Answered by Svetlana Potton
Why do you like being an interpreter/translator?
When I graduated from the Far Eastern State University of Vladivostok in 1989 and gained my start as a radio-reporter in Khabarovsk, I was fascinated with the latest, especially rapid development of international relations linking Russia and the world. Since it was a totally fresh theme for Russian journalism during the Perestroika times, I was fortunate to cover International relations in Khabarovsk Region regularly. Initially, when I was interviewing foreign speakers, I had to depend on interpreters. In general, they did a fine job interpreting, however, I experienced that sometimes occasional small detail and subtleties of a conversation (that are so important in a journalist's job) were lost with respect to imprecise or incomplete interpreting.
Realizing that there could be an enhanced approach to interpretation, I wanted to become a ground-breaking translator. Most of all, I looked toward interviewing foreign specialists, artists, tourists, etc. for exclusive up-to-the minutes, in their own language. I wished to become an interpreter that would be able to convey not only core ideas, but also be proficient in providing significance for each little joke, every suggestion, even subtle engagements that were used in conversation. This is how it all started, what I enjoy, and find the most rewarding about my translating/interpreting job. In a nutshell, I go all-out to perform accurate and seamless interpreting, while maintaining meaningful conversation, additionally preserving all the colors or shades of speech expressed between people of the international population.
What was the hardest thing to interpret and why?
I had a problematic time at one point simultaneously interpreting for one French scientist. It was tough not only because she spoke very-very fast, plus she spoke with a heavy foreign accent. Amusing now, other than I guess in this business we can't nitpick too much about accents.
What is the most difficult thing about interpreting?
For most people it must be stage fright... I would think? I remember, in the start of my career, I was offered to do some interpreting on very short notice at one of the Northern Forum Conferences where people from a few countries were gathered, including: Japan, Finland, Norway, Russia and Canada. I was given the assignment to interpret for a couple of Russian men from Yakutia, not on a stage, but in the back of the room behind the audience. I found that it would be easy enough and readily accepted the offer.
At first, there was no actual problem. Two Russian-speaking gentlemen listened to my whispers attentively, occasionally asked questions to clarify the content, but soon one of them was invited to the stage to present his speech. I looked around, and realized that none of the on hand interpreters were walking to the stage with him. There was not much time to think about it, and I rushed to the stage with him.
Even though, it was a beginning of my interpreting career, I already had experiences of being at the front of an auditorium; in addition I knew how professional interpreters conducted themselves on stage. I tried to speak clear and loud enough... However, I was not too familiar with the topic and specifically did not know the word "Olenevodstvo" which correct translation from Russian into English is "Reindeer husbandry". I gasped some air, ultimately seeking for something synonymous for the word, and was just able to come up with something alike to it: "Reindeer industry". Fortunately someone from the auditorium politely offered me the correct translation, I acknowledged it, and continued. Subsequently... I saw two Russian men within the audience whispering into each other's ears and trying to hide their chuckles. I think that was the hardest moment in my interpreting career. Adrenalin immediately rushed into my head. I couldn't bear the thought that someone seemed to be laughing at my performance. Who knows??? Maybe they were discussing something funny that was not even related to the presentation? In all honesty, I perceived that moment and took it very personally. That experience allowed me to learn two lessons:
If it is at all possible, get ready for any stage interpretation in advance. Do essential homework by communicating to a speaker prior to his speech, and when possible request a list of the difficult or unusual terms prior to any conferences.
Concentrate all attention on the speaker... not on the participants who may be sleeping, yawning, laughing, talking, making faces, etc., - and thereby distracting you while interpreting.
What is the most bizarre situation interpreting has gotten you into?
