Tuesday, April 01, 2008


Sam Berner interviews UN translator & interpreter, and AUSIT member Riham Youssef

I heard Riham for the first time on SBS, and became an instant fan. But although I am a great admirer of this ‎feisty young Egyptian, Riham and I never met in person, although we intended to. By the time I had ‎organized myself, Riham was back in Cairo and on her way to where her heart has always wanted to take ‎her: New York, and the UN. I was lucky, however, to be able to maintain contact with her online, and this ‎interview took place fully on Facebook, where we are both members. ‎

SB: Riham, it is often said that people come to translating - or that translating comes to people - in ‎amazingly different and fascinating ways. What got you into it?‎
Riham: It was all a happy coincidence. My background was actually in Tourism at the Guidance Department ‎of the Faculty of Tourism and Hotel Management. ‎
Soon after my graduation in 1994, the Cairo Opera House put an announcement asking for ushers from ‎among our students/alumni to travel to Luxor and assist in the production of the Opera Aida. Being an opera ‎lover, I decided to volunteer, just to have access to the performances for free. ‎
During the interview, the famous Egyptian tenor (turned actor) Hassan Kamy was the production manager. ‎He noticed that I had all it took to be his personal assistant!!! So I was "promoted" on the spot. One of the ‎main tasks he entrusted me with was translating the official catalogue of the opera from and into the 5 ‎languages I speak. (As proud as I am of this book today, and of my name on its cover, I wish I had the ‎chance to redo it today, after having gained much more experience!) This experience made me fall in love ‎with translation. Thus I decided to make it my career. So I enrolled in the translation and interpretation ‎programme offered at the American University in Cairo (AUC), in which I studied 42 specialised subjects of ‎translation/interpretation. This program made me familar with interpretation, too, and I realised I have a ‎passion for it as well, but that's another story.

SB: There is a trend among many translators that theory is not a necessity for making or breaking a good ‎translator. You yourself decided that it was a good idea to do a course. What were your experiences than, ‎and do you think you could have been as good a translator as you are now without the AUC course?‎
Riham: Absolutely not. I believe a good translator is a combination of theory and practice. ‎
The course I did at AUC, the BA in Translation and Literature I completed at Cairo University, and the MA ‎in Translation and Linguistics I completed at the University of Western Sydney (UWS), have all given me a ‎very solid foundation I have been building on throughout my career. And a tall building cannot rise without ‎such solid foundation. ‎
However, I don't think that good courses alone make good translators/ interpreters. On the contrary, a good ‎T&I is very rare to find. He/she is born with it, as people are born with all sort of abilities, e.g. being athletic, ‎having an ear for music, etc. You either have it or not, and courses don't do miracles. I've had so many ‎students in our AUC program whom we could not help, as they simply did not have what it takes.

SB: You have gone through the three stages of amateur, student and teacher. If you could go back now to ‎stage one, the Aida catalogue, and start anew, what would be the one major thing that you would change? ‎
Riham Translating from and into languages I'm not sufficiently proficient in, i.e. French and Italian. ‎Specialisation is vital in translation, and merely speaking a language isn't at all enough to translate from it, ‎let alone into it. ‎

SB: Lets put your teacher's hat on: what do you see as the main problem faced by majority of young people ‎undertaking the course? And what would be your advice to anyone thinking of doing, say, a BA in ‎translation?‎
Riham: I would mention the following, ‎
‎- That they believe that their (often partial) proficiency in English is enough to make them good T&Is. ‎
‎- That they are often not proficient in their own LOTE (in my case Arabic). They make embarrassing ‎mistakes in Arabic, in terms of grammar, word choices, sentence structures, punctuation, etc. I had to teach ‎them basic grammar rules in class to mend this deficiency. ‎
‎- As conference interpreting is a lucrative, glamorous career that involves traveling around the world and ‎often meeting with celebrities and dignitaries, it has attracted many young people who are only after what ‎they believe is easy money earned in a fun job. ‎
That's why I advice anyone who wishes to become a T&I and embark on studying it to think of it as a ‎profession that requires a lot of skills and hard, ongoing work. So they have to be honest with themselves ‎and decide whether they really have what is needed, and whether they are ready for all the hard work and ‎stress this job entails. They have to love it, otherwise they will never succeed in it. ‎

