Debbie’s Inspiration to Becoming An Interpreter

I’ve been running WordlyWise since 2014, but I’ve been a linguist, translator, interpreter and intercultural trainer for nearly 20 years. After graduating from London Metropolitan University, I completed a Master’s in Interpreting with Distinction and my intercultural training for business. My first foray as a freelance translator was in Egypt before I founded my company. I still work as a linguist, interpreter and translator, but my main activity now is to run WorldlyWise Interpreting.

I come from a multicultural family. My father was originally from Armenia and he spoke various languages. My mum also comes from a diverse family and spoke French and Portuguese. I studied English and Spanish at university and realised I really enjoyed learning languages. I also loved learning about different people and cultures. This combined passion for culture and communication attracted me to working with languages and interpreting as my profession.

Language As A Passion

My main working languages are English and Portuguese, so I interpret between the two. I am also fluent in Spanish passively and interpret from Spanish. I can communicate in French at an intermediate level and am studying it further. Russian and Mandarin interest me as well.

Ultimately, we bring people together. People who couldn’t understand each other are able to communicate easily through our services. When interpreting is done well, it feels very natural to the listeners. It doesn’t feel like there is someone in the middle. I love delivering an event together and bridging the gap in communication.

WordlyWise Origin as an Interpreting Company

After working as a simultaneous interpreter, I developed an intricate understanding of the industry. Working as a freelancer, I was recommended mostly through word-of-mouth, either by an event attendee or by a client referral. I realised I had the necessary skills to organise events really well and to provide good service with a fantastic team. So, my work naturally evolved into forming WordlyWise Interpreting. Initially, I worked with a small set of clients and gradually expanding to several languages and larger events.

I think what prompted me to start the company was when I worked as a project manager and as a freelancer for a large Language Services Provider. There was a disconnect between those delivering the job and those involved in sales and project management. Both the a salesperson and project manager were not linguists themselves. Often, they don’t speak multiple languages. So, they don’t fully understand what they are delivering. Linguists would get selected based solely on the budget, not necessarily the best people for the job. These issues all combine to have many things go wrong. Linguists would show up with the wrong language combination or with the wrong variance for that particular job.

A Deeper Look at Equipment and Process

At one point as a freelancer, I was actually taking my own equipment to the events, even though the LSP was supposed to provide the equipment for me. I was so afraid that things would go wrong like the PM would book the wrong equipment. I also found it frustrating that there was no company representative present at the events. The linguists had to pick up the pieces when the job was not performed at the level that was expected. Many times, I had to go beyond my role as a linguist to appease clients, even working unpaid extra hours.

After a while, the entire setup did not make sense to me. If I can do a better job, I might as well have my own company and provide better service to the clients and treat the linguists better. I also realised as a linguist myself, I know how to provide the best sales package as well as organise the events well—because my team of linguists and I know the ins and outs of the industry. All my team members understand the delivery and the preparation required as they are all interpreters and translators themselves. With many years of experience in the industry, they know how to mitigate circumstances for everything to run well.

Language Service Provider Industry Challenges

I have enjoyed building WordlyWise and the challenge of making sure everything is in place as a service provider. I participated in accelerator programmes and took a variety of courses to develop my business skills—everything from marketing, accounting to leadership. By learning from other CEOs and founders, I try to foster my leadership skills. I continue to learn and improve as much as I can. It takes a lot of skills to run a company effectively and make the best decisions for everyone involved.

Sometimes events can involve a great deal of pressure, especially if there is little time to prepare. One event which comes to mind was a medical conference with very specific terminology. As the interpreter, I had to prepare on the train and while having breakfast because I only got the presentation the day before. When the content is technical, you have to learn a lot about the subject beforehand—it’s not just about repeating the words.

When it comes to the real world, the challenge is learning how to be professional regardless of the less-than-perfect circumstances. This means preparing on the train or getting a copy of a politician’s speech five minutes before you’re on stage in front of a large audience. Being able to deal with this sort of pressure is difficult but rewarding at the same time.

Memorable Clients & Events

I’ve met quite a few high-profile people, but in very different areas. I’ve worked with famous cinema directors like Kleban Mendelson. I’ve met famous politicians, including Prince Charles and several Prime Ministers. I also met Deborah Frances-White, a famous sportscaster.

One of the most memorable events for me was with Amnesty International regard mothers who lost their children to police violence in Brazil. The mothers were interviewing with major media outlets like BBC and Channel 4. I had to keep re-telling their stories over and over again. Due to the emotional nature of the content, I found it challenging as an interpreter. An Amnesty representative later told me I was the first interpreter that had not broken down during the interviews. I was actually able to convey their poignant words while maintaining a professional tone. It was not easy, but very rewarding and worthwhile.

