Interview with Marcin Feder (English version)


Marcin Feder has been an interpreter at the European Parliament since 2003 and the Head of the Polish Interpretation Unit since 2012. He studied at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, Poland (MA in English and PhD in Linguistics) and Monterey Institute of International Studies, USA (Junior Fulbright Scholarship). His working languages are PL (A); EN (B) and SV (C). These days, apart from his regular duties, his main interests are the use of tablets in the booth and all things paper-smart. He is also an avid long-distance runner.

1. Linguistic changes have been observed since Poland acceded to the European Union in May 2004. This situation required the adaptation of the Polish legal system to EU law. How is this situation reflected in the current language?

I am not sure if I am best placed to answer this question. Coming from a family of lawyers (including a lawyer-linguist) and having been a court interpreter and translator in the past I know, however, that many difficulties stem from the fact that the EU legal system is, obviously, different from the respective national systems and not directly based on any of them. This makes its transposition difficult, also language-wise. What I mean by that is that the acquis either introduces new concepts that are foreign to many national systems or defines the same concepts (as expressed by legal terms) differently. The latter is a well-known phenomenon across different national legal systems but then one does not usually transpose one body of national legislation into another. In the EU this happens on a daily basis.

2. According to the report on the condition of the Polish language, prepared by the Council for the Polish language in 2013, Polish legal documents translated in the European Union involved a tremendous number of English borrowings and calques. Due to the aforementioned situation, a new Polish term,”brukselizmy”, has been coined. How do you perceive this situation from both your translation and interpreting experience in working for the EU?

Much to my regret I have to agree with this analysis to a large extent. A few years ago, together with my staff colleagues, we invited a Polish language expert to assess our performance into our native tongue. We were looking for comments to improve the quality of our daily work in terms of grammar, usage and phonetics but one of the first and most striking observations she had made was that she had difficulty following what we were saying. Not that we were talking rubbish – my team is very proud of the quality of interpretation we provide and we often receive praise for our work from our customers – but because we (I mean people working for or with the Institutions in general) were giving words and terms completely new meanings, specific only to the EU context. I do not think that there is such a huge number of borrowings and calques but in my opinion it is these new meanings given to seemingly established concepts that are most confusing for ordinary people listening to interpretation or reading EU documents. This language is very hermetic and this is the main source of the problem. Another problem that she flagged up is the syntax. Our EU sentences tend to get extremely long and convoluted. This does not help our audiences either. From that day on my colleagues and I solemnly vowed to make our sentences short and snappy. But looking at my answers here I am not sure whether I am succeeding in achieving this goal.

3. In your opinion, should the Polish language be more protected from the English influence or should we simply adopt some words to make Polish a more vivid, modern language and taking advantage of the globalisation?

Well, even if there were a protectionist policy and a concerted effort to coin new Polish words and terms, we have to remember that many concepts are borrowed spontaneously on a daily basis. So such a protectionist policy would create a yawning gap between artificial coinages used in the “official” language and borrowings used in the “everyday” language. As a result the “official” language would become even more obscure to an ordinary user.

4. What is your opinion on public IATE? Do you use it and recommend it to your team of 19 interpreters and a pool of around 130 freelancers to search for terms there? How the Polish entries of IATE can be improved?

I, personally, use the “in-house” IATE for my work and I know that a few of my colleagues have that type of access, too. Others use the public version. Before becoming a Head of Unit, I used to be a terminology co-ordinator for the Polish booth and an avid advocate of reliable terminology sources and tools, including IATE. I remember organising a few demonstrations of the database for my staff and freelance colleagues back then.
I was also a member of the Polish inter-institutional terminology group comprising members from all linguistic services across all the EU institutions which would meet twice a year and devote a large part of its gatherings to terminology co-ordination. So in that respect I know that Polish IATE entries are very reliable and well researched. This type of co-operation is quite unique and continues to this day and I try to attend these meetings, whenever I can, together with my successor.

5. Terminology trainees at TermCoord are given a great opportunity to work on their chosen terminology project, according to their interests. Could you give some suggestions for possible domains, which require intensified terminology research in Polish?

Economy, at least in my opinion. All things economics. This is one of the most difficult but at the same time very “popular” subjects these days. We really need solid, systematic and reliable body of terms in proper Polish to be able to deal with this complex field.

6. You were awarded the Minister of National Education and Sport prize for the co-authorship of the “New Kosciuszko Foundation Dictionary”. Could you tell us more about your work on it as a lexicographer?

