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Translators and Interpreters Bridge Linguistic Gaps

09 August 2004

What is the difference between a volunteer interpreter and one that is offering a paid service? There is actually more than just the voluntary nature that separates the two. For volunteers, often one important difference seems to be that they can invest more in the people they work with, apart from offering their professional skills. This is what several of our interpreters and translators have experienced, as well as the people for whom they translate.

Wendy, a professional translator and interpreter originally from the United States, now living in France volunteered with ICV for the first time last year and was pleasantly surprised: 'There is a true sense of cooperation and people go out of their way to help one other', she said afterwards.

'As there is less work pressure and a sense of group spirit, it is quite easy to make friends', Wendy points out -- a welcome change from working as a professional translator. 'Translators often work in isolation and get little feedback when they send in a translation job (typically only when there is a problem). Not so when volunteering with ICVolunteers, according to Wendy: 'You are part of a team. Since my first volunteer experience at the 18th IAVE World Volunteer Conference in Barcelona in 2004, I have met up with many of the interpreters. We are more than just colleagues, in fact real partners.'

Volunteer interpreters are expected to be flexible in their work, but the other side of the coin is that there is always a helping hand when the job gets challenging. The volunteer translator or interpreter is less constrained by expectations of a professional role. 'As a volunteer I can concentrate on how to best communicate a message and help people. It is very rewarding', Wendy says.

Another advantage: there is no maximum age limit for volunteer jobs. In Barcelona, Wendy actually volunteered together with her daughter and other people of all ages. She spoke about 'great dynamics between generations'.

Recipients of ICVolunteers' interpreting services have been equally satisfied. The main reason being, of course, that communication between people of different nationalities is made much easier through interpretation --which can be simultaneous or consecutive-- or the translation of documents. Without volunteers, they would only have their own language skills to rely on, because they cannot afford professionals. Moreover, the cooperative spirit of the volunteers adds value.

"We found it most helpful to have direct contact with the interpreters," said Tidjani Alou and Idrissa Laoualo from Niger, who were attending a course in development at the Graduate Institute for Development Studies (IUED) in Geneva with the help of ICV-interpreters. In fact, the consecutive interpretation --as used at IUED-- works best if the interpreters develop a relationship with the students and get to know the course materials, says Pierre Dyens, coordinator of the interpreters team. IUED found the help of the volunteers very successful and intends to invite them for next year's 'Diploma of continued education in development studies' as well. Mr. Dyens added that, had he to rely on a paid professional service, this would simply not have been possible for a program running over a period of 12 weeks. The alternative would have been to offer the courses in English only. However, this would have excluded students who do not have knowlege of English, and also did not seem a good solution for a course given in a French-speaking university and specifically focusing on the effects of globalization on development.

For young professionals and language students, interpreting or translating as a volunteer is also an excellent way to gain experience. ICVolunteer Reuben Imray has been doing voluntary work for this very reason since he finished his studies at the University of Westminster (UK), and has volunteered twice with ICVolunteers. "As a (semi-)professional I gained valuable interpreting experience," he says. "I also made friends in Geneva, which I am considering using as my professional base. I would certainly recommend volunteering for young interpreters like myself starting out in the profession."

Even professionals with skills other than interpretation and translation find it useful to volunteer with their language skills, as Pok Chongcharoen experienced. She volunteered to help the Landmine Survivors' Network that strives to improve the situation of landmine victims worldwide. Pok had worked for various international organizations in the areas of gender issues and child labor, but not as a translator. "I am familiar with social work and felt I could contribute meaningfully," she said. "I translated oral and written texts for Thai and Laotian participants in a workshop leading up to a landmine conference in 2003, as well as summaries of landmine-related treaties, key definitions and other useful information for Thai participants of a landmine conference in Nairobi in 2004. What I got out of it myself was satisfaction, knowledge about new issues and contact with people."

ICV is one of the very few volunteer networks offering this kind of service to NGOs, as demonstrated by a study by Mélanie Curtin with the help of a Fellowship from the Haas Center for Public Service at Stanford University, and in partnership with ETI (Ecole de traduction et d'interprétation) at the University of Geneva. Volunteer interpreting and translating responds to a clear need, she discovered. NGOs are often on the cutting edge of the increasingly interconnected world, and therefore deal with multiple languages. They act as communication facilitators, including cross-cultural and cross-language communication, and yet often work with very limited means. Mélanie Curtin concludes: "Interpreters and translators --especially recent graduates or professionals adding a language-- can gain practical and useful experience in the field by volunteering for NGOs. This exchange can provide valuable experience for interpreters and translators, a valuable resource for NGOs, and overall promotes international cooperation and understanding." (VK / CS)

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