We interviewed Martina Lunardelli, Italian interpreter and translator, who worked in Iraq, Libya and Algeria. Find out what she told us about cultural differences, travelling and sharing.
Diana Jankowiak: Martina, thank you for finding the time – I know you have a very busy and sometimes unforeseeable schedule. It is a miracle we finally managed to be at the same time in the same place – even if it is just skype. I have to say I became inspired by your stories of travelling as an interpreter to the Middle East. We all travel, I guess, but you’ve been to places that are or used to be considered war zones, such as Iraq. And yet your recollections are very calm, appreciative of the local culture. What was it like for you?
Martina Lunardelli: Having the chance to travel around the globe is an immense opportunity for us, particularly when we travel for work. Working on such grounds was absolutely amazing to me. I have always been an adventurous person, from my very beginning. For this reason, as you correctly say, my recollections are calm and appreciative. I love cultures that are in some ways different than mine, and I appreciate the fact that, in the end, we are all the same, more or less. Working in Iraq was the best experience ever, even though we all know (and I knew back then, of course) it is a place where war has always existed.
I had to work in difficult situations and try to always keep calm (keep calm and be a great interpreter, as they say). Once we were getting back from a jeep tour with the local client and the car broke in the middle of the desert. We had to figure out how to get back to the hotel but it turned out it was impossible due to the curfew there is in Kurdistan. We had to sleep at the client’s house and it was indeed a weird situation.
In moments like these one probably needs to fully adapt and put away any expectations or limitations one might have. But before you went on the trip to Iraq – did you take any special precautions? What did you do to be and to feel safe there?
Of course you need to be very flexible in those moments. Being a woman, it is even harder, at times, we have more needs than men may have (even if it is only a question of having all your stuff around and getting a chance to take a shower or having your makeup with you, silly things) and therefore you cannot feel lost or hopeless, you just need to keep going. My Italian client was an acquaintance of mine, a person I trusted, and he took care of insurance and all. We discussed together all the dangerous places he needed to cover and all the areas that had to be avoided. I have to be honest, I have always felt safe in Iraq. It was worse In Libya or Algeria in terms of how a woman can feel, even though there were no ongoing wars there.
An interpreter should always collect as many details as possible about the country she/he is visiting for work, in terms of traditions, rules, venues, and so on. In my case, I knew it would be an unconventional assignment: official meetings with politicians or important businessmen in nice offices or restaurants, but also road trips into deserts and through mountains. So it’s not only a question of getting ready for interpreting, but also a question of being physically and mentally prepared to adapt to different grounds.
That sounds like an immense challenge, especially in terms of culture. Did you feel there was more leniency towards you, that if you made a mistake when choosing the right clothes or the proper greeting, you would meet with more understanding, because of the role you had there?
Nope. Not at all. During my first assignment with that client, which was in Algeria, we all had to get used to different cultures, therefore everything was, let’s say, more relaxed. During the subsequent assignments and years, it all became a “routine” and that meant no mistakes were accepted whatsoever.
So, based on your experiences, what is the recipe for being culturally sensitive and appropriate if you travel to distant countries, governed by a completely different set of rules, very strict rules for women sometimes?
There is no recipe, it also depends on the kind of person the interpreter is. Since our job is not only conveying messages from a source language into a target language, but also to understand different cultures and making others appreciate and respect the nuances of such culture, the interpreter should gather details of the rules, costumes and traditions that have to be followed and respected and do his/her best to make everyone feel comfortable. The piece of advice I would think of is: try being as relaxed as possible during such experiences. Stressing around is of no use for anyone. For women: don’t be discouraged or fell frustrated by the fact that, at least in the beginning, people tend not to listen to you. It is just a question of politeness: follow their rules and everything will turn out great.
Moreover, if you do not feel comfortable in such countries, my suggestion is to avoid them. A stressed and uncomfortable interpreter is not able to meet the client’s needs, which is our biggest goal.
You’re absolutely right. We need to know we can do it, if we accept an assignment and in distant countries and foreign cultures that also means being able to adapt to the local culture and abide by the rules. But what you mentioned – not being listened to – seems like the greatest obstacle for an interpreter. How did you tackle it, practically? Did you just keep doing what you were doing, waiting for the listeners to adjust to the fact that you were the voice of your client?
Indeed that was the greatest obstacle. What I noticed was that the locals tended to avoid “using” my voice and tried to speak directly to the client. It was frustrating at times, I have to admit it. But I thought it was just part of the job. I took a deep breath and stayed silent until they understood it was impossible to communicate.