Yes, I can recall one very unusual state of affairs. I bet, not many have heard about fixing an airplane with an ax??? I had! While in Russia, I was asked to interpret for an American airplane crew. Their airplane landed in Khabarovsk, a large city on the Far East of Russia located on the Amur River, just about bordering China. During landing the undercarriage (airplane wheel) tire had blown out. You would think a simple enough task? - Just change the tire! However, in the early 90's this incident was probably the first American airplane that needed technical support in Khabarovsk. As it turned out, standard Russian equipment was not compatible and did not correspond with American planes parts due to the metric system. Complicating the job – lifting the plane with a forklift ended up becoming a confusing, frustrating experience. One way or another, the Russian forklift was a little bit to tall and just not up to the procedure in attempting to stick its "Forks" under the "Belly" of the American plane. Both Russian and American mechanics were running around the Khabarovsk airport and its vicinity attempting to resolve the technical discrepancy for over seven hours. Everyone's voices became hoarse by the end of day, including mine because we had to communicate in such a deafening environment.
Finally, one Russian man, a maintenance person, approached the team and offered a solution by using a wooden log and an ax. He chopped the end of the log making a ramp for the plane. The crew started the airplane's engines then moved it forward for just a couple of feet. This allowed the plane to get on top of the log. The forklift machine easily inserted its forks under the bottom of the plane and lifted one side up from the ground. The rest of procedure didn't take much time at all for the mechanics to change the tire. That is how a Russian man fixed an American airplane with an ax...
What was the funniest situation you have had in your translating/interpreting career?
There have been so many comical situations during my interpreting career that it is hard to pick the most humorous one. What usually happens is that once both international parties find rapport with each other, they almost do not notice the language barrier anymore (probably because of the seamless translation J). They start to relax and begin telling life stories and joke around. I love that part of my job. However, if someone will tell a really funny joke or story, my imagination could kick in, and sometimes it becomes hard to translate because I may be amused myself. If in that moment the crowd's anticipation of a funny ending reaches its punch-line, people possibly will start laughing even before I can finish interpreting the joke.
Here is one instance. One time while in Nome I was working with Russian and American scientists on a walrus-monitoring project. At dinnertime everybody enjoyed Borsch (Russian Stew-like soup) and praised the Russian cooks. One of the Russian scientists, Gennady, said they could cook even a better Russian dish - pelmeny (meat dumplings, or pot stickers). He brought up an example of how good it was on a previous occasion: "My friend was eating so many pelmenies when he finally exclaimed - if I will have one more pelmen, the first one that I had eaten will stick to my chair!" Well, for me it was an unexpected outcome to the pelmenies story. My imagination gave me such a vivid picture of that first pelmen trying to get out of Russian man's body and sticking to a chair that I couldn't immediately continue interpreting the story. I attempted to suppress my laughing and try to get the rest of story out of my mouth. Every time I would say a word, I would almost burst into laughter.
Since the Russian party understood the story exactly as it was told, and they were already laughing at the tale and my weak attempts to interpret, it formed a chain reaction. As soon as I would gather my strength to be serious enough and say a word, someone at the table would start laughing; consequently making me laugh too. Even though the Americans did not know the ending of the story, they started smiling and giggling because the laughter became infectious and created an electrical-like charge that went around the room. Finally when I managed to take control of myself and finish the story, in the face of everybody laughing so hard, I had to wipe the tears from my eyes.
What are your typical customers like?
In general, it could be anyone who is dealing with Russia in one way or another.
If you look at the page "Russian Translating" you can find that my customers have been representing diverse levels of international relations:
Governmental agencies of USA, such as: US Coast Guard, FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Administration), State of Alaska - office of the Governor Markowski, US Depatment of Justice, Alaska Court System, State Troopers, US National Park Services, US Fish and Wildlife Services, and others.
My customers representing Governmental agencies from the Russian Federation were: Khabarovsk Division of Emercom, Chukotka Department of the Pacific Research Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography (TINRO), North-Eastern Directorate of the Russian Border Guard Service of the Federal Security Service (FSB) in Kamchatka, Russian Departments of Fisheries
Numerous times I was one of several Russian interpreters involved in large conferences that were held in Anchorage, Alaska. Topics of those conferences were different: oil industry, marine mammals, ornithology, fisheries, borders, medicine, sports, Alaskan and Russian Native cultures, etc. However, all of those conferences had one thing in common: development of Russian-American peaceful relations.