SB: Speaking of lack of proficiency in their own language, do you see this as a global issue? Does it in some ‎way, in your opinion, tie up with the fact that the younger generation does not read enough, or does it have ‎something to do with the education they receive prior to their university careers? ‎
Riham: I think it IS a global issue, though I can only speak with certainty about my part of the world, i.e. the ‎Arab world. You are right.; the young generation in general reads much less, and books have generally taken ‎a back seat in the age of modern technology. Everything moves at a much quicker pace, so activities that by ‎nature are known to take time and require patience in developing, such as mastering a language, be it a ‎foreign one or your own, are no longer this interesting. ‎
Young people are always in a rush. They want to send their messages across quickly, not eloquently. They ‎aim to make people understand what they want to say, rather than be impressed by their style. They choose ‎to use a language full of cool jargon, not giving much attention to all the linguistic rules they are thereby ‎breaking. ‎
And you are right about the second part of your question, too, because school and tertiary education in the ‎Arab world is declining at an alarming rate, too. Many school teachers and even university professors lack ‎the basics of Classical Arabic. So how do you expect those to impart knowledge they don't even possess?

Sam: You are both a translator and an interpreter - which one gives you more satisfaction? Why?‎
Riham: I personally find much more satisfaction in interpretation. To me, it's much more interactive and ‎lively. Interpretation, and conference interpretation in particular, takes you to the most interesting places, be ‎they in your country or overseas. It introduces you to new people, many of whom you would otherwise only ‎know through the media. Interpretation makes you feel you're part of the action... You're inside of it and not ‎just watching from a distance as is the case with translation.

And the actual process of interpretation itself is something I enjoy a lot, too: all the instant decisions you ‎need to make as to what to keep and what to drop (yes, in conference interpretation you do sacrifice some ‎non-essential words and fillers for the sake of keeping up with the speaker's pace and delivering all the ‎essentials!)... the fact that you have to be 100% alert and cannot afford to be distracted even for a split-‎second... the way you cope with speed, poor command of English on the part of the speaker... thick accents... ‎bad acoustics... interruptions... all that adrenalin rush... all the excitement!

As much as I enjoy translating, I find it to be quite lonely and isolated in comparison, especially as I'm not a ‎conformist... not a nine-to-five person. Thus conference interpretation is definitely the job for me. ‎
Sam: What skills would you say are transferable between the two - translating and interpreting - and which ‎do you find is harder to do?‎
‎ ‎
Riham: This question is a bit hard, but I'll try to give it my best shot:

Both translators and interpreters have to be highly proficient in their mother tongue and at least one foreign ‎language. They both have to love what they are doing and be ready to make use of any opportunity to ‎develop themselves professionally and acquaint themselves with whatever knowledge necessary to make ‎them do a better job, be it specialized terminology, additional information about certain disciplines, modern ‎concepts, etc. They have to accept that it's a lifelong learning process, and not just a course to complete or an ‎exam to pass. ‎
I believe conference interpretation is harder than translation, due to the many skills that need to be readily ‎available, all at the same time and almost subconsciously. It requires, inter alia, an enormous amount of ‎concentration, an alert mind, a quick response, sound diction, a perfect command especially of the target ‎language, good sentence structures and an excellent knowledge of the TL grammar, so as to produce ‎grammatically correct sentences in no time. ‎

