One Year On: Interpreting, D.C.

For my first graduation anniversary interview, I talked with Jennifer Cho, who graduated from the Korean program at the Monterey Institute with a Master’s Degree in Conference Interpretation. She is currently living in Washington, D.C., where she works as a freelance patent translator for WIPO and at the time I interviewed her she was about to embark on her first assignment as a liaison interpreter with the U.S. State Department.

EB: How has it been the first year? What are you doing in DC?

JC: The first half of the year after graduation I had two internships lined up, which was a great way to get started in the career. In the summer I was in Switzerland for about three months working with the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) in Geneva and after that internship I’ve been consistently getting patent translation work from them, so that’s a good source of regular income that I can rely on. And then after Geneva I came to DC to pursue an internship with the Department of State. It was a conference interpreting internship where I got a lot of hands-on work, hands-on practice and I also got to shadow some interpreters, work with staff interpreters there, get great advice. So that was really helpful. And now I’m on the State Department roster getting assignments from them on an as-needed basis. So I’m going on my first assignment… well first IVLP, which is the International Visitors Leadership Program and it’s a three-week assignment where the Department of State invites leaders from all around the world —and in my case that would be South Korea— to participate in different themed programs. This one in particular is on political campaign organization, and we start out in DC and visit different cities around the country meeting with their counterparts. So this time we’re inviting some chiefs of staff, political office assistants to meet with different party members and observe, see what the voting ballot’s like, maybe attend like an after primary party. So it will be very interesting and a really good learning experience for me.

EF: And have you been doing some preparation for this assignment? How do you prepare for that sort of thing?

JC: Yeah, so I’ve been looking up these organizations that are on the itinerary, visiting their websites. And I know the Washington portion is going to be kind of like an introductory overview to the United States government, so I’ve been to the US Embassy in Seoul website, which has both Korean and English versions and has all kinds of information, and there’s this great resource called Window on America which explains… it’s kind of like a US government textbook. There’s a Korean version of that so I’ve been reading that just to get the terminology.

EB: How long have you known about this assignment?

JC: Um, let’s see… this assignment, I think I was offered in April, late April…

EF: Ok. So you’ve had a few weeks more or less to kind of prepare.

JC:  Yeah, but see, the majority of the information comes at the last minute obviously, so this week has been really busy with all the schedules being finalized. In the first line of the assignment they give you the topic of the assignment and that’s pretty much it.

EF: And do you have a partner for this?

JC: Yeah. So how it works it’s, I think if it’s three or more participants you have another interpreter with you. And depending on the size of the crew more interpreters could be added, but in this one there are four participants and I’ll be working with one other very seasoned interpreters, which is a good relief.

EF: Sounds really cool, though. Are you excited?

JC: Yeah, I’m excited. I’m also kind of nervous.

EF: It’s normal.

JC: It’s almost like traveling for three weeks with all these strangers, you know. Aside form the work aspect you kind of have to forge a relationship with them or have good chemistry at least, and enjoy it.

EF: Yeah, that’s definitely important… Ok, that sounds really cool. I just wanted to rewind a little bit and go back to the beginning. I know that you did advanced entry at MIIS so you didn’t really have the two years. But first of all how did you decide to become a translator and interpreter in the first place, back when you first started thinking about this career?

JC: Oh gosh, that’s a long time ago. Um, I knew in high school that I wanted to translate.

EF: Wow, from high school.

JC: Yeah, there was this one day when my mom and I were watching Korean dramas with subtitles and they were horrible so I saw that and I was like…

EF: I can do this!

JC: Yeah, and my mom said, why don’t you? She actually helped me a lot in getting interested in the field, she brought me books written by former translators or interpreters. And then, I didn’t really think I would want to go into interpreting because believe it or not I’m an introvert and I’d rather spend time alone, although… at least I was back then. And then in college I was involved with this North Korean human rights group which invited a North Korean defector who was going on a book tour at the time and he came to our campus. And my roommate who happened to be one of the chapter leaders asked if I could possibly interpret for that event. And I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Everybody who doesn’t know about interpreting thinks it’s easy and you can do it if you know both languages. Anyway, I said yes and I read his book which was The Aquariums of Pyongyang. It explained his experience, the defector’s experience in a North Korean political prisoner camp and I went in not knowing how big this event was going to be. The turnout was about 200 people so I was freaking out at first. But I thought: this day is going to be either the best day of my life or the worst day of my life. And it turned out okay. And I got a lot of encouragement afterwards form my friends and people I didn’t know saying I did well and the defector appreciated me being there. And that felt really good and I felt like, aside form translating subtitles from videos, this would be a more altruistic venue for my talent. And that’s when I got more involved with interpreting as well as with human rights issues, and that’s still one of the things I do on the side, I volunteer for this group.

