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The work of an interpreter: Meet Vasvija from Semantix’s interpreting centre

The light and airy office space is filled with the hushed murmur of voices. This could be any workspace, except that occasional foreign language words and phrases can be heard, such as Arabic, Tigrinya, Albanian and Russian. Men and women from around the world sit in booths behind sound-dampening screens, interpreting conversations by telephone: police interrogations, doctor’s visits, and discussions between clients and case managers at social services, the Swedish Public Employment Service and the Swedish Migration Board.

Published 5/16/2016

We are at Semantix’s interpreting centre in Uppsala, and the working day has just begun. Around forty in-house interpreters work here, carrying out remote interpreting assignments by telephone or using an Interpretab (our video interpreting solution) for Semantix’s many public sector customers.

Vasvija Smajic works from a cosy spot in the corner of the office, and has worked as an interpreter for Semantix’s Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian section for two years. In this week’s blog post, Vasvija talks about working as an interpreter.

A passionate interpreter

The first assignment of the day comes from a police officer in Skåne. The phone rings, and Vasvija answers:

“My name’s Vasvija and I’m an interpreter at Semantix. I have a duty of confidentiality, I’m impartial and neutral, and I interpret everything that’s said in the room in the first person form.”

The presentation flows naturally, first in Vasvija’s native language of Bosnian and then in Swedish. The conversation then begins: the brief questioning of a plaintiff. Vasvija switches between the two languages with ease. She sometimes asks the speaker to repeat or clarify something to ensure that there are no misunderstandings or misinterpretations.

“I’m passionate about this job,” says Vasvija after ending the call. “It’s intense and demanding, particularly in terms of everything being interpreted correctly. I like that! And I learn new things about how Swedish society works every day. I also get a buzz out of knowing that I’m always helping other people in my work.”

How did you become an interpreter?

“I met a girl at a previous job who was deaf, and I was so impressed at how she managed – just as well as any of her colleagues! She taught me a bit of sign language, which is when I thought about training to become a sign language interpreter.”

At that point, Vasvija was not in a position to start a long training process, but the idea of becoming an interpreter stayed with her. A few years later, at a fairly late stage in her career, Vasvija decided to leave her job. She was becoming exhausted, both mentally and physically. She saw an advert at the Swedish Public Employment Service for professional training for face-to-face interpreters.

“I still get excited at the thought of it!” says Vasvija, who came to Sweden from war-torn Bosnia in the early 1990s. “This was what I wanted to do. I put all my cards on the table and told the case manager my story. I did a language test, and was then accepted for a training course at Wik Folk High School near Uppsala. It felt like this was what I had been waiting for.”

After completing her training, Vasvija worked as a freelance interpreter for a while before hearing about Semantix’s new interpreting centre. The idea of being able to work full time and earning a fixed salary appealed to her. She joined Semantix in autumn 2013 and has been working for the company ever since.

“This is a fantastic place to work, and I really feel at home! My colleagues and I learn a lot from each other – we can discuss tricky interpreting situations or if something goes wrong during an assignment.”

How would you describe a good interpreter?

“First and foremost, you need excellent skills in the languages you interpret. You also need a strong sense of commitment and the ability to interact, since interpreting is an interaction between the parties involved. It’s a matter of finding the right tone to convey the full message that needs to be interpreted.

“It also helps if you’ve experienced a lot in life. Having previously sought asylum myself is, of course, a valuable experience in such an interpreting situation.”

Produces her own glossaries

Vasvija goes back to work. The previous interpreting assignment ended earlier than expected, and so Vasvija is able to take an emergency call from Stockholm police who need a telephone interpreter for an interrogation with a suspect. She explains that there’s always a slight tension before the customer calls.

“But as soon as I’ve heard what the conversation is about, I can relax.”

She makes notes throughout the call. If new words crop up that she doesn’t know, she adds them to her glossary. Or, to be precise, several glossaries – one for each area in which she interprets.

“Here are lists for different types of healthcare interpreting, one for legal, one for interpreting with the police, and so on,” she explains, showing me a cabinet full of glossaries and notes that she has amassed during her years working as an interpreter. During spare moments she updates her lists and takes the opportunity to transfer them to her computer.

Finally, do you have any tips for potential interpreters?

“Be committed, and strive to develop. Have a sense of respect for the job and for the role of the interpreter in society. Work on your glossaries and keep updated, for example by listening to the news every day, both in your interpreting language and in Swedish. Read newspapers, books and anything you can get your hands on. And stand up for yourself, ‘demand respect’ – like Zlatan!” says Vasvija with a laugh, before we have to end the interview.

The next customer is calling: a doctor from a medical centre in Västerbotten.

Semantix is recruiting new interpreters. We’re currently looking for interpreters in Tigrinya, Arabic, Somali, Dari and Albanian. 

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