The trials of becoming a good interpreter

25 January 2012

Dörte Andres is Professor of Translation Studies at the Germersheim location of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU). Her field of research is still young and the professorship she holds was created only a short time ago. She talks about the challenges presented by the course and about the many facets of her subject.

Those who want to become interpreters have to meet a variety of challenges. "It's a tough course," says Professor Andres. "If you decide to put yourself through it, then you really want it," she notes emphatically. "Young students have to perform at their best all the time and are constantly forced to reveal their weaknesses." It’s a harsh picture that she paints, but her enthusiasm for the subject is clear from her voice. As she points out, if you can master the challenges, you will have achieved a great deal. That is particularly reflected by the fact that "the final exams are attended by representatives from the EU and government ministries." Consequently, a good degree usually leads to a good job.

The world's biggest training center

Although it forms part of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, the Faculty of Translation Studies, Linguistics, and Cultural Studies is not located on the campus in Mainz but 120 kilometers further up the Rhine in a former French barracks on the edge of the small town of Germersheim. With around 2,000 students, the faculty is one of the biggest training centers in the world for interpreters and translators. "The faculty has a manageable structure," notes Professor Andres. "That makes for excellent communications." On the other hand, as spokesperson for the Gutenberg Research College, she often has to commute between Mainz and Germersheim. "That takes up a lot of time."

Dörte Andres, born in 1952, has been a tenured professor at JGU since 2010. "I am very much a latecomer." She earned her postdoctoral lecturing qualification three years earlier with a thesis entitled "Interpreters as literary figures," a subject that continues to engage her but that represents only a small part of her diverse teaching and research activities. "Interpreters are depicted as hybrid characters. They are perceived as being associated with migration, discontinuity, and disunity. Interpreters lose themselves in the words spoken by others. They just chatter along in the wake of the speaker." In her 500 page-plus thesis, she explores how interpreters are portrayed in literature.

Interpreters need self-awareness and self-confidence

""All that is in stark contrast with reality and with our training. We teach students self-awareness and self-confidence. After all, as an interpreter I have to make decisions in fractions of a second." Professor Andres gained experience of that herself as a qualified interpreter working for the German Federal Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. She worked under four ministers from Walter Arendt to Norbert Blüm. "Every time I acted as interpreter, there was a bit of me in there. I am aware of my own subjectivity, but I can't separate myself from it." In principle, she observes, the message will be the same from one interpreter to the next. "But the choice of words may be different and the nuances may vary." Hence the need for self-awareness.

That is just the beginning, however. Often, you have to take cultural differences into account. "Should I translate an expletive literally or adapt my interpretation to the listener's cultural sensitivities?"

Interpreters don't work in a neutral environment. That is another area Professor Andres is researching. She is particularly interested in the work of interpreters during the historical period of National Socialism in Germany. "Were they indoctrinated? What image were they given of other countries?" Her work on the subject is still in its infancy. However, one thing is already clear, as she observes: "The National Socialists understood the power of language in this context, too."

Should we speak poor English for non-natives?

In conversation, Professor Andres touches on all sorts of areas, such as medical interpreting. "Expressions that convey pain may vary tremendously from one culture to another. If an Afghan says 'My whole body is screaming!,' how should I translate that?" Not only the enormous demands made of interpreters at the Nuremberg Trials are a matter of interest to her, she is just as fascinated by the question of “how badly an interpreter should speak English to make sure he or she is understood?” At conferences where the only live translation offered is into English, a Portuguese delegate, for example, with only a rudimentary command of the English language might have problems with the British English spoken by the interpreter? "How should we respond to that? Should we speak poor English then?"

As a modern academic subject, interpretation studies is a young discipline that was primarily established after the Second World War, and Dörte Andres is the first professor to be appointed for interpretation studies only. The field of research, which also covers other disciplines such as neuroscience and psychology, is correspondingly wide and, as yet, largely virgin territory.

It should be said, moreover, that Professor Andres does not feel exclusively committed to conducting research alone. "I love teaching." Indeed, in recognition of her skills in this area, she has received a state and university lecturing award. The students are taught in small groups, she explains. "The best comparison would be with a music course." Classes can involve anything from a stressful live performance to a deep-reaching self-assessment. "An interpreter has to inspire confidence." If you have problems in that area, you cannot simply unlearn them. "You have to observe and support every student and keep drawing attention to their strengths and weaknesses."

The Excellence Award-winning Friday Conference

Professor Andres points to the conference room in the basement, where the Friday Conference, winner of a 2008 State Excellence Award, is held every week. "Lots of people call it the crypt," she says with a smile.

The room is dominated by a conference table equipped with the latest technology and surrounded by small booths. It is used to practice conference interpreting in a huge range of subject areas. Universities all over the world use these recordings for their own training sessions.

Professor Andres continues to talk about her teaching and research work for two hours, focusing on new issues all the time. "My head is full of ideas," she explains. "Really, I could do with another thirty years or so and a 48-hour day."