Paola Gentile and the status of interpreters

Paola Gentile and the status of interpreters

What do interpreters think about themselves and their profession? Do male and female interpreters have different opinions? And what do conference interpreters think about their public service peers? Italian interpreter and researcher Paola Gentile, PhD has crunched the data and tells us all about it.



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"I wanted to investigate the professional identity of interpreters. Whether they see themselves as fully-fledged professionals. Whether they believe that their work is appreciated by society."

Meet Paola Gentile, an interpreter and researcher in interpreting studies.

"I come from a small town in the south of Italy, which is called Barletta, it’s located in Puglia."

Fun fact: Paola is already the third Italian guest on the LangFM podcast. I first learned about her work in an article published in The Linguist (, the magazine of the Chartered Institute of Linguists in the UK. Our conversation took place last summer, just a few days after the Critical Link conference in Edinburgh, which we both attended, but without bumping into each other.

"I saw your Twitter. I thought, oh, he’s here! So maybe we can talk. But there were so many people at the conference. I mean, it was huge!"

We are going to take a closer look at Paola's research in a minute. But first of all, I wanted to know her background story.

"Well, that's a complicated story. To make a long story short, I have been interested in languages since I was at high school. I attended a school which is specialised in classical studies. I’m glad I chose that kind of school because it opens your mind, it teaches you how to develop your thinking and how to be critical. I studied Latin and Ancient Greek. I developed a sense for languages and I also learned to translate.”

However, when Paola had to pick subjects at university, she picked modern languages, because with Ancient Greek and Latin...

“I wouldn’t have been able to find a job. I started to study English and Spanish from scratch when I enrolled in my BA in Bari. I came to Trieste in 2009 to attend the MA in conference interpreting here at the university for interpreters and translators.”

And because ancient Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish and English were not enough...

“I added Dutch.”

We’ll find out at the end of the podcast why that was a good idea.

“That’s my story.”

Wait! Not so fast.

“I studied piano. So it was impossible for me to go on Erasmus. For me, at that time, studying the piano was more important. Surviving six or more months without practising was absolutely impossible. I’ve been playing since I was ten. I graduated in piano, participated in competitions at local level, I was not that very famous pianist but I liked to play and I enjoyed myself. I didn’t want to give up on my piano diploma.”

But, in the end…

“I liked languages more. I enjoyed interpreting more. And I wanted to do a PhD. When I was writing my MA thesis, I realised that I liked to write and to read and to carry out research in general. I thought to apply to a PhD programme.”

Now, I don't have a PhD and will probably never have one. But I do have a lot of respect and admiration for people who devote several years of their lives to research. I also think PhD jokes and PhD comics are hilarious - I will link a few good ones in the show notes.

“But it was very hard and there were some times when I was stuck. I didn’t know how to go on. I had to study statistics almost all by myself. I was overwhelmed by papers and books on interpreting. Fortunately, my supervisor, Maurizio Viezzi, gave me the opportunity to be free, he gave me absolute freedom. He was very confident in this project. He has always supported me, also in times of despair, when I was completely…”

The good news is: when we recorded our conversation, Paola already had successfully finished her PhD.

“So, I’m done with it.”

Which now brings us to the question: What was the PhD about?

“The self-perception of professional status of conference and public service interpreters.”

The question of self-perception is an extremely interesting one. I learned from Paola that interpreters perceive their role and their status differently.

“Status is what a person is and role is what a person does.”

Thanks to researchers like Claudia Angelelli and others, we already know quite a bit about the concept of “role”. However, …

“There was a huge knowledge gap in this field which I wanted to fill.”

OK, fair enough. But why?

“If I don’t know who I am and what my professional identity and what I expect from my clients, how am I supposed to enact the role which is prescribed by codes of ethics? I wanted to investigate the professional identity of interpreters and see whether they see themselves as fully-fledged professionals, like other professionals with the same level of education and whether they believe that their work is appreciated by society.”

So we know about the “what” and the “why”. “How” did Paola gather all that information?

“What I did was design two questionnaires. The first was addressed to conference interpreters worldwide and the second was addressed to public service interpreters worldwide.”

The questionnaires went out to both groups of interpreters and their respective professional associations around the globe. And the response was remarkable!

“I went to check just how many responses I got after a few days, and I said, what? I couldn’t believe it! After two weeks, I got, like, 300 responses, but it means that this is a topic that people are interested in. It’s a topic that the professionals really care about. That’s the only explanation I could give. The questionnaire was divided into ten sections. The first concerned personal information (sex, age, country of residence, years of working experience, if they were members of professionals associations, if they worked as freelancers or staff interpreters and if interpreting is a full-time profession. There were questions on their level of education, on the subject they deem more appropriate for a university curriculum... “

By now, you’re probably getting impatient and you want to know what Paola actually found out. Well, here you go:

“More than 70 percent of the respondents in the two questionnaires were women. Apparently, men and women have different ways of perceiving the profession. Women are far more pessimistic than men, tend to underestimate themselves, they are as educated than men or even better educated than men, but they tend to believe that society does not appreciate their work. There were very interesting results that I would like to analyse in more detail in the future.”

