Interview with multilingual translator and interpreter, Alex Tomić,
E X C L U S I V E I N T E R V I E W
conducted between Rome and Brussels
Our linguist, Alexandra was born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, and has lived in Belgrade, Berne (Switzerland), Cambridge (United Kingdom) and Leiden (The Netherlands). She has a BA in French Language and Literature and English Language and Literature from the Faculty of Philology, University of Belgrade (1982). Alex worked as a translator and interpreter at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia from 1994 until 2003, when she was recruited by the International Criminal Court as chief of language services, a post she occupied between 2003 and 2020. In 2013, she completed a Masters in Military Studies with the American Military University, specializing in strategic leadership. Alex embarked on a PhD at the Leiden University as a buitenpromovendus (independent candidate) in 2014 and was awarded a doctorate in history in 2021.
Our interviewer, Susan VO is a French Interpreter with 14 years experience as a staff member and freelancer with the United Nations, the Canadian Federal Government and in the private sector. She is an alumna of the the School of Translation and Interpretation at the University of Ottawa. She was Linguist of the Month on this blog: her interview can be found here and here.
You worked at the ICTY (International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia) and later at the ICC (International Criminal Court), both in the Hague. Can you tell our readers about your different functions at those two institutions.
At the ICTY I was a translator and interpreter and at the ICC I was a manager, so very different experiences. However, in both courts simultaneous interpretation was done in court hearings, official meetings and/or presentations when there were facilities available and also for conferences. Simultaneous was also done for training sessions and round tables if required, and occasionally for judges' deliberations.
Consecutive interpretation was done during investigations to get witness statements, it was done whenever there were delegations visiting (and simultaneous was not appropriate or practical) and it was done during questioning of suspects, dealing with detained persons by Detention Unit staff (at least to begin with) or for interactions between suspect/accused and their counsel IF they did not share a language (which sometimes happened). Obviously, all suspects if arrested would have the arrest warrant interpreted consecutively into their language. Although I guess this was more liaison interpreting.
It is important to mention that there were a few occasions when consecutive would be done in court hearings - this happened when there were some languages of lesser diffusion (we did not use the term rare languages) that did not have any simultaneous interpreters. It would happen for some cases and the consecutive interpreters would usually still sit in the booth so as not to be filmed/seen but the chamber and the parties would be informed that it would not be simultaneous but consecutive and that they would need to wait longer for the interpretation. This happened in a case relating to the DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo) situation for the Kilendu language and for a case in the Mali situation for the Bambara language.
You were born and grew up in Belgrade. You had a successful career both as an interpreter and a senior administrator. What event in your life, career or education do you consider the start of your interpreting career?
The first time that I interpreted without realizing it was when a pen pal came for a visit. She was from Dijon and it was her first visit to Yugoslavia. I must have been 13 or 14. The first time I interpreted professionally was when I was working for the Dutch Council of Refugees in 1992. The war in Yugoslavia was entering its second year, I had just moved from Cambridge, England to Leiden in the Netherlands with my family. I wanted to do something useful and I soon realized that interpreting was in fact the most useful thing I could do.
What do you remember most from your first day on the job?
In August 1994, at the ICTY I was given a big pile, all mixed up, documents to translate. As the investigators and the prosecutors did not know understand the contents of the documents, they wanted all of them translated. It took some time for them to understand that it was more efficient to have a translator scan the material, sight-translate titles and general content before they decided what they really needed to have translated.
What has been the most difficult day of your career?
I had two: The first one, at the ICTY in July 1995 – Srebrenica. We were following with concern what was happening with those believed to be under the protection of UNPROFOR (United Nations Protection Force) but we could not imagine that all these thousands of Bosnians would be executed. There had been heinous war crimes before July 1995, but Srebrenica was the last straw, and it showed that the Bosnian Serb leadership would stop at nothing. For me, it was the end of the world. The war in Yugoslavia had already destroyed so much and the genocide in Srebrenica was the final explosion which ruined the future of several generations. The fact that there are Serbs (and some others) today who dispute or deny what happened in Srebrenica is unfortunately not surprising – it is like neo-Nazis et al who deny the Holocaust . For those of us who have worked with the victims, survivors and witnesses of the Srebrenica massacre, as well as with the accused, such denial is absurd. I cannot have a conversation with someone who denies the crimes that I have seen, heard and interpreted.
The second event took place at the ICC in June 2012, when an ICC delegation was detained by Libyan militias in Zintan. There were four of them, one an interpreter. Of course, I was worried about all the colleagues but mostly about the interpreter – she was someone I knew very well, and she was also my responsibility. I had authorized her mission and I sent her there. The detention lasted four weeks. They returned safe and sound, although it had been a considerable trauma, for them of course, but also for us waiting for them. I don’t think I slept in those four weeks. It was worse for them and in particular it is always the most difficult situation for interpreters, who, in their capacity of cultural and linguistic mediators, will always experience the worst pressure in such situations.