SB: So where does Australia fit into your translating journey?‎
‎ ‎
Riham: It's due to my association with Rotary. Initially, I've always had Germany in mind. This is until I ‎went on 6-week a Rotary Group Study Exchange (GSE) trip to Australia in 1998. I was hosted by 9 senior ‎Rotarian families in 9 cities and towns, all in NSW. This is when I saw that moving to Australia would be a ‎better idea. ‎
And two years later, I went to Sydney on a "fact-finding" trip, to see how things are and if there would be a ‎chance for me. This is when I was told about NAATI. So I went and sat all 3 NAATI level 3 exams in two ‎days. ‎
So when they mailed me my certificates to Egypt a few weeks later, and when I found that I passed with ‎flying colours in all three of them, I realized that I probably have what it takes to work in the Australian T&I ‎market.‎
‎ ‎
SB: How does the translation/interpreting scene differ between Cairo and Sydney?‎
Riham: In Egypt, the vast majority of interpretation functions are between English and Arabic, rarely in any ‎third language. I was qualified to work in German, too, but it was a skill I rarely used. ‎
There's much more conference interpreting there than there is in Australia, probably owing to the central ‎geographic location Egypt is endowed with. ‎
As Egypt is a developing country, there are numerous development projects taking place there, which is a ‎goldmine for translators and interpreters: endless reports, case studies, recommendations, etc. to be ‎translated... and endless workshops, training sessions, lectures, meetings between Egyptians and non-‎Egyptians, etc. to be interpreted. ‎
We also do a lot of chuchoutage in functions where there is only one or two non-Egyptians present. It ‎happens a lot that an event is sponsored by a foreign agency/ development programme. So someone from ‎that body, usually its resident representatives or a senior staff member, attends at least one day of the event, ‎where he/she gives an opening remark (to be consecutively interpreted). Then he/she sits back and seeks the ‎assistance of the interpreter to whisper into his/her ear what is being said at the function. ‎
Community interpreting doesn't exist in Egypt. Translators, and especially interpreters, are held in very high ‎esteem and are very well paid, especially as compared to the low average incomes in Egypt. ‎
As much as I love Australia and the Australian lifestyle, I have always felt professionally frustrated. ‎Although I am highly qualified and well trained in translation/ interpretation, I never found what I was ‎looking for. Throughout my 4-year stay in Australia, I did not interpret at a single conference, whereas ‎conferences had almost been the order of the day for me in Egypt. ‎
I even had to plan my holidays back to Egypt around times where I could interpret at a conference or two, ‎just to maintain my skills at least partially. I kept myself busy with other jobs and activities, e.g. SBS ‎subtitling, working as a journalist/ broadcaster for SBS Radio, and teaching/ marking at NAATI, but I have ‎still always missed conferences and the substantial translation work I have been doing. ‎

SB: And then came the UN, like a knight on a white horse?‎
Riham: Sort of. I was glad to hear that the UN was having a competitive exam for Arabic translators. I ‎applied, and was subsequently convoked to sit their (full-day long, highly technical) exam at the closest ‎examination station, which was Bangkok, Thailand. ‎
A few months later I received an email saying that I passed the exam, and am now convoked to an interview, ‎this time in Cairo. A panel of four scrutinized me, and a few weeks later I was advised that I passed and that ‎my name was placed on their roster for future vacancies. ‎
And this future vacancy presented itself around 8 months later, and here I am, a permanent staff member at ‎the Arabic Translation Service (ATS) of the UN's Department of the General Assembly and Conference ‎Management (DGACM).

Meanwhile, I have gone through this same process with interpretation (but at least this one did not involve ‎any travel, for I sat both the exam and the interview at the UN headquarters, where I work). I am now on ‎their roster, too, and within a few months, I will be moving there permanently.

Worth mentioning is that UN exams are only offered between English and the five other official languages of ‎the UN: Arabic, Chinese, French, Russian and Spanish.

SB: Just to wrap up, where do you see yourself professionally in 5 years?

Riham: Having a full-time job at the momenr, I don't think I can make a relevant answer to this question. In ‎‎5 years, I will be working here (and hopefully till my retirement age at 62). Nothing else!‎

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