It was 16 years ago but I still remember it vividly as it was one of my greatest professional adventures. I am also very proud of my work and what the whole team achieved. As I said the project started in 1999, if my memory does not fail me, so in pre-broadband Internet times. I remember sitting at my desk surrounded by piles of dictionaries and other reference sources lying on the floor, stools, chairs and a myriad of other props so that they were within easy reach for quick consultation. If I could not find what I was looking for in all these books I would make a note of the word or phrase in question and towards the end of the day I would finally make that expensive dial-up connection call and spend some time rummaging the Internet searching for an answer. If this did not help, I would consult either Polish or English-speaking experts in various fields and describe my conundrums to them. All that work was really time consuming and might sound mundane to many people but I enjoyed it thoroughly.
Then I took a break from the project to go to the US as a Junior Fulbright Scholar to work on my Ph.D. but when I returned I was re-invited as a member of the team of lexicographers and even promoted to become one of the co-editors of the second, Polish-English, volume of the dictionary. So apart from my regular work as a lexicographer I also checked and edited the work of my colleagues.

7. What is your opinion on the modern approaches of acquiring languages, like taking advantage of new technologies, social media and digital communication tools?

All this gives you so many opportunities to be truly immersed in the language you are learning. Everything is now so much more accessible. And given the nature of new technologies you can be in-real time sync with how a given language evolves. I do not want to sound like an old man but when I studied English we still tended to use regular textbooks (which is a good thing, methinks) and had very limited access to English-speaking media as these were “pre-historic” times in terms of new technologies, the Internet, etc. So I presume we were less distracted and more focused. Today, there are so many sources that this can be overwhelming and some of them might not be that reliable so you’d better be choosy. Nevertheless, I am fascinated by this wealth of possibilities offered by both informal and more formal means (such as MOOCs, on-line courses, iTunes U, etc.).

8. Your native language is Polish, but you have full professional proficiency in English and Swedish and professional proficiency in French. Apart from that, you also speak German and Russian. How would you describe your language learning strategies, which make you a real polyglot?

In my case the answer is pretty simple – a lot of hard work. I do not think I have a natural talent for languages and I was brought up in a monolingual environment unlike my two daughters for which I envy them. So in a nutshell – many hours spent on learning grammar, compiling various vocabulary lists, practising my reading, writing and speaking skills – the old-fashioned drill. To make it sound even more ancient – lots of high-brow literature. Plus a pinch of more modern approaches including listening to podcasts and audiobooks. Of course there is more to it than that. My first foreign language was Russian – I had it for four years in primary and another four years in secondary school where I also started learning English. When I graduated from secondary school in 1992 English seemed to be quite a reasonable choice as a future profession so I decided to sit the entrance exams in Poznan and got accepted to the School of English where I was lucky enough to meet some of the best teachers I had in my life. There I also got introduced to German and had one year of Latin. In the meantime I had a short-lived relationship with Spanish. I studied it, in parallel to English, for one semester but was offered a scholarship in Ireland which I gladly accepted. There I also did a basic course in Gaelic. Swedish was literally a “double” love affair! My future wife studied it at the same university and apart from my feelings for her I also fell for the language. I had to wait another 10 years or so to start learning it but I finally did it thanks to a lot of encouragement from her and generous support of the European Parliament. French is a natural consequence of living and working in Belgium. I tried Dutch as well but had to drop out of the course when I became a Head of Unit simply due to lack of time.
As you can see there were a few language learning projects which I did not quite complete and which I really regret.

9. You mentioned that you were brought up in a monolingual environment, but your two daughters are growing in a bilingual one. Could you tell us more about the pros and cons of this situation?

I will start with the cons as they might be slightly less obvious. First and foremost, I believe and do notice that it is and will be quite difficult to maintain a perfect balance between the two languages. One or the other, or maybe even a third or fourth one, will be, if even only slightly, dominant during different stages of their lives. To keep that delicate balance a lot of work is required and kids might not necessarily like it. So, despite both of us being native speakers of Polish and trained linguists as well as our older daughter being constantly bombarded with the language in our everyday conversations, through books and media, we still send her to Polish language classes. By the way, I am of a very strong opinion that unfortunately the Polish media of all sorts are definitely not a paragon of the Polish language at all. The little one is still too young to put her through that ordeal. I remember a colleague of mine recounting her life story which was similar to what I have just described and telling me how she hated her parents back then but how grateful she is to them now. I hope my kids will not detest us that much and be at least as thankful. The advantages seem quite obvious to me. Apart from being able to speak two or more languages fluently, you are also immersed in multiple cultures which I think is very enriching and which makes you much more open towards other people and new experiences. You are simply better prepared to embrace new realities.

10. You are the Head of the Polish Interpretation Unit at the European Parliament. What are the main characteristics of being an interpretation manager? What are the challenges, best practices and current trends related to interpreting?