As an interpreter, I’ve also travelled to numerous exotic places. One of my best clients have their annual International Congress in a different location each year, the last one in 2019 being in the Bahamas. I have worked all over Europe, Angola and South America. I’ve worked in Jordan with C40. My last job before the pandemic was a G-20 meeting with the financial ministers and secretaries of states in Saudi Arabia. Traveling was very much part of my routine.

Debora Chobanian Professional Conference Interpreter Portuguese English WordlyWise, London UK

Media & Interpreting

One TV show that I think was really interesting for linguists was “Sense8.” The characters were in different places and speaking different languages. It’s interesting to see how they handled the language barrier. I also enjoyed watching “The Queen’s Gambit” because she goes to Russia for her final match and you hear characters speaking Russian. Usually in mainstream TV, you see just one language or translations or dubbing done poorly. I’ve heard of some films even dubbing Penelope Cruz’s voice just because she has a strong accent when she speaks English. As a linguist, I love seeing Netflix offer so many programmes in different languages. Its led me to start watching a Russian series which I never would have discovered without Netflix.

Advice for Interpreters

As an interpreter, you are not always seen, and so it’s hard for our work to be appreciated. When you do a good job, it appears to be very natural and easy. For the speech and content to be delivered in a natural, effortless way, you have to work hard. It takes a lot of skills to do so. When interpretation is done poorly, it is noticeably clunky and uncomfortable for everyone present at the event. I have even seen a delegate remove his headset and try to speak English when he felt the interpretation was not right. In remote interpretation, we are even more invisible. So, my advice for event organisers and project managers is to acknowledge the interpreters. I make a point of mentioning my team so that the audience can see they are real people working really hard to deliver an excellent service.

For newcomers into the industry, my advice is to be aware of all the challenges and know what to expect. It will be hard to find opportunities and be recruited as the European Union, which is a big employer of interpretation, is reducing their services enormously, while international organisations are running mostly online events. I’m not discouraging newbies, but just encouraging them to be aware of current industry trends. You also have to be very resilient, diplomatic and professional at all times, making sure to be neutral and not interfere with anything. You are actually not saying the words; the words belong to someone else. You always have to remember that and not let your opinion interfere and change anything. You have to convey the message faithfully and accurately, without really allowing your own thoughts or opinions get in the way.

Impact of the Pandemic

The pandemic has completely changed the way we work. We are continuing to do our job, but just in a different way. Previously, we were focused on face-to-face events. We provided simultaneous interpretation on stage or in booths via headsets. Now, we are behind a screen and people do not necessarily see us, they just hear our voices. Zoom and virtual events come with its own challenges, including a complex set up, fast pace and pressurised environment. In virtual events, the right equipment and sound quality become crucial. In real life events, you have professional microphones, mixers and sound engineers present, but, virtually, you must rely purely on technology. Therefore, organisation and production are extremely important for Zoom and virtual events.

There are many benefits as well. Event size can be much larger remotely, reaching a wide range of audience, sometimes thousands of people all over the world, that may not have attended the event in person. Zoom makes these events easily accessible and affordable. In addition, you can interact with the audience in novel ways, including conducting polls and online Q&As.

The Future of Interpreting

For this industry, a good broadband connection, quality and technology are hugely important. In general, in the UK and US, buying laptops, USB headset and other offline technology are affordable. But, in the global south, it’s still very expensive and sometimes people just can’t afford the right technology. Even with the best remote interpretation app, an audience member or speaker may have poor Internet connection and accessibility issues.

It would be great if everyone had the necessary devices to be able to broadcast, transmit and receive data at high speed. A better capacity for Zoom interpreting would be nice too. Accessibility for everyone, be it at the office or home, with kids and dogs around, would be ideal.

This infrastructure goes beyond technology and includes the environment as well. If you are a speaker, you need a quiet place and cannot be in an open-plan office space. If there are too many people around, it can be quite stressful. I often have interpreters working from my home office which has the right soundproof padding. The interpreting hub in London is excellent too but quite expensive to rent. It would be great to have more spaces available for interpreters to use at an affordable price.

The Future of WordlyWise

Looking ahead, we at WordlyWise plan to expand on the types of services we provide. We want to be even more accessible to the general population and, therefore, aim to provide more sign language interpretation. It’s very important that events are accessible for everyone. They should cater for everyone—and there are a lot of people who need that accessibility. We are now providing more production services. This is valuable for smaller organisations that don’t have the budget to hire an events’ organiser. The purpose is to help clients to deliver events at a very professional level in a cost-effective manner. Greater accessibility and greater production involvement are some of our focal points going forward.

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