EF: Wow, that’s really amazing. So you found a sort of vocation within your vocation, like human rights issues within interpreting, or a way to channel your…

JC: Yeah, I guess… I don’t know if I would call it a vocation but it’s definitely a passion. I probably… I’m not sure if I would have been so involved with it had it not been for this one event.

EF: Ok, wow, so there’s like a little bit of serendipity maybe. Something happens and then it just completely… kind of turns your life around.

JC: Yeah, since then I always thought of interpreting as a viable option.

EF: But you also consider translation as a… cause you were doing patent translation at WIPO, but mostly you are interested in interpreting, right?

JC: Yes and no. I think I tend to get bored with things very quickly so it’s good to have a balance. Interpreting’s tiring and you have to meet a lot of people, so sometimes it’s nice to be in the comfort of my own home doing my translations.

EF: Yeah, definitely, I understand that totally.  So you had you studied translation and interpretation before going to MIIS?

JC: Yes, I actually completed two years of translation and interpretation in Korea as a Master’s degree. And then there were a lot of opportunities in Korea after graduating but I knew that I ultimately wanted to settle down in the US and I didn’t know where to start my career as an interpreter without any ties or anything in the states. So I decided to come back and I saw MIIS as a kind of stepping stone, which was great and it opened many opportunities for me.

EF: So you grew up in Korea and you moved to the US, or you mostly lived in the US or you went back and forth?

JC: It was back and forth. I was born in the States and I went back to Korea in first grade, then I came back to the States for high school, halfway through tenth grade. I finished high school and college in the States. I went back to Korea for my Master’s and then came back to MIIS. And now I’m here.

EF: That’s great. Do you think that’s a great balance of… because you did go to higher education in both countries but you also went through school. So do you feel that that definitely gives you an edge on the linguistic side?

JC: Yeah, obviously I’m bilingual. And I would say that my father played a big role in that. I remember when I went back to Korea the rule was that I had to speak English at home. I spoke English to my parents. My father would make me write these, like commentaries or summaries after I watched American TV programs that he recorded and every morning he would have the radio tuned to this English program so I would wake up to that, eat my breakfast to that. So that helped with not forgetting English while I was there in elementary and middle school. And also probably retain the pronunciation and everything. So when I went back to high school in Santa Barbara there was definitely a gap in, I would say in like vocabulary, but grammar was all there.

EF: And pronunciation.

JC: Yeah and people wouldn’t know that I had just come from Korea, which was sometimes frustrating because I’d be like, I don’t know what that means.

EF: I see. That’s very interesting. So, I’m, when you first started from your program in Korea, what did you see yourself doing once you graduated? Did you see yourself being an interpreter, being a translator when you came back to the US? How did you see yourself at the end when you first started?

JC: When I first started my Master’s program in Korea? I just thought it would be nice to be a freelance interpreter at the end of that but I wasn’t sure if that would happen. And right out of school actually I had maybe an eight month gap in between MIIS and graduating, and I went in-house for three months at a trade promotion agency and it seemed like that was the safer choice. You know, you have regular income, a workplace, and all that. And I didn’t really think about becoming a freelancer in Korea. But I also knew by the end that I wasn’t going to stay. Actually, I knew before I started the program that I wasn’t going to stay. But my mother thought it would be a good idea for me to go to school in Korea to brush up on my Korean because I didn’t have any higher education in Korean. Which is really true. I learned a lot more Korean and a lot more English while I was there too, because as an interpreter the things you study, like politics or international affairs, that’s not necessarily what you’re… well what  a lot of people are interested in when they’re younger, so I hadn’t been exposed to a lot of that kind of jargon or vocabulary until I had to study it in Korea, and that was really helpful.

