Interpretation: Breaking down barriers

August 5, 2014 by admin

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Patricia Charnet loves languages – and with 25 years experience of working as an interpreter, that’s a fact that is hard to dispute.

After arriving in London more than quarter of a decade ago from her native France, Patricia has been putting her passion to good use. Initially working as a French language tutor, she went on to use her master’s degree in specialised technical translation in a professional capacity – using her background in law and medicine, two of the subjects she focused on during her MA, to pursue a career in legal and medical interpreting in the high court, hospitals and conferences.

Keeping an open mind is what Patricia believes is one of the key qualities that anyone aiming to appoint an interpreter should look for, along with humility, a hard-working attitude and an ability to deal with criticism. Conversely, she believes the sign of a bad interpreter is someone who is condescending, arrogant and “appears to have a chip on their shoulder”.


Aside from the high level of difficulty of the job itself, part of the battle many professionals face is getting the point across to their client that what they are doing is an incredibly skilled job that sometimes requires extra support to enable them to do their assignment justice.

For example, the supply of supporting documents ahead of taking on a job can help significantly with an interpreter’s understanding of the context of the situation they are working in. While this can’t be done in all settings (some highly sensitive and legal situations won’t allow for it), having access to a speech ahead of a conference can make a real difference to the quality of service that can be delivered.

Similarly, the tools that are made available to the interpreter can also impact on how well they are able to carry out their duties.

Although it generally costs more, the hiring of a booth and sound engineer in conference environments is considered to be a necessity rather than a nicety as far as interpreters are concerned – although they sometimes have difficulties convincing their clients that this is the case.

“The alternative, a roaming headset, just isn’t as good, as it can’t filter very well and it lets in background noise,” Patricia explains. “Conferences are the hardest, because you have to do simultaneous interpreting and a lot of people want to get into this but its much harder than people think and it takes a lot of time to get used to it.”

But what is it about simultaneous interpreting that makes it such a challenge?

“For a start, you haven’t got time to refer to a dictionary and it’s likely you’ll encounter lots of different accents. For example, I recently confused the English word ‘owner’ with ‘honour’, purely because of the speaker’s accent! That’s what you have to deal with.”


It’s a highly fulfilling job, as Patricia confirms: “When you’ve got a French family near you in a hospital because their daughter has had her spine broken in several pieces and they don’t understand the procedure, so they’re relying on a good interpreter to tell them what is happening – it’s very rewarding.

Doing a medical conference where the client gave you a lot of material to prepare beforehand and have the French delegates coming to the booth to thank you afterwards for doing work that meant something wasn’t gobbledegook is rewarding. Going to prisons to help someone who has been arrested to understand their rights – it’s a very rewarding profession.”

The fact is, Patricia loves people and sees her role as an interpreter as being vital when it comes to breaking down the barriers that language can often present. From social situations to matters of life and death, hers is a career where she genuinely doesn’t know what she might come up against from week to week.

Written by Chan Sumray

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