First and foremost, a Head of a Language Unit remains an interpreter. Then, apart from working in the booth the HoU is responsible for day-to-day administrative running of his or her unit, i.e. HR management very broadly speaking.
But for me one of the most important elements of my job is to make sure that my colleagues have plenty of opportunities to develop professionally, i.e. that they are able to attend language courses (both in-house and external) and other general skills courses (whenever possible and in the interest of the service). I also try to involve them in various initiatives where their skills may come in handy, such as pedagogical assistance (virtual classes, student visits and final exams at universities) or in-house training. We have also implemented or are thinking of implementing some more projects where my colleagues can use their existing skills for the benefit of other team members. To that end we organise internal training workshops, peer-to-peer exchanges (especially when preparing to add a new language) and provide peer-to-peer performance-related feedback. The main challenges we face today are the highly technical nature of meetings (this change has come about mainly as a result of the adoption of the Treaty of Lisbon), fast pace of delivery (I do not want to go into too much detail but it is widely recognised that a rate of around 120 words spoken per minute or less is optimal for interpreting, if it goes above that it will be increasingly difficult to do a proper interpreting job and I get the feeling, although I do not have any hard data, that very often we work well above this threshold and still do a great job!) and finally the fact that very often English is spoken by non-native users. What I have also observed is that we get to go on missions (i.e. business trips, in common parlance) quite frequently and, apart from regular work for committees and groups, we tend to receive many requests for interpretation ad personam (i.e. one-to-one interpretation), special events and smaller meetings such as shadows’, conciliation and trilogue meetings. So the workload is pretty heavy and one of the challenges is to spread it as evenly as possible while taking account of language combinations.

11. How demanding is interpreting English when it is spoken by non-native users? What are the major difficulties encountered?

No matter how fluent one is in a foreign language, it is exactly that – a foreign language. This means to me that one will never be able to express themselves as easily, eloquently, precisely and clearly as in their mother tongue. I know that sometimes communicating in a lingua franca appears to be more convenient and faster but at the same time it means imposing certain limitations on one’s ability to get the message across. This makes the task of an interpreter quite complicated. Not to mention other, more trivial problems, such as deficiencies in terms of vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation. Of course there is more to it than that.

12. Your PhD dissertation dealt with Computer Assisted Translation tools, in which you also made proposals for a tool evaluation methodology. What is your view on the prospective computer tools as the key support in terminology and translation?

I have always been and still am of the opinion that CAT tools are an excellent “add-on” to a human. They are great at ensuring consistency and high quality but they are a support tool as you rightly point out. The human factor is essential. I received my degree 14 years ago and might have lost some touch with my research area but I still try to follow recent developments in the field and I am reassured to see that no reliable replacement for a human translator or interpreter is in sight.

13. You have been working as an interpreter at the European Parliament. Besides, you have worked as a translator and interpreter in Poznan. You were also a lecturer at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan. How could you manage to be so successful in all these fields?

I hope I was relatively successful but it is not really for me to judge – this I leave to my peers, superiors, students and clients, former and current. What works for me is just that … hard work (I think we’ve heard that before). I know of no other way to do things well. This is the way I was born and bred. I have never struck gold just like that, so far. I have always had to dig deep to get there. And if you are involved in a lot of projects at the same time (both in your professional and private life) – which I tend to enjoy as a simultaneous interpreter – you just have no other choice but to be systematic and well-organised. And finally you have to choose or bump into the right people who will then support you in your endeavours.

14. You interpret from English into Polish and from Polish into English as well as from Swedish into Polish in simultaneous and consecutive modes. What advice would you give to young people who want to study languages? Currently, one of the most popular faculties is Norwegian in Poland. Would you encourage them to choose more “exotic” languages or rather to improve English, which is used globally?

From an EP-centred perspective I can say that the most sought-after languages here are the six biggest ones, i.e. English, German, French, Italian, Spanish and Polish. This is not to say that if one learns these five foreign languages one will be immediately successful in the world of interpreting. There are many other factors that come into play. From my personal experience and having sat on numerous test juries I can say that to become a successful interpreter one needs to be very persistent as the road that takes us there is usually long and winding and on that rather longish trip one must also “become of age”, so to say. What I mean is that if you are a mature person, not necessarily in terms of age, you are able to handle difficult and stressful situations much better. And trust me, interpreting is very much about that. Additionally although the majority of interpreters train as linguists, I believe that a profound knowledge of a specialised field (f. ex. a formal degree) is a major asset in the profession.

Interviewer: Aleksandra Święcicka

Aleksandra_Święcicka “Do it with passion or not at all”- this motto is my motivation in life, which for me began in 1988 when I was born in Brzeg, Poland. I Studied Journalism and Social Communication, specializing in both journalism and advertising and promotion, at the University of Adam Mickiewicz in Poznan. I also studied Applied Linguistics – English Philology with elementary German, specialising in translation, at the Poznan College of Modern Language. Thanks to my Erasmus study period in Croatia, I learnt more about Mass Media and Public Communication at University of Dubrovnik and I had the time of my life with other European students.
Some of my biggest passions in life are travelling around the world and dancing (street, contemporary dance and barre au sol) as well as writing about them.
I worked as a journalist, proof-reader and event project coordinator. Now, I’m glad to be part of a great international team as a Communication Trainee at TermCord to provide the best content about linguistics and translation.