Being an interpreter may seem glamorous with all the travel involved, but the reality is much more prosaic. While it can be fascinating to work with people from all over the world, it is also high-pressure work that involves a lot of time spent on easyJet flights.
My upbringing did not lend itself to a career in languages. I grew up in north London, my parents were not linguists, and we did not go on holidays to France. However, I discovered a love for French in an after-school language club when I was 10 years old. When given the opportunity to learn German, Latin, or Russian in my second year of secondary school, I chose Russian despite barely even hearing about the country.
I found Russian to be a puzzle and a challenge, with noun declensions and cases to navigate. I realized that language learning is about building stepping stones and watching the language come together before your eyes. My first time abroad was on a school exchange to Belarus, which opened my eyes to a whole new world of exploration.
My A-levels in French and Russian were passable, but my year studying abroad in St Petersburg convinced me to pursue languages at university. My first-degree in French and Russian resulted in a first, but it was teaching English in Russia after graduation that helped me improve my skills. I had to make Russian friends and communicate without the help of other native English speakers. When I returned home, I applied to work as a linguist at GCHQ, undergoing six months of interviews, aptitude tests, and vetting before being accepted.
My job at GCHQ involved translating, transcribing, and analyzing material for intelligence purposes. The subject matter was interesting and engaging, but I couldn’t discuss the details outside of work. After completing a Master’s in interpreting at the University of Bath, I took the UN interpreting test, which is notoriously difficult. Passing the test led to a new career opportunity, working on UN missions abroad. It took about a year to establish myself as a freelance interpreter, but now I work primarily from Russian and French.
Interpreters work in pairs, trading off interpreting for half-hour periods. It can be stressful work, with communication having significant impacts on people’s lives. It is not always possible to translate literally, so the key is interpreting idea by idea. When I don’t understand something, I take a step back, think about the context, and try to piece together the meaning. It requires quick thinking and plenty of coffee.
As a language interpreter for international organizations such as the UN, I face a myriad of challenges on a daily basis. The most obvious one is the diversity of accents. For instance, French-speaking African republics have particular accents which are tough to get accustomed to. They use an intricate vocabulary and complex language patterns, which can prove challenging even for fluent speakers. To add to the pressure, most of my work is also webcast, meaning that a significant number of people are listening in live. Some events are more high-profile than others, such as the UN human rights council session, which is both political and webcasted, making it particularly tricky.
Four years into this career, I’m still trying to balance my demanding job and caring for my 18-month-old daughter. I resumed my work duties when she was only five months old, and my husband came to Geneva with me to help me manage. Now that we’re back in Gloucestershire, I try to schedule work trips spanning a few days at a time, allowing me time to be home with my daughter. Thankfully, the pay is worth the sacrifice, and I try to work around ten days in a month. While many interpreters are single, being freelance works for me and my family, providing flexibility and the ability to take on more stimulating work.
Looking ahead, my language skills have taken me to different places over the years, such as Bali, Nairobi, Vienna, and across Europe. I’ll be heading to Copenhagen and Moscow soon, too. This profession has been an adventure, and I appreciate that I never know what’s next – that’s what makes it exciting! As for me, I never plan too far ahead, as this job doesn’t allow for certainty. But that’s part of the thrill. My name is Helen Reynolds-Brown, and I interpret Russian and French for international organizations, such as the UN.