A reply to a recent comment from @murrayjames spawned into something perhaps more worthy of an additional entry. The comment reads,
Inspired as I am by your experiences, professional language interpretation and translation seem crazy to me. The work entails intentionally, repeatedly launching yourself into unfamiliar linguistic territory under strict deadlines. Why do that to yourself?
With language interpretation, when you fail, you fail in front of others and in real-time. That’s scary stuff. It reminds me of music performance, which also contains a risk of public failure. Maybe in language interpretation, as in music, your confidence in your skills and ability to perform grows over time.
This is correct - there is frequent public failure, unrealistic deadlines and demands, and non-specialists taking on specialist jobs. Here are my thoughts on why the industry is like the way it is at present in the West.
There is an obvious disconnect between client and interpreter, which, already so wide as it is, is only exacerbated by the fact the market is unregulated and rife with interpretation agencies offering specialists for every field, which they couldn't possibly afford at the rates the real specialists work at. Of course, clients don't know this and don't care - they just want someone in the booth who is 'fluent' to interpret their conference on a niche topic.
Most interpreters rely on a good reputation to build a specialism in a certain field - eg. 'life sciences', 'renewables', and gain repeat clients in this way. It is this which results in the growth of confidence and ability. But such a trial and error approach to finding and building up good interpreters is clearly the wrong way to go about raising great interpreters in the field. The same is of course true for translation, but generally translators have the time and space to do the necessary research during the project, whereas interpreters can only guesstimate what might come up in their next job based on a description from the arranging party who is hopefully well-enough informed themselves.
On specialist interpretation:
IMO, Interpreters should be in-house specialists in specific fields whenever possible. They should be an integral part of the planning process for any event they will be interpreting at. However organisations these days are always looking to cut costs, and when there are cheaper rates from a general agency rather than employing a specialist freelancer, too often it seems the former is opted for, usually by someone who does not understanding what interpreters do.
The latest high profile example of this which caused quite a lot of embarrassment was the interpreter for Sun Yang at his WADA doping hearing (watch here). The interpreter clearly was not a specialist in the field of swimming, drug testing, etc. and the result was quite shocking.
On non-specialist interpretation:
Non-specialists are a necessity, but will never be able to do a good job. I specialise in arts translation, specifically exhibitions and books on Chinese art. This is too narrow a specialism to build a career in, with science, medicine, law etc. being the best paid routes. But even the 'narrow' field of Chinese art is obviously not narrow at all - you could study a lifetime and still not be finished. But there are people that need the job done in narrow, underfunded areas, and 'non-specialist' is better than nothing in their eyes. The result is, all non-high-paying fields get bunched together and given to 'non-specialist' interpreters. People need the job done, and there are those willing to do the job, but the job will almost never be done to a high standard.
1) While there is money to employ and support specialists as full time interpreters, cost-cutting leads to non-specialists occasionally taking on (or being pushed into) jobs they are unable to do. Result: quality interpretation cannot be guaranteed due to organisations cost cutting at the expense of interpreters.
2) Niche fields need interpreters, but there is no money for specialists in these areas. Non-specialists end up taking on a wide-range of jobs they are not specialist in. The result is bad interpretation, but better than nothing.
Ultimately, the problem lies with the misunderstanding of clients as to what ‘interpreting’ and ‘translating’ actually is, as well as an abundance of people willing to take on jobs when they’re not actually qualified. Contrary to popular belief, being ‘bilingual’ does not qualify you as an interpreter, but so many organisations think and hope it is the same thing, and to top it off (and who can blame them) there are bilingual speakers who reinforce this hope, because there is money to be made.
A fairly hopeless situation, and I’m sure the market is very different in China, where many people are by virtue of the education system are to a certain degree bilingual (speaking not just of English, but other forms of Chinese beyond Putonghua) and understand at the very least what this means (ie. ≠ able to interpret).