Interview with ITIA member Isabelle Vallet Dunne

When and why did you decide on a career in interpreting?       
photo of isabelle vallet-dunne

When I arrived in Ireland forty years ago I did not know exactly what interpreting entailed.  I had an MA in History and Geography from the Sorbonne and started to do some tutoring in third level institutions. As I did not have Irish, the prospects were not very promising.  But then luck struck: an experienced interpreter had just decided to settle in Ireland (victim of another charming Irish man) and managed to persuade the government of the time that it would be in its interest to have professional conference interpreters based locally instead of bringing them in from London.

What role did training and qualification play in your career development?

An intensive one year course was organized, teachers came from London and senior members from different European institutions agreed to come at the conclusion of the course to assess us. Of ten of us, five passed.  It was pretty intensive and tough. So I did not take the classical route to interpreting, but benefitted from an exceptional possibility without which I would never have been able to practise as a conference interpreter.

Simultaneous interpreting is a bit like running- the more often you do it, the better you get at it.

Then luck struck a second time (although I hesitate to use the word as consequences were tragic for many people).  When you finish this kind of training, you need to practise, as simultaneous interpreting is a bit like running- the more often you do it, the better you get at it.  And Ireland is not the best place to live as there are very few international bodies here which require interpreting (at the time Eurofound did not exist, nor the FVO). But the Whiddy disaster (involving a French boat which blew up in Bantry while refuelling, killing 52 sailors) resulted in the establishment of an enquiry which went on for a few months, covered many different topics and required simultaneous interpreting. So we certainly got the practice. And it also meant  accumulating enough days to become a member of AIIC (International Association of Conference Interpreter), and being part of an international network of professional conference interpreters.

A few years later I passed the test of the EU (at that time, it was possible to sit it with just three languages), which opened up opportunities for work in Brussels and doing many varied missions abroad and in Ireland. We had set up a small group of conference interpreters based in Ireland and lobbied the main stakeholders in Ireland with some success.

But this is the past and things have changed in 40 years. What has not changed sadly enough is the fact that the title and the profession of conference interpreter are not recognized and anybody can call themselves an interpreter. (AIIC has been working on this case for quite a few years with UNESCO, but it is a slow process). Many people do not have a clue as to what an interpreter does and what it implies. I remember arriving in Killarney by train and being welcomed by a local taxi driver who regularly greeted us as “the interrupters…”

What makes a good interpreter?

I suppose one has to start with languages. Although it is pretty obvious that you must know your languages perfectly, it is not enough. You must know the culture and politics of the language you are interpreting from. When you work in Ireland, for example, speakers often refer to works of famous Irish writers, or if you are doing a Trade Union meeting you must make sure to know the various acronyms of the comparable bodies of the countries involved.  If you are completely at ease with the language you are interpreting from, it means you can concentrate on the meaning of the speech and not on the words. In simultaneous interpreting you do not have time to look for words; if you try, the next sentence will pass you by.  You are then left to translate it into your mother tongue.  This is a point where there are two schools of thought-  one view is that unless you have been brought up as a bilingual child (and there is a lot of literature on this topic) your mother tongue will always be stronger that any acquired languages, and when you work into it, you will never make any grammatical mistakes or have pronunciation problems. But on the other hand, as we know, in the case of languages such as Chinese, Arabic or Japanese, most interpreters work both ways, doing a “retour”, usually into English or French. In the ‘relay’, as we call it, one is working from a language one does not understand and ‘piggybacks’ on a colleague who knows it and has translated it into a language one does. It is a practise which is becoming quite common, mainly in the private market, but international institutions try to avoid it as it weakens the quality of the interpretation. However, it means that the interpreters must know a few languages very well. In the EU and the EP, we have colleagues who master five or six languages perfectly!

Preparation is an essential part of your work, and nowadays it has become much easier with the  Internet. You do not have to go to the library any more or buy specialised books; you have no excuse as you can get previous documents, and have all sorts of literature on any subject at your fingertips.  Sometimes what is difficult is that you have too much and must concentrate on what is relevant. Usually, one could say that you need one day’s preparation for a day’s work, which justifies the fee. But it could be more if you hit a very specialised subject (a four-day conference on veterinary topics needed much more time). But it is part of the job. And if you are lucky, you might cover the same topic again, benefitting from knowledge you have already banked.

Another important quality is concentration and the ability almost to blank everything else from your mind.  Let your mind begin to wander about what you are going to cook for dinner and the quality of your interpreting will suffer! This is why we always work in pairs, rotating every 20 or 30 minutes.

Another important quality is concentration and the ability almost to blank everything else from your mind…This is why we always work in pairs, rotating every 20 or 30 minutes. 

It is not the only reason we never work alone; although you can relax when you are not working, you are still connected and when things get tough (numbers, proper names, etc) you are there as a backup. You may help to find some quote in a document, or take over if your colleague has a fit of coughing. This is where team spirit comes in.  If there is more than one booth (in a bilingual meeting), it is helpful to have a team leader, who will liaise with the customer, often a PCO, who has thousands of other things to worry about.

Everything I have mentioned up to now is also true for consecutive interpretation, when you work without equipment, usually in much smaller meetings and you rely only on your ears and your brain. Consecutive can prove to be much more stimulating than simultaneous as you are part of the meeting, but you need practise and speed.

What about the future of interpreting, especially in Ireland?

In Ireland we suffer from two serious obstacles: first, we are a small country, and second our language is English (I am not covering Irish as I do not know the scene).

If you live in Switzerland, France or Germany, interpreting is still flourishing, as most of the meetings will have English + the native language. Meetings which thirty years ago had five or six languages have shrunk to bilingual meetings, where the common language is English.  We all know that English is the new lingua franca, which implies a very good understanding of English and its variations (English spoken by a Japanese or by a Finn is not the same language!). So living in Ireland is not an advantage as many meetings have gone down to one language only.

What advice would you give someone thinking of embarking on a career as an interpreter?

I used to say that interpreters must be like chameleons as one day they are an expert on cow’s lameness and the next day the new derivatives have no secrets for them. And they meet fascinating people!

So, if you want to live in Ireland and earn a living as an interpreter, there are two possibilities:  the first one is to combine it with another job (translator seems the obvious one but with the very short  deadlines imposed now, it has become difficult to juggle the two) or to make sure you can work in other European markets and this is where belonging to a solid international network will help.  AIIC, FIT, ITIA come to mind and they open many doors.  The best solution is to pass the exams of one of the different international institutions which will allow you to work regularly.  Easier said than done, as the EU test requires a minimum of four languages (and amongst them an unusual one if possible).

So it is a long difficult road, but a very rewarding one. You get to become familiar with many different topics . I used to say that interpreters must be like chameleons as one day they are an expert on cow’s lameness and the next day the new derivatives have no secrets for them. And they meet fascinating people!