EF: That’s good. So once you entered MIIS you had a pretty clear idea of what you wanted to do, like you went straight for the prize, I guess, like you really were focused. I say this because a lot of us maybe went into MIIS as a kind of adventure, as a Master’s program of course, we were serious about our careers, but it was also a period of personal growth for many o us. But since you entered in the second year already very focused, do you think that that year at MIIS changed your perspective about yourself as a professional, about what you wanted to do, or is it pretty much the same from beginning to now?

JC: I don’t think it changed me too much because I kind of knew what I was getting into, but it definitely gave me a clearer guideline or a blueprint for getting where I wanted to be afterwards. So going into MIIS I didn’t really know what kind of internships I would be getting or what kind of opportunities would arise, but in the course of the program I would talk to the career counselor or there would be all these events, State Department visiting before the career fair, all that. So all those opportunities gave me I guess more of an insight into what’s there and what I can do and even the WIPO internship, I had never thought I would go to Switzerland for three months. But then I saw the email that was sent out by the school and I thought, when am I ever gonna do this? And patent translation was something I had never done and something I never really thought of, really existed, actually. But now it’s like my major source of income. MIIS just really opened up a lot of opportunities and I think it’s really helpful if you know what to look for, and there are all these resources and people you can reach out to for that purpose.

EF: Did you have, throughout your career, whether in Korea or when you were here in the US throughout this year or last year, did you ever have a moment of fear or paralysis when you wondered, is this really the right career for me, or you’ve always been confident about your choice of translation and interpretation as a career?

JC: I would say I was confident because I don’t know how to do anything else. I actually studied literature in college and I loved it but I was afraid of becoming a writer or making literature my profession because I loved it too much, it was kind of like, if I have to make money off of it I might not like it anymore. So I knew I guess I knew pretty much that I wanted to become an interpreter and translator, but there were definitely moments, especially at the beginning, when I thought, this is too hard, they’re telling me I’m never going to improve, I went to the wrong school, so yeah, I was terrified in the beginning, but you get used to it and you get better.

EF: And during this first year, what were the main issues that you confronted after graduating? For example, some people have issues with their visas, finding clients or paying off loans. What were the main issues that you encountered that were sort of getting in the way of your mental peace?

JC: I guess financial issues were big, just because, even though I was making money I wasn’t sure after these interships what it would be like and what my average income would be even, so I couldn’t even start to think about how much I needed to be saving or what kind of health insurance plan I should be looking into. But now I have a better idea. Getting health insurance was one of them. I had to do a lot, a lot of research and find something that I think is right, but I’m not quite sure yet.

EF: So you’re still trying to figure that one out. I am too, actually.

JC: Also, retirement savings is something I’m thinking about. Everyone says I should start now. And I’ve done some research on that. And saw that as freelancers we have something like solo 401(k)’s or SEP-IRA’s. But I want to meet with a financial advisor to get a better understanding of those. What else? Oh, taxes. Last year I just went to an accountant and had her do everything, I paid the fee. This year I think I need to figure out how to do the quarterly taxes. I haven’t done that yet. So that’s my next goal for this year.

EF: No, definitely. We’re like in a similar page in those two, health insurance, retirement savings, I guess, I can’t start thinking about it for now, but definitely also the taxes part is kind of daunting. Especially for freelancers. Another question, is there anything that has encouraged you very much or anything that has disappointed you about the way the industry works, if you wanna call it that? Is it pretty much what you expected?

JC: On the excitement level it’s pretty much what I expected. It’s very exciting to be at these events in DC. But I would say, it’s not a disappointment, but more of a reality check that there aren’t too many Korean interpreters out here. So I guess with Spanish it would be different. So there’s a limited pool from which you can work with. Obviously if you’re going to do simultaneous you need a partner. And then also for government assignments a lot of them require a certain security clearance so those opportunities that require higher security clearance than what I have are not available to me. So that’s something I’m working on right now. And I think… I’m trying to network. Networking is key, I know, but it’s kind of difficult when you’ve just moved here and you don’t have a base of friends or base of coworkers or people you’ve known for a while, so I think that has been the most challenging so far.

