Portrait of the month: Nancy, volunteer interpret at Emmaüs Europe (August 2020)

As you may know, the meetings of associatives structures such as Emmaüs Europe or Emmaüs International require a certain amount of logistics : transport means for participants from different countries, accommodations… But also for interpretation, because there are three official international languages in Emmaüs : french, english and spanish. This month, we propose to you to meet Nancy who interprets volunteering for Emmaüs Europe. 


Hello Nancy, could you introduce yourself very briefly?

Hello, I am an English-speaking Canadian but have been living for a long time in France, where I came partly for my work as an interpreter and partly because I wanted my children to grow up in a French and European culture. Their father, of Indian origin from Madagascar, had a French education. (Life is never simple!)

How would you describe your work?  What did you study?

In secondary school I studied languages because I didn’t like math (that’s the truth) and I was curious about other cultures different from mine.  Nothing in my background prepared me to become an interpreter; in Canada, an officially bilingual country but in fact a juxtaposition of two linguistic entities, my parents complained of always getting the French side of the label when they picked an item off the shelf in the supermarket. But I came to France the first time to continue my studies and fell in love with the country. So I was looking for an excuse to renew my residency permit when a friend suggested I try the entrance exam to the interpreters’ school. I thought that once I had my residency permit I wouldn’t really have to attend classes. But I was curious enough to go to the first class and then I was hooked. I was thrilled at the thought that I could enable people to communicate even though they had no common language!  As much as I hated written translation (I’m no perfectionist) I immediately grasped the concept of « putting the message across ». And that is what I have been trying to do ever since.

You regularly interpret for Emmaüs Europe meetings… How did you hear about Emmaüs?

Once again, it was a matter of chance! Living in France, the country of Abbé Pierre, I had of course heard of Emmaüs but I thought it was an organization selling second hand furniture.  I agree to interpret the first time because a colleague was looking desperately for volunteers and I discovered a whole world I was unaware of.  When someone explained how Emmaüs communities work I thought it was the ideal solutions to many of society’s issues today, or if it is not the solution it is at least the best way to try and tackle the problem. Now that I am retired I work for other humanitarian organizations as well, always trying to help people communicate.

What do you like most about your work?  What do you like the least? 

What I like most is to see two people of different cultures sharing the same enthusiasm or laughing at the same joke (that’s the hard part!).  What I don’t like is the technology side, all those microphones and headsets that come between the two people trying to communicate, but which are a necessary evil.

Do you have any anecdotes related to your work?

There are many, usually when the interpreter makes a mistake and has to be a contortionist to get out of a tricky situation. I remember a colleague who confused « rabbit » and « rabbi » when talking about injecting a new drug in an experimental trial. She realized her mistake and quickly added « it also works with a rabbit ».

What was your most rewarding experience as an interpreter?

I have worked for heads of state but they speak a very stilted language.  What has given me the most pride are the moments when I can see the listener hanging on my every word because he or she is convinced that I am the one who is making the speech, that I am not just a mouthpiece.  It is when I cease to exist as an interpreter that I know communication is flowing seamlessly.

How has the present crisis affected your work?

I am fortunate to have retired from regular work which means I don’t have to adapt to all the new technologies that tend to remove the human element from communication.  I won’t work from home, but I have agreed to try remote interpreting to see how it goes.  We shall see…  I certainly hope it doesn’t become the rule.  Nothing can replace human contact, but in a time of crisis you do what you can. I’m worried about the future of the new generation of young interpreters coming up…

At any rate, thank you for your time!

It’s been a pleasure !