The Emergence of Language Professionals in Myanmar

Joanna Dolińska reviews the challenges associated with interpreting and translating in Myanmar.

In this post, I would like to comment on the current development of the English-Myanmar interpreting/translation sector in Myanmar. Through my role as academic coordinator at the Kant Kaw School of Interpretation and Translation (Thabyay Education Foundation), the first school in Myanmar solely devoted to teaching interpreting and translation theory and skills, I have had the opportunity to identify challenges that interpreters and translators might be currently facing in Myanmar. My knowledge about the interpreting/translation sector in Myanmar has come from interviewing potential interpreting and translation instructors; conducting school entrance exams; preparing school curriculum on the basis of the Myanmar social, political and cultural context; as well as co-organizing the First International Conference of Interpreters and Translators in Myanmar on 6 December 2016. I also help local and foreign partners in the search for interpreters. All these experiences helped me realize both the potential and weaknesses of the interpreting and translation sector in Myanmar.

From the linguistic point of view, Myanmar is a fascinating country. It is repeatedly said, almost like a mantra, that there are around 100 languages spoken in the country (for an interesting source of information please visit here), but as a linguist I feel that sources on the historical classification of the local languages in Myanmar are not easily available. Besides, it is often confusing to differentiate a language from a dialect. The 2008 Constitution of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar stipulates that the only official language of the country is Myanmar, but in fact, it is not necessarily the first language of all the population. To make things even more complicated, not all languages spoken in Myanmar have a written form and their strength lies in their oral tradition.

The described complex linguistic landscape could potentially bring positive results – i.e. more jobs for language specialists, ranging from, for example, Burmese teachers through Karen language proof-readers and Kachin-Burmese interpreters, to Shan-English translators. While this multi-faceted topic deserves separate attention, for the purpose of this post, what is worth noting is that the situation in which interpreters/translators use languages other than Myanmar as their mother tongue, does in fact influence their performance in the most common interpretation/translation work assignments. It happens very often that international partner organizations working in Myanmar do not know that their interpreting staff work in a combination of B language (in which they are fluent and actively interpreting into) and C language (which they understand perfectly but are usually interpreting from). (For a more detailed explanation of these terms, click here). In my view, it is really impressive that many Myanmar interpreters have mastered their knowledge of B language to the level similar to their mother tongue.

Coming back to local and international partners working with interpreters/translators, it seems that there is a mismatch between the employers’ expectations on the one hand and the language service providers on the other side. The problem is that both parties often do not understand the role of an interpreter or translator. Here I would like to share some advice with local and international organizations. It is recommended that they realize than not everyone who knows a foreign language (where English seems to be the most sought after) can immediately fulfill the role of an interpreter or translator. These are two different professions and require different skills. Moreover, it would be good if local and international organizations reserved more time to look for appropriate interpreters and informed them about upcoming assignments early enough to give them time to prepare. They should be aware of the fact that professional interpreters are generously remunerated for their work because they spend lots of time on preparation for their assignments. This preparation includes looking for literature and technical information concerning the topic, as well as simply learning new things in order to be able to interpret speeches and conversations about them. It is advisable that the same organizations allow interpreters carrying out simultaneous interpretation to work in pairs, especially during long events. Under no circumstances should interpreters be asked to interpret simultaneously 8 hours in a row, even with a lunch break in-between. If they do, it will certainly have a negative influence on the quality of interpretation.  It is understandable that positive changes need time, but if possible, organizations need to make sure that there are interpreting booths in the venues that they hire for conferences or rent mobile booths. Like all of us, interpreters need proper work conditions. Organizations should also remember to provide interpreters with a proper view of the speakers. I hope that the image of an interpreter that sits in the last row of the audience and with a lowered voice simultaneously interprets into the microphone will soon belong to the past.

Having said that, interpreters and translators could also contribute to the improvement of their work conditions and professionalization of their role. First of all is the need to specialize in particular fields. In-house interpreters/translators are often trained in specific topics when they cover administration or communication roles. However, externally recruited interpreters/translators for workshops and conferences seem to be chosen on a random basis, without a proper check of their specializations carried out by the relevant HR department of the organization that hires them. That might lead to an unsatisfactory outcome of an interpreting event. Here I also need to mention that many language service providers wrongly assume that if they narrow down their field of specialization, they will receive fewer work opportunities. When asked about their field of specialization, they tend to declare their ability to interpret “everything.” A dependable reputation will bring repeated business, even if it is in a specialized field.

Another worrying sign is that many interpreters/translators do not feel the need to continuously upgrade their language skills. Future interpreters and translators need to understand that the key to their success is constant professional development, as dated skills are not what the market requires. The popular phrase “lost in translation” in many cases becomes a sad reality – indeed, information gets lost in translation because many interpreters simply believe that their task is to convey the key points of someone’s speech, without taking into account such subtle elements as a proper choice of words, linking words, or rhetorical figures. It is interesting that some of them see “summarizing a speech” and “interpreting a speech” as a synonym.  This is a dangerous approach, because it might cause a considerable loss of content if an interpreter decides to summarize the speech. As a result, customers are often unhappy with the language services, translators are stressed by the way their clients comment on their work and it creates a situation where a translator is not viewed as a bridge that brings together both sides, but rather as an untrustworthy source of information, both for the foreign and the Burmese side of a communication exchange.

I would also like to address the topic of how interpreters and translators perceive their work. Unfortunately, even those who have admirable skills and experience seem to underestimate their role. I have had numerous opportunities to review interpreters’ CVs in the school recruitment process and have noticed that potential instructors devote several pages to their project management or English language teaching experience and cooperation with INGO’s, rather than creating a simple list of skills and showing during which interpreting events they were able to use them.

Moreover, many interpreters and translators for some reason do not feel the need to fully commit to their role, and hence be really successful in it. They often work full-time as English language instructors or tour guides and miss the great opportunity to grasp this brilliant moment to become a professional interpreter and translator when Myanmar has just opened up to the world.

Finally, as trivial as it sounds, many individuals will also gain more job opportunities if they check their mailbox on a more regular basis. Even though the internet connection might not always be perfect, they need to become accustomed to answering business correspondence quickly. If an organization is looking for an interpreter, interested individuals need to answer the same day on which they hear about the offer, in fact, as soon as possible. I also suggest revising some business English elements, and refreshing their e-mail writing skills. The competition never sleeps.

The times when it was enough to know how to communicate in English in order to become a translator are gone. Interpreters and translators need to understand that now is the time for them to upgrade their language skills and constantly strive for perfection. Moreover, they should take pride in their profession and, if organizations that hire them are unaware of their role, obligations and limits, they should at least try to educate their clients about the work conditions needed to successfully and effectively carry out their work. Myanmar needs skilled interpreters and translators and the opportunities awaiting them, especially since the November 2015 elections, are enormous. I am sure Myanmar will take a step forward, when a group of skilled, well-trained and professionally thinking group of language service providers emerges.

Ms Joanna Dolińska is a PhD Student at the Faculty of Oriental Studies at the University of Warsaw. She holds a 5-year cycle MA degree in Applied Linguistics (German and English for Interpreting and Teaching Purposes, University of Warsaw), as well as BA and MA degree in Oriental Studies. During her academic development, she studied at the University of Warsaw, Universität Leipzig Universität, Duisburg-Essen and National University of Mongolia. Ms Joanna Dolińska is the first academic coordinator of the Kant Kaw School of Interpretation and Translation in Yangon and has been working as an interpreter and translator in the language combination German-Polish-English-Mongolian for 6 years.