Would you mind if your child wanted to become an interpreter?

By July 17, 2016Multilingualism

Images of glamorous interpreters in the recent Chinese movie “Les Interprètes” (Source: dramafever.com)

I recently volunteered to give a presentation on the profession of translation and interpreting as a parent helper for a community worker series at my son’s primary school in suburban Sydney. To make my presentation entertaining for little kids, I showed them how to interpret simultaneously between English and Korean. The children were just fascinated by instant language conversions and kept asking me to show them more. While I was delighted by the enthusiastic responses from the kids, one question occurred to me afterwards: how many parents in Australia would be happy if their child wanted to become a translator or interpreter?

Let’s consider the following two real stories: in the 1990s, an Anglo-Canadian boy who wanted to become an interpreter had to give up his dream because his parents wanted their son to pursue a “better” profession. On the other side of the planet, a Korean girl with the same dream was warned by her parents that she was “too ordinary” to become an interpreter; her parents believed only extraordinary people could make an interpreter. The former is my husband’s story, and the latter is mine.

Why is there such a contrast in terms of parental reactions to children who wish to become an interpreter? One way of examining this question is to consider the relationship between the status of language workers and the status of a second language in a society. In Korea, English is highly valued as a commodity, and this phenomenon is known as yeongeo yeolpung or “English fever”. Due to a high level of prestige attached to English, English-Korean interpreters are admired as master English speakers who are often glamourized in Korean media. Popular images of interpreters are cosmopolitan multilinguals working at international conferences for high-ranking officials or business tycoons as circulated in local media.

On the other hand, the societal valorization of translators and interpreters in Australia and other Anglophone countries remains very low. Translators and interpreters are associated with low-paid casual work that offers little chance for career progression. The low profile of the profession in Australia is strongly related to the societal recognition of languages other than English (LOTE). Despite Australia’s purported pride in multiculturalism, LOTEs have always remained on the periphery in its symbolic and practical values. While LOTEs are gradually gaining recognition particularly among middle-class parents primarily for instrumental purposes, their status as the “other” languages spoken by “other” people – immigrant Australians from non-Anglophone backgrounds – suggests that the status of language workers is perhaps determined by the status of LOTEs as well as the people and communities who they serve. Examining the status of language workers is, therefore, a good prism through which to understand the sociolinguistics of bilingualism.

If you are still not convinced, ask yourself this question: would you be happy if your child wanted to become an interpreter?

Further Reading

To learn more about English fever and the experiences of interpreters in South Korea, check out this article:

ResearchBlogging.org Cho, J. (2015). Sleepless in Seoul: Neoliberalism, English fever, and linguistic insecurity among Korean interpreters Multilingua, 34 (5), 687-710 DOI: 10.1515/multi-2013-0047

Author Jinhyun Cho

Dr Jinhyun Cho teaches English-Korean translation and interpreting at Macquarie University in Sydney. Her PhD research explored the phenomenon of “English fever” in South Korea from historical, societal and individual perspectives, with a particular focus on the translating and interpreting profession. A monograph based on her PhD research was published by Springer in 2017 as “English language ideologies in Korea: Interpreting the past and present”.

More posts by Jinhyun Cho
  • Livia Gerber

    Great post, Jean!

    My extended German-speaking family often assumes that by studying linguistics in English, I am actually studying to become an interpreter. The underlying assumption being that given I am bilingual, I must be a ‘balanced’ bilingual. Therefore, I should easily be able to interpret and translate between the two languages to such a high standard that I could surely make a career of it without further qualifications. However, as you know, this is not the case 😉

    Your point about the status of language workers being determined by the status of languages in the wider society they serve resonated with me.

    During my studies in Europe I did an internship with an intergovernmental organisation that regulates laws around a specific area of transport. They had in-house interpreters for the organisation’s official languages (English, German and French), and held frequent conferences attended by international delegates which required highly specialised and technical, simultaneous interpreting. During the proceedings, I would listen in via the headsets, and skip through the language channels. The skills these interpreters displayed were remarkable.
    At the time, the organisation had newly introduced Russian as one of its inofficial languages in reaction to an increase in Russian-speaking nations expressing their interest to join the organisation. However, the addition of Russian was met with some reservations from the existing (predominantly European) member states. It also meant that a Russian interpreter had to be found as soon as possible. At the next conference, much to the annoyance of the organisation, a Russian-speaking nation interested in joining sent six delegates (as opposed to the usual one or two). These delegates did not seem genuinely interested, and mainly doodled on their paperwork during the conference. However, the core issue may have been that they were not provided with good enough language services. I noticed that the Russian interpreter was not keeping up with what was being discussed, and largely remained silent during the proceedings, only translating here and there. The highly specialised discourse in which this interpreter was asked to work, and his inability to live up to the job’s requirements, ultimately intensified the tensions between the member states’ delegates, and the six visiting delegates. I wish I had had more insight into the other factors (political climate, etc) that influenced these tensions, however the status of Russian, and the provision of (inadequate) language services did appear to be central here.

    • Jinhyun Cho

      Thanks Livia! The story about the multi-party interpreting – we call it “relay interpreting” – is really interesting. I can imagine why the participants were frustrated, because one interpreter’s inability affects other interpreters’ jobs as well. English is usually used as a common language for relay interpreting in which an English-Russian interpreter, for example, interprets Russian into English for other language interpreters (e.g. English-French, English-Spanish, etc.), who then interpret the English output into their other languages for their home audience. Those tensions might have been related not just to inadequate language services but to misunderstanding that arose from distortions of meanings, which is politically costly.

  • Jay Mi Tan

    I really like this post, as I can resonate with it in the Malaysian context. In Malaysia, English is considered as a widely spoken language. Many people, especially the younger generations speak English as their first language. Hence, unlike in Korea, English translators or interpreters are not that highly valued. In fact, I have never heard of any friends or families who are interpreters or translators. Parents would rather their children be doctors, dentists, lawyers, bankers or accountants, who they deemed as “more professional”. But, I think this mindset would change in the future, as children are more exposed, and there are more foreigners in Malaysia now. I for one, would be absolutely supportive if my child(ren) wants to be an interpreter or translator.

  • VinN

    Hello, Cho. I have an interpreter dream like you and now I am working on NAATI. I agree with your point in this post. Indeed, the social status of interpreters is depended on people’s view upon English and LOTE. In a country that urge for international communication and trade, interpreters may have better social status because they are bridges towards wealth and opportunities. I can’t say everyone think in this way. Interpreters are always accompanying with national leaders or important businesspeople, so they are great in ordinary English learners’ eye. However, as you said, interpreters are more likely to provide social service here.
    Anyway, everyone has their dream occupation, and some of them may devote to their job regardless of wealth and fame.