Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Fire: How a die-hard translator became a passionate interpreter

I’m a perfectionist and an introvert. I’d be willing to bet a lot of interpreters are (that’s a different post), but not as many as translators. I loved translating from the time I heard of it, and like every other idealistic liberal arts undergrad, I had romantic ideas of how I could translate [ha] my love into a professional calling: I was going to be a literary translator! My name would be as famous as Gregory Rabassa’s!

Now that you’ve all stopped laughing, you’ll be relieved to hear that I eventually discovered that I needed to specialize in something a little more practical—if not instead, at least in addition. So I went to grad school. For translation. Where I was required to study interpreting … which I hated. Hated. Stand up and talk in front of people? Need to understand them on the spot and spit out the answer? No time for research and revision? The horror!

Many of you have heard this story already, either from me or from my court interpreting professor (hi, C!). She was the supervising interpreter at the local state court and on the first day of class, she asked everyone to tell the class why we were interested in court interpreting. And, having not yet matured enough to develop some tact, I said that I was only taking the class because it was a co-requisite to the legal translation class. That I didn’t like interpreting, I was a translator.

Then I got my first legal translation job! Full-time, with benefits! (And my ATA certification came right around the same time.) I was a real translator, with Trados and everything. Forty hours a week of Department of Corrections regulations. Legal translation, my true love (at least until I was recognized as the next Edith Grossman).

I was bored out of my skull. Oh, I had my dictionaries, and I had my research, and I even had the Internet, and email to consult colleagues. But I had never in my life had to sit in front of a computer screen for eight hours a day, five days a week. I had wanted to be an introvert, but in reality, I was a hermit.

Fortunately (in retrospect), after six months, the state’s budget tanked and I was laid off along with several hundred other colleagues across the Executive Branch of the state government. I had an apartment, a cat, tuition to pay for my last year of grad school, and no income. The office skills I’d used to put myself through college weren’t going to support me in the lifestyle to which I’d become accustomed. And besides translation, I only knew how to do one other thing. I took the court interpreter test. Some of those valued colleagues had enough faith in me to recommend me to agencies to support myself doing depositions until my test results came through. One of my oral exam raters recommended I also sign up for the federal written exam … which I sat that month. I still didn’t have my state test results back.

The same court interpreting professor I’d insulted on the first day of class gave me my badge and my first court assignment. It was the first time I’d ever been in a courtroom.

It was love at first sight.

After thirteen years, thousands of events, hundreds of cases, dozens of judges and attorneys, more courthouses than I can recall, and three staff jobs, I’m more in love than ever. May we all be so fortunate.

This post is dedicated to the aforementioned court interpreting professor, to the leader in the field of interpreter administration who saved my bacon more than once, and to the newest love of my life, who turns three tomorrow.

6 thoughts on “Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Fire: How a die-hard translator became a passionate interpreter”

  1. constance marina says:

    I feel the same way, Bethany! I thought I’d be a scholar of Spanish literature but after years of teaching college students, I was tired of mustering up the enthusiasm for the same topics. In 2001, I transitioned to court interpreting sort of by accident. I was exploring other jobs. I loved it from the first minute I set foot in a court room. The drama, the constant linguistic and ethical challenges, have never ceased to fascinate me. I can honestly say that I love my job!

  2. LOUIS E ARANDA says:

    I was a legal interpreter for the State of New York way back, in the 70’s. I became an interpreter mostly for the love of knowing both languages en depth (Spanish/English) After some schooling took the court’s test and passed.
    The beauty of interpreting, besides the intellectually challenges of solving linguistic variances and the unexpected, was the dynamics of it. You have to do some acting, public relations and public speaking as well. I loved the interactions, and challenges, with people of all sorts of educational/social status, and most of all I loved the fact that once you finished interpreting your job was done unlike translating where, as I see it, it’s a job that is never completely done. My admiration goes to all interpreters: they are above all linguistic gymnasts.

  3. Martin Anderson says:

    I couldn’t agree more with Louis. I did 15 years as a staff interpreter in the NY courts too. When you go home, you’re done! (of course, for better or for worse)
    I don’t suppose I’m a perfectionist like Bethany, but when I do volunteer translating I’m always thinking about how I could have it better. A good quality, perhaps, but no fun.
    In the courts there’s also the pride you feel when you’re doing something that most people watching view as magic (it’s showing off, I know.)
    Finally, as a staff interpreter in particular you’re frequently part of a courtroom team, which I always enjoy.
    I’ll never forget the anecdote about a colleague: after an hours-long wait the judge finally greeted his arrival with; All rise, the Chinese interpreter has arrived. They all stood up too.

  4. Maribel Pintado Espiet says:

    Ah…. Rabassa and Cortázar…. my dream guys…. I translated 19th century French poetry. While attending the School of Translation in Puerto Rico I landed a job as a translator at the Supreme Court in PR. After three years of that I landed in Boston and drifted into court interpretation. Some 35 years later… I still translate, quite a bit, but I enjoy every chance to interpret. Yes, I am retired but… who am I kidding? This passion is for life.

  5. I fell into interpreting for the California Department of Social Services and discovered I was pretty good at it, and really fast at simultaneous and sight translating documents. And I loved every minute. This was a service profession, so I was making a difference for some of the most marginalized people. I went on to conference interpreting, then Los Angeles Superior Court (where my first day I was so petrified I got a mild case of asthma). Later got my Federal certification and alternated between Federal and Superior Courts, which were conveniently across the street from one another. Eventually Staff Interpreter for 22 years at US District Court in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where I now continue working as a freelance interpreter and run my little translation business out of the house. I thank God everyday for literally bumping into a career that I am passionate about, with brilliant colleagues I love and admire, and work I find endlessly challenging and rewarding. And hey, the money’s been nice.

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