I went as an interpreter to the North Slope Alaska with the oilfield services company Schlumberger where Russian representatives of the SibNeft from Moscow and Novosibirsk had chance to get acquainted with the oil industry equipment and oil processing in America.
Amongst my clients were also nonprofit organizations, such as: Catholic Social Services, Alaska ProBono Legal System, Special Olympics.
Lots of my customers come to me from medicine. They trust my professionalism especially because I am licensed Registered Nurse in Alaska, and I able to provide professional medical translating and interpreting services. I had customers from different health settings: at Providence Hospital, Alaska Regional (Columbia) Hospital, and different private practices/clinics. Sometimes patients contact me directly, but mostly doctors or other medical professionals inquire about my professional bilingual help.
Parents seeking adoption of Russian children-orphans also have been my customers throughout the years.
Russian people immigrated to America, even if they speak English, they also become my clients when they need certified translations of their documents: birth-, marriage-, divorce-, death certificates for immigration purposes; or diplomas, transcripts, training certificates for educational and occupational purposes.
Often I translate for people needing help with personal correspondence to their pen pals, or brides to be in Russia.
Where are you located?
I am located in San Diego, California and Anchorage, Alaska, USA. You may contact me via
Could you come to New York, Los Angeles or Moscow and translate a conversation?
Yes, I could travel anywhere in USA or in Russia.
How much would it cost?
Please see pages Verbal Interpreting & Written Translations for listing and pricing of the services.
If someone or a group were going to travel Russia (not sure this is the correct term but you know what I mean) could you accompany and help with logistics?
Yes, I have traveled with my American clients in Russia, and yes, I will be happy to make referrals to the services in Russia who can help with logistics.
How do you handle confidentiality?
There are certain times when confidentiality is a must, especially in the medical or legal fields. I sign a confidentiality agreement for my customers upon their request.
Why would someone choose you over other Russian / English translators?
I would refer you to the page "What people say".. You can read and browse through this page.
How do you prepare for an interpreting session?
As I mentioned above, it always helps if I do my "homework" ahead of time, specifically for verbal interpreting, by reading about the topic, talking to speakers about their presentation, familiarizing myself with difficult, special professional terms.
Do you utilize dictionaries for checking technical words?
Yes. My library contains probably a couple dozens of different specialized dictionaries. I used to like to carry at least one dictionary with me on assignment just in case a difficult situation may occur. In modern day and age there are plenty of electronic dictionaries. Clients appreciate it when their interpreter takes a pause to clarify a difficult word rather than makes one up.
One time, in the beginning of my career as an iterpreter when I was preparing to work during an official meeting of the US Coast Guard and their counterparts from Russia, the Federal Border Guard Services, Rear Admiral Barrett noticed that I brought my dictionary with me. He said: "Oh, Dictionary! That is not very good sign." I answered that I will need it as a clipboard. Everybody smiled. It turned out that I never needed to open my dictionary during that meeting, but I felt secure about having it.
I have heard simultaneous interpreting is very taxing. How long can you do this for? Do you need time to recuperate?
Yes, while interpreting simultaneously an interpreter concentrates all attention on the speakers. The interpreter is utilizing several physical senses: visual, hearing and speech. That is a lot of work for one brain. That is why simultaneous interpreters usually do not work alone. Standard practice is to take turns every 30 minutes, or so.
Generally, as also mentioned on my home page, Simultaneous interpretations are most suited for large gatherings like conferences, or symposiums. During such events, interpreters usually are isolated from an audience and convey their services via microphones to the listening parties' headsets. Simultaneous interpreting requires higher proficiency and expertise. The concentration and interaction involved with simultaneous interpreting is more intensive then consecutive.