Interestingly, the study also uncovered some differences between conference and public service interpreters.

“Conference interpreters were on average older than public service interpreters. Some conference interpreters also work as public service interpreters, in the sense that they have a background in conference interpreting, but they also studied or are currently studying to get a diploma in public service interpreting, which I found absolutely interesting because it means that the dividing line between the two professions is becoming increasingly blurred.”

That’s good news, if you ask me. I’m just wondering what the two professional groups think of each other.

“I got interesting replies: of course, conference interpreters believe that public service interpreting is less remunerated, which is the truth, I mean, it’s the reality we’re all facing. Several respondents also said that they practice public service interpreting because they realise that professionals are needed in this field and that it is better to have an interpreter who is a conference interpreter serving as a public service interpreter once in awhile rather than totally untrained, ad-hoc interpreters or non-interpreters who serve as interpreters, like family members or friends. Some of them say that they work in public services because they find it more challenging, because they find it more interesting, because they see that it is an ethical duty. A few of them replied in the open box for comments that they feel more useful when they can help people, when they see the real impact that the interpreting activity has on the lives of people. I think that conference interpreters have opened their eyes and have realised that there is another world outside the booth.”

Another world outside the booth. I like that. But in order to get into the booth in the first place, training is required. Or is it?

“Conference interpreters have always regarded themselves as having more talent even though they were not trained, especially the old generation.”


“Think of medecine: there are good doctors, there are bad doctors, but nobody discusses the fact that doctors are not supposed to be trained. The younger generation absolutely believe that education is essential. 80 percent of them have a Master’s degree, another 10 percent have a PhD. You cannot discuss whether interpreting requires specific training, of course it does!”

I’m glad that’s settled then. What about the external perception of our profession? By the media, for example?

“The profession is utterly ignored by the media and when it’s represented, it’s represented in a bad light. That’s what all interpreters, regardless of the settings in which they work, said. Like Ebru Diriker said: interpreters appear in the news when it comes to big money, big events and big mistakes. I’ve always been fascinated by the way in which journalism contributes to creating images. Public perception of nurses has been enhanced by TV series. Think of CSI or Grey’s Anatomy, think of…”

House M.D., maybe? That was always my favourite!

“A positive media image can help professionals to raise awareness of what they do.”

One very recent example of this is the Chinese TV show “Les Interprètes”. I am not going to attempt to pronounce the Chinese original title, but here’s a little excerpt.

Lastly, Paola and I took a look at what the two groups think about the future of our profession. What are the threats and challenges awaiting us?

“As far as this section is concerned, there were huge differences between the two groups. Conference interpreters believe that their status has declined over the years. They are more pessimistic towards the future, compared to public service interpreters.”

Spoiler alert: The big threats for conference interpreters are English as a lingua franca and technology. I assume we’ve all been in situations like this one:

“I remember that one interpreter said in one comment: People are absolutely amazed when I tell them that I work as a conference interpreter. They always tell me, oh my God, that's amazing, I don't understand how anybody can do that. But when I tell them that I work with a combination like English-Finnish, they look at me and say: Well, what's the big deal with that? Everybody can speak English!”

Sigh. OK. Let’s talk about technology instead.

“Both groups fear that technology will replace interpreters altogether or that it will considerably worsen interpreters’ working conditions, especially for highly sensitive settings. I’m talking about public service interpreters here. In healthcare or in court settings, they are worried that the physical absence of an interpreter can make things worse and that it will make the interpreter’s task more stressful and more cumbersome.”

But there’s another thing that public service interpreters in particular are afraid of: language policy in their countries. Great Britain is one of the worst offenders here. The Ministry of Justice outsourced language services for police and the courts a few years ago and it has been an unmitigated disaster. But that’s a topic for another episode of LangFM. If you’re feeling a little gloomy right now, listen to this:

“Public service interpreters are still willing to fight for the improvement of their working conditions. Those who are more pessimistic have an average age of 45 to 60. We have to be more flexible, we have to adapt to those changes, harness technology in our favour; these are the positive comments that come from those who are my generation, basically.”

I don’t know which generation you belong to, but I do hope you found this conversation just as interesting as I did. My last question to Paola: What’s next for you?

“I hope to keep doing what I’ve always loved to do which is try to give my contribution to the improvement of the profession. I was accepted for a post-doc at the University of Antwerp, so I hope to catch up with that in the future.”

What Paola wants to catch up on, you ask? The life of an exchange student of course. We talked about that at the top of the show.

Thanks again to Paola Gentile for taking the time to talk to me. If you’re curious and you would like more information about her research, you will find links to her profiles on Academia and ResearchGate. All of that, as usual, on

Dear listener, thank you for tuning in. If you enjoy the podcast, why not leave a review on iTunes or share this episode with a friend who might like it? I’d really appreciate that.

Talk to you soon, on LangFM.

Brian Fox, A Life In Interpreting

Brian Fox, A Life In Interpreting

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