Living in China,  My Life,  Studying Chinese

Wow, I just became an interpreter


Interpreting between Finnish and Chinese while eating cake and chocolate cookies, could have been a dream one year ago, but was completely true just last week! From Monday to Friday I interpret for a Finnish teacher who was helping out at a social enterprise, the Emmaus Bakery. The bakery was founded by Huiling, an organization that offers services and job opportunities for mentally disabled persons. I’ll tell you more about the bakery soon, but first we will take a look how my week of interpreting went.

I had accompanied customers before to wholesale markets, but last week really put my Chinese skills to a test. Interpreting isn’t easy as you don’t have much time to think what to say. You also have to be able to change the language back and forth without thinking. As everyone knew I’m not a professional, they were all very understanding that my interpreting was far from perfect. Luckily the bakery workers could also see what the teacher was doing, when I couldn’t find the right words to describe the way of mixing the dough for example.

Special baking related vocab was also a challenge. Or did you already know words like 擀面杖 and 糖霜? Good for you! I needed to make some dictionary checking on the fly despite of trying to translate the recipes beforehand. I’m sure my translations were a bit weird at times, juggling between Finnish-English and English-Chinese dictionaries.

Last week was a perfect example how you learn by doing! Without this interpreting gig I wouldn’t be motivated to learn so many new words, all of which became a part of my active vocabulary during the week. I practiced my listening and speaking constantly during the five days, speaking in Chinese with people I hadn’t met before. After the week I was even more convinced that my learning journey from now onwards will be using and learning the language at the same time.

Working at a bakery has its perks, even as a visiting interpreter. The Finnish culinary teacher made us delicious carrot cake, chocolate cookies, S-shaped biscuits, croissants, eclairs and so on. Of course these were all for sell, but we got to taste everything too! Could you imagine a better job than one including cake tasting?

The week went past super fast and left a wish to do similar work in the future too. I also noticed I need to link my Finnish and Chinese better, as I have always studied Chinese through English. I think translating exercises would be good for that, but do you have other ideas too?

If anyone of you is working as an interpreter or interested in it, I would love to hear your experiences and thoughts!


  • Linda D.

    great post! I’m sure it was a wonderful experience for you! I studied interpreting for some time during my studies and it was really hard work! especially simultaneous interpreting is crazy! it requires a lot of practice to properly link your brain between the two languages to let you think and speak in the one language and then switch to think and speak in the other. Good job! :)

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    It was a really fun week, something I won’t forget. Looking forward to the next opportunity to put my skills to a pressure test :)

  • Jim

    Why a Finnish-English dictionary? No Finnish-Chinese dictionary?

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    Yes, there isn’t any good Finnish-Chinese dictionary out there. I noticed there is more Chinese study material in Finnish than when I started, but haven’t been able to find a decent dictionary.

  • Kalvinator

    It would have been better if it had been filmed rather than a single pic ?

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    We took some video clips too so the teachers and students at the bakery can go over them next time they bake these cakes and cookies.

  • chinaelevatorstories

    I’ve had to do some interpreting in informal settings before – it can be rather exhausting! Did you know that interpreters at the UN do only interpret for 20 minutes an hour and take a rest for the other 40 minutes? That’s because you have to pay a lot of attention when interpreting and of course when you’re interpreting for the UN interpreting correctly is very important too.

    I agree, you learn a lot on the way. And I’m pretty sure that with some exercise, you’ll get really good at it. It’s the same with almost everything – in a new job it will take some time getting used to and getting faster at new tasks. It used to take me 2 days to finish an illustration some time ago that will only take me 3-4 hours to complete now.

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    Wow, I can only imagine how hard work it is to interpret at the UN.

    I really hope to do more Finnish-Chinese interpreting in the future and have jobs that push me to the limits of my Chinese skills.

  • Chris_Waugh

    Great post and great ideas for continued language learning. I think there comes a time when you just have to kiss the classroom and formal education goodbye and just dive in the deep end.

    I vastly prefer translating to interpreting, and not just because, as you say, you have to convert from Language A to Language B so quickly with no time to sit and ponder just how to find the perfect translation. Different clients can be better or worse to work with. I had one particularly nightmarish experience interpreting for my boss’ secretary and a new foreign teacher – we wound up stuck in the office the whole morning going over the same very simple thing over and over because he seemed to insist that there was some kind of malice in her not telling him that he’d need another set of passport photos for the step of the residence permit process after the one we were currently trying to get done. At one point he stopped and asked why I was interpreting, because he’d been in China for a year and he thought his Chinese was good enough. “Aha,” I thought, “and that explains why without me this conversation between you two simply would not be happening…”

    For technical/professional/specialist vocab, translation software does actually help, as there is a 1:1 match between the terms in each language (I have a translation textbook around somewhere that discusses this better, but basically a carburettor is a carburettor no matter what language you’re using). Also, Wikipedia – find an article relevant to the term you’re translating from Language A, then scroll down the list of languages and click on Language B, and you should be able to find your translated term. I find Baidu Baike quite useful for names of plants, animals, other living things when I’m translating CN-EN, as the article always gives the Latin name for the species in question, which I can then dump into Wikipedia to find the common English name (and then of course, switch to a third language to find what that species is in that language – Wikipedia can be lots of fun for language geeks).

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    Great tip on using Wikipedia for translations! I used it like you mentioned when I tried to do a specialist vocab translation from English to Chinese, in the end I let my boyfriend do it from Japanese to Chinese as it was way too hard for me.

    I’m dreaming of a day to have something like Pleco in Finnish.