Wednesday, June 01, 2005

An interpreter in the making

My life underwent a dramatic change in the spring of 2001. I'd been out of school and working for less than a year when I was called to serve on the jury of a civil case. The case itself was unexceptional, but it was the first time I'd ever observed a court interpreter. Until that point I'd never considered a language-intensive career (the only interpreter jobs I knew of were for the UN and such organizations, which didn't interest me), and it was like being struck by lightning; I knew then and there that this was what I wanted to do. As soon as the case was over, I contacted the interpreter, who was delighted to tell me all about his profession, and what I learned only confirmed my suspicions that I had found my calling.

The problem was that I didn't have any languages suitable for interpreting. Most people in the U.S. who speak German also speak English, and while there might be a small need for Taiwanese interpreters, the greater demand is for Mandarin, which I don't speak proficiently. The obvious move for me was to try and master Spanish, even though I didn't speak a word of it at the time. The demand for Spanish interpreters is high in California, and I knew that my background in Latin as well as my experience studying foreign languages in general would help.

Within a month I began Spanish classes at a local community college, and after a year of study culminating in a month-long intensive course in Mexico, I was proficient enough to pass the bilingual entrance exam to San Francisco State's
Legal/Court Interpretation Program, which I began in the fall of 2002. I'm about a third of the way through the curriculum, and every class is both difficult and tremendously rewarding. Difficult, because my Spanish is still weaker than it needs to be; having studied formally for only one year, starting at the age of 26, I don't have the native-like fluency of someone who's heard and spoken the language from childhood. Rewarding, because my teachers tell me I have great potential, that I have the skills necessary for a good interpreter---concentration, memory, the ability to think on my feet---and the language proficiency will come.

Given that the pass rate for the state certification exam is said to be only about 8%, and even lower (2%) for the federal exam, it's going to be a while before I'm ready to attempt them. And even if I could pass them now, it's not practical at this time in my life to leave my current job, which I do actually enjoy very much. But in the meantime, I'm continuing to push myself, and I'm finding fulfillment in my work as a volunteer interpreter at the Rotacare Free Clinic. I know I was born to be an interpreter, and I shall become one if it takes me another twenty years.

Sometimes I look back with resentment at the various forces that led me to spend so many years of my life studying science and engineering rather than languages, because I'm convinced I could have been an excellent interpreter by now, working in what is my true passion. But I can't really complain about the path I've taken; it's given me many things I wouldn't have otherwise, including an interesting, challenging career, a sense of accomplishment in succeeding in a field for which I have little talent, and the opportunity to meet my husband. Many people don't ever discover what they were really meant to do; I did, and I'm willing to wait for that dream.


Doug said...

The main ingredient for success is passion. Pa'lante, chica!

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