Photo by Lee Woolcock
Mary Fons i Fleming
Mary Fons i Fleming - Interpreter-Translator; US-Catalan, 46
I was born and raised in Barcelona. I have an American mother and Catalan father so was raised trilingual in Spanish, Catalan and English. I went to a school where French was taught well, so I started to learn French properly when I was eight. I also speak Italian fluently.
People started to encourage me to become an interpreter when I was really little but I always thought I couldn’t do something like that because when I’m speaking for myself, I’m always hunting for words, correcting myself and stuttering like you wouldn’t believe! But I took to it straightaway.
Interpreting is so much more than speaking a language. You’ve got to be well-read, you need to have a general background in everything, you’ve got to know the basics about how the world works, what people are likely to say when they are talking about things and read the newspapers.
I was really lucky because the year I finished my course, Spain joined what was then the Common Market. The European Parliament (EP) needed interpreters so I went straight along for an aptitude test, followed by a training ‘crash course’ in Luxembourg. After that, it was sink or swim in the booth! That was 1986.
Keeping up your languages is hard work, but it is also really important to be able to speak your native language well, to speak it precisely, to have natural grammar, to be expressive in the way you speak to be able to convey a message really accurately and pleasantly and be able to display the nuances and the emotions too.
I really enjoy it when our acting skills and our intellectual skills come into play. Once I was interpreting at a lecture on a specific piece of music and the speaker would occasionally hum little bits of the tune so that people could hear the difference between the major and minor keys. I’ve been singing since I was nine years old, so I just sang along a few bars behind him. They thought it was so funny.
The very first speech I interpreted in the EP was for an Iranian speaker and I still don’t know to this day whether he was talking about a) cheap transport, b) chip transport, c) ship transport or d) sheep transport. I swear every time he said it I thought, “ah, he means this.” It was absolutely impossible to tell.
The job can get quite emotional. I interpreted for Mandela when he went to the EP just after he was released, which was amazing. I also interpreted at TV3 for both of the Pinochet rulings from the House of Lords which was extremely difficult. Interpreting for people that have been tortured is very tough.
Barcelona has changed a lot over the years but for me La Rambla is still the touchpoint. I lived in Brussels for four years and every time I’d come back on holiday, I didn’t really feel I’d quite touched base until I’d gone for a walk down the Rambla by myself.
I’m quite nostalgic. There are things I miss about the past, like the many cod salting shops with their great marble basins. I think a lot of good urban renewal has taken place, but there are some things you shouldn’t ever have to get used to! I also find it very annoying when you walk into a regular bar and people are surprised when you ask for bread with tomato for your sandwiches.