The Accidental Interpreter


This picture was taken in Brasilia, on Tuesday, March 17, 1992. It shows the exact moment when I became an interpreter.

The dude in a light suit is congressman Ibsen Pinheiro. Sitting diagonally from him is His Royal Highness Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh. I am the young guy in the middle. Yup. The one with a lot of hair.

Two weeks later, I was sitting across from the Princess of Thailand and soon thereafter the Prime Minister of Norway. In between, a procession of ambassadors came to present their credentials and they all spoke through me. I had become the personal interpreter to the Speaker of the House, who doubled as Vice-President of the Republic following the impeachment of President Collor.

Four years earlier, I had joined Congress as a clerk and I was bored out of my mind pushing papers eight hours a day. Having to wear a suit and tie was another drag, considering I used to go around on nothing but a bathing suit and sandals as a swimming instructor not too long  before that.

With the royal entourage already on its way, the penny dropped. It was safe to assume the Duke did not speak a word of Portuguese. The Speaker needed an interpreter. And with just one hour to go, I was as close as they would ever get to one.

Fishing for a promotion, and perhaps out of overconfidence, I had spread the rumor that I spoke fluent English. And although I could get by, my knowledge was actually very patchy, acquired through a series of incomplete courses and random interactions with a handful of friends whose English was just as broken. To my credit, I did a lot of reading with the help of a few worn out paper dictionaries.

But on that day, I was their only shot. At 28 years of age, and with zero interpreting experience under my belt, I  was pushed overboard. And I swam.

It took another two years and dozens of consecutive assignments before I would venture into an interpretation booth. In retrospect, it is hard to tell how much progress I was making. But I was having a ball and I was not going to quit.

Through happenstance — and certainly more mistakes than I was able to acknowledge –, I slowly developed into a mature interpreter. I eventually quit my job at Congress and set up my own translation agency. I also wrote a book on Interpreting, telling part of my story and trying to pave the way for whoever came after me.

Then in 2007, I decided to put my career on hold and get a degree in Interpreting. I went to the Monterey Institute, took the advanced entry track and got my MA with flying colors. On the day of my finals, I was invited to take the conference-level interpreting exams at the State Department, and a few months after that I was in Washington for my first large Summit.

I had finally broken into the big league. I was having a ball and I was not going to quit!

| | |

Now, how did YOU become an interpreter?
Leave a comment. Share your story!
Will you be prepared for when luck knocks on the door?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *