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Interpreter, Know Thyself!

Published September 30, 2015

Today we celebrate International Translation Day. As we do so, many will reference St. Jerome, the patron saint of translators (and by extension, interpreters).

We would like to celebrate this profession we love so much by referencing a different ancient figure, the Greek god Apollo. It turns out that Apollo has some very cogent words of wisdom for modern-day interpreters and translators.

As legend has it, Apollo gave the Oracle at Delphi several condensed pearls of wisdom that became known as the Delphic maxims. The most famous of these, γνῶθι σεαυτόν, was so important that it was actually carved into the façade of Apollo’s temple at Delphi. Its translation into English: “Know thyself."

It is a simple but important piece of advice for interpreters and translators alike in a dynamic and expanding language services field where the way we work is evolving.

Case in point: I have now taught, trained, encouraged, guided, challenged—and surely frustrated more than a time or two—nine graduating classes of interpreters from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Their journey through a demanding and rigorous master-level interpreting program is a voyage of self-discovery.

They all come in with fixed ideas of who they are and what they want to be professionally. I can safely say when they depart two years later with their diploma in hand, their vision of who they are, what they do well and what makes them happy is notably different. 

I believe one of the most important things I can teach aspiring interpreters and translators, as well as those already in the field, is precisely what Apollo admonished so many centuries ago: know thyself.

Interpreters are part of an expanding, dynamic profession, which together with translation and localization, is one of the fastest growing in the world today. But with that expansion comes change and diversity. Who could have predicted the rise of text messaging as a preferred means of communication, the advent of telemedicine or the growth of on-demand interpreting services on your smartphone?

Once upon a time we could point to translation, interpreting and localization as activities with a limited number of career pathways. There were only a few flavors of ice cream to choose from—the old standards of chocolate, vanilla and strawberry. Now, seemingly all of a sudden, the language services industry teems with a growing number of job opportunities and descriptions, a veritable Baskin Robbins of choices. And as the number of flavors multiplies, language professionals have to decide which flavors they like and work well for them.

No one can master ALL the skill sets now being asked for in the language industry, just as no one is going to be able to eat, let alone like, every flavor of ice cream. We each know what flavors we like and which flavors combine best for us. So to work in our field today, it is more important now than ever to, first and foremost, understand what makes you tick. What are you passionate about? How do you want to use your linguistic talents to make a living and contribute to the absolutely essential service we provide the world?

At the end of the day, not all work that matters is well paid, and not all well-paid work matters. The trick is having enough well-paid work to feed your stomach and enough work that matters to feed your soul. And happy is the soul that does work that matters and is well paid.

Know thyself! If you really do, you will be able to build an interpreting career around those activities that really matter to you.


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