On a sunny Tuesday afternoon, we were lucky enough to be able to interview Jess, a UN interpreter to quiz her about her job and how she came to her position…
What did you study?
So, for my A-levels I did French and Spanish as my languages and then I also did Music and a Maths AS-level. And then I went to St. Andrews to study French and Spanish and in Scotland they allow you to study more subjects, so I did linguistics as well and graduated with those three subjects.
How did you find your year abroad?
I loved it. I went to Spain and did a year in Galicia. At St Andrews they actually encourage you to do a year in one place instead of splitting your time; and I didn’t agree with that at the beginning because I thought that it would be a shame as I would’ve liked to work on both of my languages equally. But they said in actual fact, the amount you improve in 6 months isn’t that much really, and it is exponentially more if you spend the whole 9/10 months in one place. And now I’ve come round to their thinking because when I came back, I felt that my Spanish was on a really good level. I think the opportunity to go and spend a year abroad is the real reason why people should study languages because not all degrees offer that.
What did you do during your year abroad?
I worked as a language assistant in a school, which again I liked because it was less pressured and I only had to be there for 10 hours a week. I also did private classes whilst I was there.
So do you think that you’re better at Spanish now than at French?
Now it’s flipped again because then after I graduated, because of having spent that year in Spain I went and lived in France for a couple of years. So my French is now much better than my Spanish.
Was your goal always to be a translator/interpreter?
No, I didn’t even know what an interpreter was. A translator usually works with texts e.g books and manuals; and then interpreting is live speech, person to person. I finished university with pretty much no idea what I wanted to do. I went to an open day at Edinburgh University about interpreting and I really liked the sound of it. That was when I seriously started to think about it. I went to France for a couple of years to improve my French as a teacher and then came back and trained as an interpreter.
Do you get to travel a lot?
Yes, I travel loads. I get to go to some really interesting places like Kenya and Kazakhstan was one of the weirdest places that I’ve been to. I’ve also been to Zimbabwe, Turkey and Romania. I go to Geneva an awful lot because that’s where the UN offices are.
How to you get to the point where you were working with the UN?
I mostly work with them; I trained as an interpreter at Bath University where I did my Master’s Degree. To getting to work with the EU or the UN or any big institutions, you have to test with them to check that you’re good enough – it’s incredibly nerve-wracking. If they think you’re good enough then they will add you to their freelance roster and call you when there is work available.
What are some of the best parts about your job?
I love the travelling and going to work in new places and not going there as a tourist. But, I think the main thing that I like is that you get a huge insight into different fields by being an interpreter. One day I’ll be interpreting a meeting about what a certain country is doing to stop people from being tortured and another I’ll be translating a meeting about health standards in another country. I really like that in order to do the job well and especially because I’m early on in my career, it’s incredibly helpful to have good general knowledge and specialist vocab. I love that I’m always learning, I’m learning all the time.
What are some of the worst parts of your job?
My job is high-stress because you’re on the spot and if you don’t know the word, you don’t have time to look it up and you’re just going to have to either guess or muddle through somehow or gloss over it. That’s really stressful if you don’t know what’s going on. The travelling is tiring, especially just shuttling back and forth from Geneva, but I don’t like to complain about it, because it is what I signed up for. The hardest thing is, because I’m self-employed, I don’t know how much work I’m going to have. At the moment, I know my work for the next few months, but then after that I’m not sure.
Do you have any advice for languages students?
I think it’s really beneficial to visit the country of the language that you’re studying or going and living there for a while, if you can. It’s also really important to practice your languages every day.
A big thank you to Jess for taking the time to answer our questions!
Written by Rae and Maya.