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Profile: Maria Teresa Bermudes


When did you decide you wanted a career in languages?

I have always loved languages. Growing up in Mozambique, near the border with Zimbabwe, I learned to speak English at an early age and also learned French with my mother, a Francophile. Later on, while training to be a midwife, I translated a book on midwifery for my own benefit. I really enjoyed the process and decided to go back to school.


How did you get into interpreting?

By chance. While on a course I got into the habit of whispering translations into my Spanish-speaking colleague’s ear, unaware that I was practising chuchotage. Later on I worked in international development in Lesotho, a small country completely surrounded by South Africa. This was during apartheid; the country was a hub of diplomatic activity and most aid organisations also had offices there. One day I was asked to interpret for a Mozambican high-level official at a Red Cross conference. No one else was available so after some insistence on their part, I accepted. After the conference they told me I had done an excellent job and asked me to help at another conference, the very next day. I never looked back.


What do you see as the key skills required to be a good conference interpreter?

You need to have a deep knowledge of your working languages and cultures, and of the appropriate registers. Obviously this is not something that can be acquired overnight – it is a lifelong process entailing a lot of (unpaid) work. Interpreters need to be ‘mentally fit’, both in terms of having a good memory and of being able to split their attention between what they are hearing, what they are saying, and everything else, including the sound equipment, any visual information, etc. – much like a juggler keeps several objects in the air. Diction, voice modulation and volume control are also extremely important. The interpreter’s speech must sound clear and coherent. It is important to keep the listener interested (by avoiding a monotonous tone) but also not to startle him/her with a strident delivery. And lastly, but perhaps most importantly, the interpreter must be neutral and detached. Imagine interpreting a discussion on Brexit and taking no sides.   


What do you think is the most challenging aspect of interpreting?

The variety and unpredictability of situations.  Conferences are ‘live shows’. There are no rehearsals and no second takes, so one must have nerves of steel. Also it can be frustrating that one becomes acquainted with a particular topic, only to store that knowledge away until further notice at the end of each assignment. I have compiled many glossaries and my head is full of bits of information I may never use again.


What is the piece of advice you would give someone starting out in their interpreting career?

Practise, practise, practise – it is never too much and it always pays off. Your work will be delivered straight into the listener’s ears in a rather intimate process, so mistakes are really noticeable. I sit in front of the telly or use YouTube and practise to distraction. I time myself in conference-like conditions. I also give myself time to prepare meticulously before each assignment, including compiling a glossary, reading up on the topics and companies involved, etc.


Is there an assignment that really sticks in your memory?

Many years ago I worked at a meeting of Southern African Police Chiefs. It was one of my first assignments and I remember feeling rather dizzy at the sheer magnitude of the numbers and tasks involved. Ten gentlemen and their aides sat in a small room, working out how to maintain law and order in an area roughly the size of Europe – and they depended on my colleagues and myself to be able to communicate!   


Why did you decide to become an ITI Qualified Interpreter?

I was Associate Member for some 15 years so it was a natural progression. In this increasingly globalised market, the qualification guarantees a standard of quality that my clients find reassuring. It is also important to get organised with one’s peers and colleagues.


What do you think is the most common misconception about your job?

That it’s all about glamour and excitement. While it is true that assignments are varied and we visit different countries and regions and meet interesting people, this lack of routine can also be exhausting. We spend countless hours preparing for assignments and often leave home at the crack of dawn and get back late at night. We also tend to have an intimate knowledge of airports and train stations, which is anything but glamorous. 


What would be your perfect restaurant meal?

Being a vegetarian, I have a weakness for Middle Eastern/Turkish cuisine. It is delicious, nutritious, surprising and versatile.

Is there someone who has really inspired you?

I always feel inspired by good communicators. A good speaker has a deep knowledge not only of his or her message but also of how to deliver it – by using simple, fluent, striking language, good diction and voice projection, etc. Good speakers often use written notes as guidelines rather than reading their speeches or if they do read them, they do so in a natural voice, breathing and pausing in the right places and never rushing. Good speakers are aware of cross-lingual communication difficulties and often come into the interpreting booths prior to their presentations, to introduce themselves and answer any queries the interpreters might have. A good speaker always helps me do a better interpreting job.  



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