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The Final Frontier

I kind of feel like my fall should be entitled, Conference Interpreting: The Final Frontier. Because (that’s right, drum roll!) on September 10th, I begin classes at Glendon College, York University, for the Master’s in Conference Interpreting (MCI) program.

The start of my classes will mark the culmination of over a decade of work. It´s been sixteen years (half my short lifetime) since I started learning Spanish and French. I’ve already blogged about sweating over the subjunctive, all the hours spent on interpreting tests and several years working as a staff interpreter, so I won’t do it over now. Suffice it to say that it’s been a very long time since I told my professors that I wanted to work at the UN one day. This fall we will see if I’m even close to meeting the challenge.

The thing about being a conference interpreter is that nobody ever quite seems to be able to tell you how to become one. It’s like they belong to a secret society, and it’s hard to know where to start. But the one piece of advice that I have received from almost everyone is, “You need training. Get a Master’s degree.”

Many people become interpreters without a degree, and I maintain that if you are disciplined and have respect for the profession, a degree program (while certainly advisable) is not 100% necessary. You can acquire the skills and pass the exams, becoming an excellent interpreter, all without even a bachelor’s degree. However, there isn’t really a backdoor into conference interpreting, at least not for Spanish interpreters (not anymore). There are more aspiring interpreters than there are clients, and international organizations expect the crème de la crème. So you need training, you need contacts, and you need skill.

Yes, there are certain exams you can take that will show your worth if you pass them—the State Department offers a test, but they are currently not examining Spanish or French interpreters (well they say that, even though technically, they are. But you have to either be somebody or know somebody to get tested).

As for the U.N., I was lucky enough to be invited to sit for their exams last year. It was hands down the hardest test I’d ever taken.

You see, when you take your court and medical interpreting exams, they are certainly challenging. But there is a percentage pass/fail. And a grading scheme. And a somewhat transparent grading process. For the U.N., as far as I could tell (and I did my due diligence) the only standard for grading was, “Be amazing.” I studied for 80 hours in the month and a half that elapsed between being invited to take the exam and actually sitting for it. I created a glossary with 800 terms. I familiarized myself with dozens of speeches from the General Assembly and other arms of the organization. I shadowed English. I shadowed Spanish. I shadowed French. I cried over accents that were so unfamiliar to me I could barely make out the words. I studied. A lot. I reached out to colleagues for help and critiqued them in return.

After all that work, I’m sure I would have gotten an “A” for effort. But sadly (and fortunately) that is an unacceptable standard of measurement. In the end, like pretty much every other candidate except for those who are truly exceptional, I did not pass the exam. I was not, apparently, amazing. Which kind of makes sense, because interpreting for the U.N. is hard. And I did not have a Master’s degree.

I could wait another two or three years until they offer the exam again, and in the meantime work my butt off, study as hard as possible, and cross my fingers that I pass. Because if I passed the UN exam, then I could probably get work as a conference interpreter. But this year I said to myself, “Self, let’s not reinvent the wheel. Let’s not try to learn things on our own that would be so much easier with a teacher and a textbook. Let’s finally do what we’ve said we’ll do and be a student again.”

And that is why, in about a week, I will be sitting down for my very first class in conference interpreting. I’m looking forward to polishing my language skills for teachers who demand perfection. I’m looking forward to plunging into the depths of longer consecutive, and finally (after all these years interpreting into Spanish) simultaneously interpreting into my native language. I’m looking forward to meeting my fellow students, who may one day be booth partners.

Mostly, though, I’m looking forward to being part of a group of fellow humans who won’t take no for an answer. We are the ones who get stars in our eyes at the glamour of interpreting for businesses and non-governmental organizations, even when our friends who have already made it there roll their eyes and tell us it’s not as exotic as we think.

We’re going to be in it together, my classmates and I. And I, for one, cannot wait!


Portrait of Athena MatilskyAthena Matilsky fell in love with Spanish the year she turned 16. She chose it as her major at Rutgers University and selected a focus in translation and interpreting. After graduation, she taught elementary school in Honduras and then returned home to begin freelancing as a medical and court interpreter. She has since achieved certifications as a Healthcare Interpreter and a Federal Court Interpreter. She was the recent editor-in-chief of Proteus. Currently, she works as a freelance interpreter/translator and trains candidates privately for the state and federal interpreting exams. When she is not writing or interpreting, you may find her practicing acroyoga or studying French. Website: https://athenaskyinterpreting.wordpress.com/

14 Comments
  • Mary Lee Behar
    Posted at 15:40h, 07 September Reply

    Congratulations! I too am in the middle of a Masters. Mine is in Translation and Interpretation with Spanish, Romanian and English. Best of luck!!!

  • Liz Essary
    Posted at 15:44h, 07 September Reply

    Athena I’m so excited for you! Having gone down a similar path, I can’t imagine ever rolling my eyes and acting like it’s not a big deal. One of the most amazing things about the training is that it keeps on giving after it’s over–That feeling in the booth when I realize, oh, THAT’S why we worked so much on those techniques! I can’t wait to hear about your experience, and hopefully share a booth some day!

  • Susana Gee
    Posted at 15:48h, 07 September Reply

    Athena, Great article. I have tried and tried to get into conference interpreting and met the same obstacles you have. I look forward to your feedback and insights on the masters’s program. Are there any other options that you k is of? Such as online? Godspeed!

