When I was a kid, I realised that language is something with great charm: it is mystery. People who can speak multiple languages are magicians who fill the gap between different countries.
I was born and raised in China, where most school-aged kids are given opportunities to study English. This is a good thing because, generally speaking, kids learn a foreign language faster than adults; and it had a big impact on both my education and my career as a translator and interpreter.
I spent my teenage years in a foreign language school, where students are required to learn a third language other than Mandarin and English. I chose Japanese, a choice I have never regretted. It led me into a wonderful world with Sashimi and Anime (Japanese cartoon that I really enjoy).
Beijing Language and Culture University is where I completed my bachelor’s degree in English language and literature. You can tell from the name that this is a unique university with a great language environment and many international students who major in Mandarin. “Language Exchange” was encouraged, and I made friends with young people from everywhere. During my four-year undergraduate study, I got a chance to spend one year in Dublin, Ireland as an exchange student. Being able to speak English in an English-speaking country was like a dream come true. At first, I was not able to order food in a restaurant, but by the end of the year I made big progress and I decided to explore one more of those English-speaking countries. Luckily, my parents supported me, mentally and financially. Later I came to Australia, studying Chinese Translation and Interpreting at the University of Queensland. This is a NAATI-endorsed course, and I was provided with systemic T&I training by experienced teachers.
2017 was a big year for me: I completed my master’s degree, became an accredited translator and interpreter, and moved to Canberra. Unlike Sydney or Melbourne, Canberra is a relatively small city with less market demand. During the first 3 months, I didn’t get any translation or interpreting job. I was told that it was impossible to make a living as a freelance interpreter in Canberra, but I thought there would always be chances, and they are for people who are prepared. I sent my CV to different employers and agencies, found an internship in a bilingual media company and didn’t give up hope.
My first interpreting assignment was in October that year, at the ACT magistrates court. I will always remember the day when I received a phone call. A lady from a language agency asked me politely if I would be available to undertake a court interpreting assignment in Canberra, I was more than willing to! Later, things started to become smooth: I was offered different T&I opportunities in courts, tribunals, law enforcement agencies, government departments, universities, hospitals and medical assessment agencies. I even travelled to Sydney and Adelaide and took simultaneous interpreting assignments on livestock and wine. I cherish every job that is assigned to me, and the sense of fulfilment after completing every assignment is a big bonus. For two semesters I taught an English-Chinese translation advanced diploma course. Due to cultural difference and language barriers, Mandarin-speaking community seems vulnerable in Australia. Being able to use my skills and professionalism to help them is also something that makes me feel encouraged.
2020: My existing on-site bookings were cancelled, and I felt isolated because my husband was stuck in China due to the travel ban that has been in place since February. I allowed myself to take some weeks off: no work, just rest. Later I started to seek new ways of undertaking assignments during this pandemic season: I tried ZOOM conference interpreting, which is a unique experience; and I was lucky enough to be able to work from home and do verbatim transcription of forensic materials.
The most exciting part of being an interpreter is that you will never know what your next assignment will be like, and you are always motivated to learn new things and get familiar with new topics. I am still young, and I feel like I can keep learning for the next 100 years.
There’s a saying within the Chinese opera community which goes:
If you don’t practice for a day only you will know; if you don’t practice for two days your fellow will know; if you don’t practice for three days your audience will know.
This also applies to T&I practitioners. I think a good T&I practitioner would always find something interesting to work on.
I know this year comes with so many uncertainties and it is a difficult time for most of us. But I believe that, in terms of jobs and careers, improving your professional skills and being open to changes are very crucial. From that, everything else will look after itself.
Ruining Ma is a NAATI Certified Interpreter and Translator in Mandarin/Chinese and a language trainer with a Certificate IV in Training and Assessment.