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Expect the Unexpected: The Life of Interpreter in European Parliament

Sashka Hristova was one of the first Bulgarian interpreters in the European Parliament (EP) and has been working there for almost 20 years. In an exclusive BTA interview, she talked about what makes the profession so interesting, what requirements have to be met to get into one of the most elite interpreting teams, what are the difficulties she faces during her work and how she expects the development of artificial intelligence to influence the future of interpreters.
The interview was taken in Bulgarian. Through the labyrinths of the European Parliament in Strasbourg we arrive at the interpreting booths. Away from the focus of visitors, numerous booths lining the plenary hall are staffed by high-calibre professionals who make MEPs’ speeches accessible in each of the 24 official languages of the European Union.
The booths are surprisingly spacious. While often the initial association with a translation booth is of a cramped space, there is enough room here for several people to work comfortably. This was also one of the first impressions Hristova had when she arrived at the European Parliament nearly 20 years ago. “[The booths] were not like the ones I worked in before I came here. The fixed booths in Bulgaria were usually tiny. Some could hardly fit two people. Very often we worked in portable booths, which are a little more spacious but not as soundproof. As you can see, the booths here are soundproof,” she said.
Only a window separates us from the next booth, where a team of interpreters works. Even though we see their mouths moving, it is completely quiet. “Another thing that has impressed me is that we are provided with the necessary documents to prepare for a session. It is very, very rare that there are no documents for an upcoming session,” Hristova added.
The Bulgarian interpreter was hired by the European Parliament in 2006, prior to Bulgaria’s entry in the EU in 2007. At that time Bulgarians were only invited to the EP to observe and get acquainted with the work of the EP – and interpreters came along to help them.
Currently, the EP employs eight full-time Bulgarian interpreters and between 30 and 50 freelancers. The only difference is the administrative status and the number of languages – the full-time interpreters have more passive languages.
As soon as we entered the booth, Hristova showed the interpreting console. Each interpreter has passive and active languages: those into which they interpret are called “active” and the ones from which they interpret are “passive”.
For her, the active ones are Bulgarian and English and the passive ones include also German, Italian and Dutch.
When a speech is not in one of the translator’s passive languages, it is passed through the so-called relay language. In her case, this means switching to English, French or Italian. “For example, one listens to the English translation and not the speaker,” Hristova explained.
In the large halls of the EP there is a dedicated booth for each EU language.
“Booth work is not the only work we do. We learn languages, we work on our languages, because the moment you stop doing that, the language stagnates: you start forgetting words, you are not up to date with the novelties, because no language stands still, they are constantly evolving. We also prepare for sessions. I cannot go to a meeting of the agriculture committee without having read the reports,” she added.
Interpreters are encouraged to learn new languages. “It is not considered appropriate to end your career with the same number of languages you started with. Interpreters usually start with a small number of languages, I personally came with Bulgarian and English. Gradually I added French, then Italian, then Dutch” Hristova said.
Nowadays, she notices that use of the English language in the EP is increasing – something that was not so common during her first years at the institution. “Not only [English], of course. MEPs have the right to speak in any of the official languages. Sessions are becoming more specialized, more technical or expert, which inevitably affects the language,” she said.
Bulgarian language: an interpreter’s wishlist
Hristova has a very clear ideal of the kind of Bulgarian language she wants to hear as she works. “At the very least, I expect to hear correct Bulgarian, grammatically impeccable. This means well-formed sentences with clear beginnings and endings, with clear connections between the parts, so that what is said is a logically connected whole. 
She is aware that emotional speaking is part of the job of politicians. “Yes, there are some who are more restrained, but there are others who express more extreme positions – this is normal, this is their right. Even when they make emotional statements, when something has made them very happy, something has saddened them or outraged them, I still expect the same. I do not expect wrong grammar, sentences that begin in one gender and end in another. I do not expect expressions that are at odds with the generally accepted good manners,” Hristova said.
The requirements 
Interpreters in the EP must meet a number of requirements, which Hristova summarized in several groups. “There are formal requirements – a university degree. There are also specific requirements for the profession, which are related to language training and language preparedness. I would also include a general knowledge and a broad awareness of the world around us. There is another set of requirements, which I think could be called personal characteristics. Here I would include diligence, efficiency, a sense of responsibility, reliability, cool-headedness, in order to cope with those situations in which we are actually under very strong pressure. A long list of ingredients, but I cannot help but add here that one must love this profession. To want to practice it,” Hristova stressed. “An agile mind is an absolute must for one to be able to pick out the important elements in fast-flowing dense speech at the expense of linguistic fillers. You have to act quickly and appropriately,” she noted.
Interpreters face several types of difficulties. One of these is related to the fact that the EP is debating legislation in a variety of areas. “From agriculture, which is a huge area in itself, environment, foreign policy, technology, finance… As they say in English, everything under the sun,” Hristova said. “Another difficulty has to do with the fast pace in the European Parliament. Time is a limited resource, there are many people who want to speak, time is scarce and so they are sometimes given just a minute or two. Because the topics are important, each speaker has a desire to say as much as possible, which cannot normally fit into the time allocated to him, and this comes at the expense of the speed with which the text is read. Texts very often bear the marks of written speech. There is a difference in semantic load between written and spoken speech and this sometimes creates difficulties for us,” she added.
In the EP, there are different types of speakers, each with their own particularities of expression. Even if the aspiration is to translate 100% of the speech with its specifics and all facts, sometimes it is not possible. Which aspect of the speech do they then pay more attention to? “Depending on the discourse, on the type of speech. There are speeches in which factual information is most important. Whatever the twists and turns of the speech, especially if it is fast, intense and read out, it is obvious that our priority is the factual content,” Hristova said.
Impact of AI
In recent years, artificial intelligence has established itself as an assistant to interpreters, but Hristova admits that she is not sure how the development of these technologies will affect the profession in the future. “There are applications that we use. They help us a lot because they save us digging through dictionaries and encyclopaedias. Can we trust them 100%? I would not say so. Their reliability is not unquestionable, I have found that many times. Those apps are appropriate for some kinds of discourse and not so appropriate for others. That is why the human eye and human judgment are essential. I must admit that they [the apps] are getting better. Perhaps there will come a time when they can replace us. For now, they only help us, for which we are grateful,” she said. “If I had to go back, I would choose the same profession again”
Despite the pressures and difficulties, Hristova has no hesitation about whether she has chosen the right career path for herself. “It is not a profession where you learn a certain number of operations and then do the same over and over again. Every time is different: no matter how prepared you are,” she said.
“Our principle is ‘Expect the unexpected’. There’s always something unexpected, but that is what makes it interesting,” she noted. “Work never gets monotonous, new expressions are constantly emerging. Bureaucratic metaphors are an issue that I think deserves a dissertation. They are infinitely difficult to translate. We often come across them. It is not a profession that is talked about every day. It is not marketing, it is not management, it is not influencer… It is a niche profession with a lot of work, but there are people who set out to do just that in life. Those who set that as their goal and actually want to achieve it, succeed,” said Hristova.
Since 2002, Sofia University has had a master’s programme in conference interpreting.
Hristova hopes that more young people will be attracted to the profession. “There is a need for new recruits. My generation is gradually stepping down. New people are coming in, new colleagues who do great, but it would be good if this recruitment does not stop,” she noted.