    • Athena
      Posted at 21:11h, 08 September Reply

      Hi Susana,

      My program is online the first year and the second year is live in Toronto. I don’t know of any other online ones, but there is a complete listing on the AIIC website. The good ones in North America are Glendon and Monterey. I think there’s another in Mexico and then the rest are all in Europe. Thanks for your well wishes!

  • Sandra J Aidar-McDermott
    Posted at 15:53h, 07 September Reply

    ¡Muy lindo artículo! Mucha suerte en tus estudios.

  • Alfredo Babler
    Posted at 18:47h, 07 September Reply

    Uh, my 2 cents on conference interpreting: I like the fancy hotel buffet-style spreads and snacks, and the bathrooms are nice too. LOL, I know, I know, I shouldn’t oversimplify things and be so feral in the presence of such enthusiasm, but y’all post these things on Friday and all this highly energetic go-getter youth energy, while fantastic, couldn’t ever bring me to the point where I would be motivated enough to go back to college, so I jest. But honestly, I wasn’t even aware they had a Master’s degree in Conference Interpreting, of all things. I mean, really? That’s a thing? Good Lord! We’ve either come a long way or gone too far. Heheheh. Either way, my dearest goddess of all things, my thoughts are with you. Remember to FEEL it while you THINK it unless, of course, the conference terminology involves the steps in dismantling nuclear isotopes or the step-by-step formula of the Philosopher’s Stone, in which case I’m afraid you’re going to have to bluff like you know what the heck is going on and wing it until the lunch break comes, and then try the Chicken Marsala at the Hilton, which is to die for. That’s some Master’s level advise right there. I’m going to apply to teach a course on Conference Tai Chi. Mira el video abajo, te lo dedico. Estaré pensando en ti. ¡Buena suerte!

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AcG4NqeQCGQ

    • Athena Matilsky
      Posted at 21:14h, 08 September Reply

      Alfredo this was very, VERY funny. Thank you. 🙂 Sorry for all the energy, but blogs about sitting around on a Saturday watching TV just don’t seem to go over very well!!!

  • Tatiana Hay
    Posted at 19:52h, 07 September Reply

    What an exciting news! Good luck, Athena, as you pursue your dreams! Enjoy every minute.

  • Flávia Lima
    Posted at 20:26h, 07 September Reply

    Congrats Athena! I I agree with everything you said, it’s important to get training and feedback to continue to perfect our craft. I am glad you don’t take no as an answer and I thank you for such an inspiring post. On a side note, I cannot wait to meet you in person, I’m part of the Portuguese cohort (Go Portuguese!). See you on Monday!

  • Arnaldo B
    Posted at 16:07h, 08 September Reply

    Once you get used to the terminology (and the never ending dignitary salutations) you may find that UN work is, while not easy, always more of the same—not unlike court interpreting. The hardest part, imho, is to understand what is being said through thick accents, sometimes. But I wasn’t even aware that you could go to school to be an interpreter when I first started,. I was just very fortunate to slide in through the back door, that my first language was highly in demand, and that my musical training kind of made up for my lack of a formal education in the field. Music performance and interpreting training share many aspects, one of which is: training will definitely help, but will never make up for natural skill, the ability to wing it, and a certain je ne sais quois that kind of takes over when you’re in the booth—or when the band leader counts off—and you’ve had zero time to prepare or rehearse, and you just gotta make it happen. Good luck on your new endeavor, and please let me know if I can be of any help.

  • Athena Matilsky
    Posted at 21:13h, 08 September Reply

    Thanks to everyone for your support, and also for your funny anecdotes. I laughed a few times, reading these comments. FYI I have started a Facebook group called Aspiring United Nations Interpreters. Feel free to join!

  • James Clark
    Posted at 00:34h, 09 September Reply

    Congratulations on your tenacity and good luck on your ambitious goals! While not a UN interpreter, I am one of those conference interpreters who got in through the back door into the profession as you put it. It’s a great feeling that many colleagues with MCI degrees and long lists of credentials seek me out as a booth mate, but I am also aware that I took a circuitous route to get there. While work as a UN certified interpreter is certainly the pinnacle of our profession, there are many other conference interpreting opportunities out there in industry and international organizations as well. Excellent court interpreters already have the making to get their feet wet in some conference settings and start learning the ropes, but it is difficult to get in the door because conference interpreters are a tight-nit group. The two settings are vastly different and interpreters used to working in the courtroom must learn to change their technique in the conference world. As an amateur musician, I completely agree with Arnaldo’s comments about the similarities in the two pursuits.

  • ANH CAO PEARSON
    Posted at 08:48h, 09 September Reply

    Congratulations on your new teaching project in a Master Program. I would like to be a Conference Interpreter one of this day working for the UN, too!

  • Gila Khabbaza
    Posted at 20:24h, 17 September Reply

    Wow Athena, you are amazing. Thanks for sharing and for motivating us all to be better. I have a Masters degree but it’s not in interpreting. I think it did help me be a better writer and speaker, and it did give me a lot of confidence. I think your ambition is amazing and is contagious. So positive and such a go-getter, I am sure you will go far. Please share your experiences. I did try for the UN years ago but they wanted FOUR FLUENT languages back then. I have four but am not fluent in all so that is something to aim for. Thanks again for sharing and for being so wonderful. For what it’s worth, I think you are amazing! 🙂

    – Gila

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