Q I’m a third-year student majoring in English. My dream is to become an interpreter. First of all, I’m concerned about the requirements when it comes to pronunciation and accents. My native language is French – I read that one should have a “neutral” accent in English. I always get 18 or 19 out of 20 in phonetics and speaking tests, and most native English speakers say that I barely sound foreign. However, several British people complained about my strong “pseudo-American” accent. Should I aim for a transatlantic or English one instead, or is it something that does not really matter as long as you are understandable?
A The aim of an interpreter is to disappear into the background to be an efficient communication tool. As I explain in my entry about moderating one’s accent at work, a strong accent can detract from communication: people’s attention is, at first, focused on the way you’re conveying the message, not on the message itself. However, this problem soon disappears as the audience gets used to one’s way of speaking. I’m afraid, however, that while Americans adore British accents, the British public generally dislikes a strong American accent, particularly in a non-American person (this is a generalisation based on personal experience). I think that, as long as your English is understandable, and your excellent results at phonetics and speaking tests suggest that it is, you shouldn’t worry about it too much.
Q I also have trouble understanding how good you need to be to envisage a career in interpreting. I listen to a lot of English and I try to diversify the material that I use as much as possible – I watch American shows and trainwreck TV, as my goal is to understand both formal and informal English, but I also follow the news, and read newspapers articles. I communicate with Americans daily, and call native English speakers weekly so as to improve my speaking abilities. Sadly enough, I feel like I lack a lot of vocabulary.
Do you have any advice on how to boost one’s language skills rapidly? Besides, how important was traveling for you? What did you do as an expat that really helped you improve your English?
A My advice is simple: it doesn’t matter how many films you watch or how many newspapers you read, if you want to truly improve your knowledge and understanding of English, you must go and live in an English-speaking country for at least a few months. When I arrived in Brighton all those years ago, I knew I had only 9 months (or so I thought) on British soil and so I made a conscious decision to avoid French people. As all the international students on campus gathered according to nationality to seek comfort and friendship in a land full of people talking ridiculously fast and in accents unheard in the classroom, I did my best to socialise only with English speakers. I stalked was ultra-friendly with my British flatmates, I joined all sorts of clubs and never turned down an invitation to go out or do something. The first three months were really very hard and lonely (not to mention wet as it rained the whole time), but then my English improved, I met some lovely people, made friends and the rest is history.
Q I would like to choose English and French as my sole languages, but I was not born bilingual. Do you think that I can still make it as a successful bilingual interpreter?
A When I expressed an interest in becoming a translator age 15, I was told that it was impossible because I wasn’t bilingual, but you don’t need to be bilingual to be a good interpreter. You need to master both languages to a very high level and the quality of your written English, your passion and your dedication to improving your language skills suggest that you’re well on the way to becoming an excellent interpreter. Good luck.