As soon as they get to know you, they see you respect their rules and understand they need you, things turn out to be ok. As my goal, I set the idea of never giving up and keeping up as a professional and as a woman. That’s what I did: I didn’t give up, I treated the issue with politeness yet firmly, and in the end they trusted me. There was a silent agreement between my client and me, therefore he always understood when I stayed silent.
I think the situations you are describing show very clearly how important the “human factor” is in our profession. That there is so much more than just language skills – the trust, the relationship with the client, the understanding of cultures, rules, of people themselves.
Would you say that this particular aspect of your career developed, enriched you? The perseverance you are describing can be used, after all, in any circumstances, not just in Libya or Algeria.
Yes, that’s true. With time and as experience grows, every person understands (if she/he is willing to do so) that people are made for exchanging points of view and for mutual enrichment. This aspect enriched me both as a professional and as a person. I developed a sense of quietness, of respect and appreciation that maybe wouldn’t have been so deeply rooted in my personality, if I hadn’t had the chance of experiencing what I have described before (and not only in Iraq, but more generally as you said).
Let’s go back to your beginnings. How did you start out as an interpreter, what was your turning point, professionally – the moment you knew you were going to make it in our profession?
I have always wanted to be an interpreter, since I was 12. And that’s what I did: I decided I wanted to follow my path through hard times and ups and downs. There are always hard times, but I try to stay positive and to improve day by day. Therefore there was not a real turning point, I was sure I could do it and never gave up. Of course the beginnings are always hard (and not only the beginnings, to tell the truth), and at times you want to give up. But as the years passed I saw improvement, I saw my business growing in terms of the number of clients, the amount of work, the appreciation from customers. So I just rolled up my sleeves and went on.
Many interpreters find it hard to accept that there is never a final point in our professional, a point where you can say “I’ve learned enough, I am a real expert now”, because there is no end to continuous learning, extensive preparation for each and every job, diving deep into the subject matter of the meeting or conference we are about to interpret at. There is also no “promotion” as such – we can never go up in any hierarchy because it is just us – freelance interpreters. Does that ever bother you?
I agree only partially on this. According to me, there is a kind of hierarchy, even though we could say it is not always officially recognized. Indeed, there is no promotion, but there definitely is career advancing. What bothers me the most is the fact that there are times in which the market is so slow that the flow of jobs becomes slow as well. And since I hate slow times, I don’t like such moments. Another aspect I don’t like about our job is that people often do not understand the importance of our skills and profession, at least here, in this area of Italy, Friuli Venezia Giulia (North-East of Italy), and it is becoming more and more difficult to find good clients that are willing to invest money in you to achieve real business growth. That is why interpreters should always be searching for new good clients.
You have mentioned slow times – but they can be used for recharging our batteries, finding more time for the things we love, catching up with family, friends. That is, at least, how I see it. Although I have to admit that it takes me a pretty long time to adjust to the new, slower routine after a heated high season.
I agree, slow times can be good. Recharging our batteries is of utmost importance.
I also know that you find the time to volunteer. Tell me more about it.
Translators for Peace is an Italian volunteering association born in Italy in the late 90s. I joined the group some years ago and I am in charge of their FB page Peace Stories.
We translate international news coming from nonconventional media into Italian mainly, but we are looking for expanding our range of languages and publish news about war, but also about peace, in order to help spreading ideas of peace.
That cause relates quite strongly to your travelling experiences – you’ve seen post-war areas and communities with your own eyes. Making that kind of impact and contributing to a noble cause is also what might differ you from other translators and interpreters. But from what I read you do not view your peers as competitions.
That’s true. I love sharing, I am a sharing person and I love mutual exchange that is always enriching. Some aspects nevertheless need to stay confidential and you need to develop a critical view and sense of respect for yourself and for others.
As you may know, I have created a happy hour mob lately: a networking format for colleagues to have the chance of expanding your connections.
How does that work?
The events keep growing and it is a source of great satisfaction for me. My first happening took place in Venice, at Saint Mar’s Square. I organized a happy hour with colleagues who wanted to attend. It was entertaining and useful.
Now, all over Italy, there are similar events organized by other colleagues who post their pics and experiences on the group on Facebook. My next step is to create a similar event involving professionals from different areas of expertise, not only among interpreters and translators.
So you see, I like meeting people and exchanging points of view. I strongly believe in the word of mouth and referrals, and what’s better than meeting in person?
I can see there are exciting times ahead of Italian freelancers and professionals! What would you say to the beginners out there, in the translation world?
Let me say that loving what you do is the greatest and most valuable thing you could do. We build our own path and future. So we need to stay focused and continue loving what we do, no matter what. That’s what I always say to my interpreting students in university.