EF: Are you part of any organizations or interpreters associations?

JC: I recently got myself enlisted in the ATA. I hope I can take one of their certification exams this year. And other than that I am not yet part of anything else. I’m looking into some young professionals groups in DC and I have been to acouple of their meetings to check them out.

EF: Cool. And what are your projects for the future? What are you planning for the next year or the rest of the year or for a few years in the future?

JC: I think the most urgent things is just getting more experience, getting my name out there. And just working a lot. Getting constant work is my most immediate goal. And I wanna see if this is something I can do long term and if I really enjoy traveling so much. Because when you’re in school it’s the only thing you do. But when you graduate you have to pay bills and you have a life to live besides your work, but yo still need to keep up with practicing and all that so I think I wanna try to find a good balance with that and just figure out retirement.

EF: You mentioned keeping up with practice. During the lull times when you’re not working as an interpreter do you take time out to practice, to polish your interpreting skills?

JC: I try. The State Department has been really good to me in that when the booths are available there I can go in and practice, given that there are other people to practice with me. But that has been rather irregular. And at home I try to do some sight translations. Sometimes I work with videos like we used to do in school. But it’s difficult when you don’t have anyone there to keep you on edge, to remind you that you have to listen to your own recordings.

EF: Yeah, definitely. And what other ways do you try to keep up –reading, or keeping up with the news, anything like that?

JC: I watch the news all the time. I read the news all the time on my phone. I subscribe to The Economist because I think it’s funny. And I just try to be aware of the things that are going on, local events, national affairs, international affairs.. and it’s been hard, but I try to read Korean newspapers, Korean magazines and keep up with Korean news obviously.

EF: Good. Do you enjoy living in DC? Do you like it there?

JC: Yeah, so far it’s been good. It’s definitely not San Francisco. But the weather has been mild this past winter. Now people are scaring me about the hot and humid summer, so my answer might change in a few months [laughs]. But generally it’s good, people are nice. I’m a bit disappointed in the food scene, I don’t think the food scene’s great out here. But there’s New York. I’ve made a couple trips to New York and it’s nice to be on a different side of the coast when you’re young and you can actually explore.

EF: That’s good. So where do you see yourself in five years? I know this is kind of a cliché question and in the end you end up doing something completely different, but what’s your idea right now?

JC: So far I like what I’m doing. The balance between translating and interpreting is good. So hopefully I’ll be doing that. I had thought about maybe teaching and I think Korean classes are only still offered in California. Monterey’s the only school that’s accredited that teaches Korean interpretation. So I don’t know. In ten years maybe I’ll go back if they want me, if they need me. I think it’d be fun to meet young interpreters and try to teach them.

EF: That sounds great. And I know that the whole interpreting… well, I don’t know about interpreting but definitely translation degree programs, it’s changing in the US: I see there are a few more universities slowly starting to offer it, so hopefully in the future there will be more opportunities in that regard. And one last question: what would you say to someone who is just starting out, not necessarily graduating, but someone starting out as a translator or interpreter in their first few steps? What do you think is absolutely essential to know?

JC: Resources. If it’s like a career counselor, go meet them. Reach out to the communities around you to see if there are any events or any interpretes in your language combination that are already established and constantly scoping the internet for available opportunities. And there is so much information out there that you can take advantage of. There are LinkedIn groups and they feature a lot of helpful articles on managing your finances and how to network, to do’s and what not to do, all that. So I think it’s a matter of knowing what’s out there and what’s available to you and that takes a lot of time and effort on your part but ultimately that’s how you’re going to get yourself out there, I think. For example, I think a really good thing to have is a robust LinkedIn profile. Mine basically has my entire resume on it and I’ve had some agencies contact me through that, or getting yourself in the ATA directory or if you can on AIIC. Because people actually do look through those directories when they don’t know how else to find interpreters or translators.

EF: Well, thank you so much. It’s been super interesting and I really thank you for your time. Good luck with all your endeavors. I hope that everything continues to work out so beautifully.

JC: Thank you. And I think it’s a really cool project that you’re doing with your website. So I look forward to seeing what everybody else says.

EF: Me too!


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