In simultaneous, which is practiced at the United Nations and at other international organizations, interpretation follows only three or four words behind the speaker. It's an exercise that demands such intense concentration that it usually requires two interpreters who alternate 30-minute shifts. It's exhausting work.

If you wish to sample how difficult and exhausting simultaneous interpretation can be, van Reigersberg suggests a simple exercise. "Turn on the evening news and repeat in a loud voice everything that the announcer says, without missing a word, for 30 minutes. If you can do that, you'll be pretty tired even without trying to put the words into another language."

In addition to being bilingual, an interpreter must be bicultural. "Not only must you have an excellent command of the language, you must feel totally at ease in the culture," says van Reigersberg. He and his colleagues must be attuned to the nuances and subtleties of the language to convey the speaker's meaning as accurately as possible. "If you're a 6-foot-tall Caucasian with blond hair and blue eyes conversing with a group of Koreans, they should be able to close their eyes and think they're speaking with a Korean," says van Reigersberg. This familiarity can't be gained solely through books. To really learn a language and culture, you must study it rigorously and live it.

Van Reigersberg points to an important factor in studying languages -- youth. "I can't overemphasize the importance of learning a language at an early age," he says. Generally, the older a person is, the more difficult it is to develop foreign language skills. "A person can decide to study archeology at 50 and become a good archeologist. But it's much more difficult to learn a language at that age. That's why you see sons and daughters of missionaries gravitate to interpreting. The children of Foreign Service officers and military personnel who've spent a lot of time overseas are good candidates, too."

Of course, there are exceptions, says van Reigersberg, and he offers one close to home. His wife is Chief of the Language Services Interpreting Division at the State Department. "She grew up in Missouri and didn't begin to learn a language until she was 17. But she has a good ear for languages; and, when shee did initiate her studies, she pursued them as one does the study of a musical instrument--putting in hours and hours of drills, repetition, and practice." Later, she spent a year in Peru where she lived with a family and immersed herself in the language and culture.

Only a small percentage of people who possess the necessary language and cultural skills can master simultaneous interpretation. "When I was at the State Department, we tested people who had, at least on paper, the likely qualities. We found that only about 10 percent can do simultaneous."

"It requires almost a split personality," says van Reigersberg. "I believe that, if you don't have the innate talents, no amount of training can make you a simutaneous interpreter." But, he adds, "I have some very worthy colleagues who don't agree with me."

The subjects of conferences and negotiations present further challenges. International conferences convene on nearly every conceivable subject. "We read a lot to keep abreast of the languages, but we must also read extensively in the particular technical field we're dealing with," offers van Reigersberg. At INTELSAT, the subject is satellite communications, a vast field that requires van Reigersberg and his staff to be well acquainted not only with technical questions, but with legal and economic issues as well. For freelance interpreters, the subject matter may be more varied. One week, it may be gastroenterology and the next week, soybeans.

To prepare for an assignment, most interpreters compile extensive glossaries of technical terms for the subject they are interpreting. Only recently have freelance interpreters begun to ask for and obtain paid study days to prepare for a conference and gain a more complete understanding of the subject matter.

Three main markets employ interprets--international organizations, the Federal Government, and organizations that work internationally, such as the Rotary Club. In these three markets, van Reigersberg estimates that no more than 400 professionals work as simultaneous interpreters in this country. "The demand just isn't that great. If it were, there would be more. But when you need an interpreter, you need one desperately." Drawing upon a musical analogy, he equates an interpreter with a musician. "There may be 50 violinists in an orchestra and 1 piccolo player. But when this one performer is absent, you know it."

Van Reigersberg frequently receives questions concerning what language to study. "That's a difficult question to answer because the demand for language specialists is greatly affected by international relations," he says. In the early 1960's, at the height of the cold war, communication between the superpowers was minimal. Many of our Russian language interpreters "spent their days reading newspapers," says van Reigsberg, because there was little work to do. With the current spate of negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union, these interpreters are working overtime.

Interpreters in rare languages are highly prized, but again, notes van Reigersberg, those who assume the challenge of studying them face some risk. "For example, I had a friend in the Foreign Service who decided 30 years ago to study Mongolian. Today, he is a senior diplomat. Unfortunately, we only recently established relations with Mongolia."

The market for interpreters is concentrated within a few cities, such as New York, Washington, Miami, and New Orleans. "If you live in Ames, Iowa, and want to be an interpreter, plan on moving because few conferences will be coming your way," van Reigersberg says.

Working as an interpreter means that you'll probably have to get used to living out of a suitcase. "I have many friends who freelance and are on the road more often than they are home. I make about four overseas trips a year, which is enough to suit me," says van Reigersberg. "I would hate a job where I didn't travel."

Senior interpreters who work for the Federal Government are usually GS 13's and above with a starting salary of about $38,000. Freelance interpreters earn about $320 per day. But for freelancers, it's usually feast or famine. And to get these jobs, an interpreter must build a reputation slowly and painstakingly.

Van Reigersberg emphasizes you should begin your language studies while you're young. "Both my wife and I are firm believers in student exchange programs," he says. "If you get a kid in high school who speaks fair French and send him to a French high school for a year, he'll have to work terribly hard for a year but he'll learn French."

Only a few school in the United States offer training for interpreters. The Monterey School for Languages in California and Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., offer instruction. The University of Delaware recently began a program as well.

Van Reigersberg concludes with some thoughts on the joys of the job. "It's such a mental exercise. Like playing multiple chess games. It's very difficult, if not impossible for anyone other than another interpreter to judge how well I do my job. When I do it well, I know, and that provides a great deal of satisfaction. My job is to facilitate communication. To be a bridge, never a barrier. I serve as a bridge between languages and a bridge between cultures."
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Author:Stanton, Michael
Publication:Occupational Outlook Quarterly
Date:Mar 22, 1988
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