All ears and well primed, so nothing's lost in translation

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 January, 2007, 12:00am

You have to be familiar with the lingo of your client's industry or business, says freelance simultaneous interpreter Helen Li Chung-yan

I AM A professional simultaneous interpreter and I have been in the business for seven years. Most people think I must have a degree in linguistics or that I have majored in translation. In fact, I have a bachelor's degree in business administration and a master's in e-commerce technologies.

After trying out different jobs - in a travel agency, a garment trading company and a financial consultancy - I settled for simultaneous interpretation as my career.

I joined the Official Languages Agency in 1999 as an interpreter, and a year ago I decided to leave and start working as a freelance interpreter.

Apart from my regular clients, I work with a few language service companies on individual projects. Quadra Technics ICS is one of the companies.

I am a self-employed interpreter, but my work schedule is as busy as that of any full-time employee in a language services company.

I can be tied up with as many as two or three work sessions a day, and I could be working with one client while consecutively interpreting for another client.

Consecutive interpretation is interpretation conducted in paragraph form.

During the peak season I receive a number of service calls. I have to prioritise my work or schedules would clash.

My clients come from different business industries, so I have to be familiar with the language and jargon of the respective industries. I find trade magazines and the internet the best resources for learning the different terms. I also ask friends who work in the same or similar fields.

Clients usually give about a week's notice when they want an interpretation service. I also get short notice calls from the government regarding urgent matters.

The moment I am hired by a company, I start reading up on the firm by looking up the company's website and other related information on the internet.

As we have only limited time, we have to prepare well in advance. I try to learn all I can in a given time frame, so as not to make mistakes or cause confusion in my interpretation work.

I have had to deal with just one awkward situation so far since taking on freelance interpretation work. Once, during a consecutive interpretation session, I misinterpreted what the Chinese speaker was trying to say. His choice of words was vague. Fortunately, it was not a major issue, and the speaker later reinstated his original meaning.

My daily routine involves reading English newspapers and trade magazines to broaden my vocabulary.

I also tune into television and radio programmes in English and Putonghua to get as close as possible to the native tone and style.

Browsing the internet for business websites is a rewarding activity. It is almost like having an instant tutor at home.

As for job satisfaction, nothing beats a compliment from a client for a good performance. When that happens, I feel that all the hard work I have put in - searching for information pertaining to the client's business through the internet and other sources - was worth it.

Word of mouth helps to boost my reputation as an interpreter, promotes my business and broadens my clientele.

The interpreting business has its challenges, not so much in the business sense as with the clients themselves. By this I mean unusual accents, speakers who do not speak clearly and are not eloquent, speakers who speak off the cuff and need instant interpretation, and meetings that run over time.

I still consider myself a learner in this line of work, but I'm always ready to cope when the occasion arises.