How do you think things have changed in the field of interpreting and how would you like them to change further in the future?
It seems to me that the “new” interpreters adapt to new technologies more easily today than those of earlier generations. I think that it is because as interpreters we are all alone facing the users of interpretation, it is our brain, our vocal apparatus, it is the person doing all the work. I understand why so many colleagues have resisted innovation (e.g., remote interpretation) but as the Covid crisis has confirmed, it is possible to adopt them. One simply has to define what optimal conditions are, and in order to do that you have to understand the potential and the limits of the technology. And even if we are alone, we need good colleagues, good databases, good tools, good conditions and good equipment. Interpretation, like any other profession is changing with the technology, and one has to change with it.
Future changes: I would like to see more users acquire at least some command of a second language, which would help them work with multilingual interpreters. Accepting multilingualism should be the norm rather than the exception. “Monolingualism is curable” is a slogan I once saw on a T-shirt.
What would you tell someone starting off as an interpreter today?
Prepared to be surprised. In interpretation you have to be ready, but you can never truly relax. You have to be on the alert without appearing stressed. To be fully prepared and then ready to improvise. Does that speak to you? Reading in all your languages, reading everything, from cereal packets to philosophical treaties as well as novels and non-fiction, is essential. What is happening in the world? Working in any international field, you have to know all the latest news so as to be able to command the right vocabulary. Can you do this day in day out the way you brush your teeth? It is a very difficult job to do well if those challenges don’t appeal to you or if you are unable to work with all new technologies.
What are the skills or attributes you believe are absolutely necessary for an interpreter, and the ones that must be cultivated over a career?
Curiosity, patience, humility. Do not underestimate preparation. Whenever I talk to students, I tell them to always be polite with everyone. Interpreters, perhaps because they see and hear so much, sometimes start believing that they are somehow superior to lesser mortals. I do not think it is an appealing or useful quality.
Which early challenges in court interpreting resolved themselves over time?
Differences between the civil law and common law. It is more than just the vocabulary; you really need to understand how procedures differ. It is not just that counsel can “object” in the Anglo-Saxon system. When we have a hybrid system, as is the case in many international courts, you have to learn which element comes from which system and why. It makes it easier to understand the essence of the legal issue. To achieve that with limited time to prepare for a hearing, I would consult translators or revisers who had done such labour-intensive work and I advised colleagues to do the same.
Talk to us of indirect or residual PTSD transferred from witnesses to interpreters, particularly during the investigative phase of GB sexual violence…what are your observations or thoughts on this?
At the ICTY the psychological support came rather late. Better late than never. No interpreter can remain indifferent when dealing with difficult subjects, especially in the cases involving sexual violence. Working with investigators at the ICTY, we felt a need not to appear upset by the terrible things we were hearing and reading. It is normal, for us to try to protect ourselves. Also, if we break down and cry, it’s unproductive and unprofessional. It is important to understand this – it is normal to be feeling sick or upset but the normal reaction to the horrors is not the desired reaction. It is also advisable to receive training in self-care. Understanding what primary or secondary PTSD is and how it can be treated. However, not all psychologists are qualified or experienced to treat primary or secondary PTSD. It helps to talk to colleagues. In my case, for instance, what helped was talking to an investigator who had seen it all. Someone reliable, stable and serious, with a lot of experience. I had nightmares for several months at the start of my career. And then they stopped, and it is not always a good sign, when we get desensitized by our work. You have to learn about the symptoms that can appear.
At the ICC, we started prevention very early on. Regular debriefings etc. That can help, but is not a formula that always works.
Once we stop working with the subject matter, it does not mean we have forgotten all about it. The war in Ukraine has affected me greatly. It was as if I were going back, as if it were all happening again, and we know or we think we know what these people are going through. Some of my colleagues felt the same. When you have observed the consequences of war at close quarters, when you have translated and interpreted victims’ testimonies, they stay with you. Tribunals and international courts are not perfect, but without them you would never hear the voices of the victims.
What languages did you feel most at ease interpreting to and from?
In the interpreters' booth I worked into English from B/C/S (Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian) and French. But I had stopped reading books in B/C/S and I sometimes struggled to find words in my A language and ended up interpreting into my B (English) from my A and my C languages. It is unusual, but there were many interpreters at the ICTY who did that. For people who have consistently worked and functioned in English, who read a lot in English, using it in all walks of life, this made sense. To this day, I always tell students to read as much as they can in their target language(s). In consecutive I worked in both directions of course. Very different experiences.
You’ve talked about the prerequisite of being relaxed in the booth to do a good job. Describe how to get to that ideal state…
Imagine you are in a bubble by breathing very slowly. My go-to mantra was: “This is it! …everything else can wait now”. I managed to relax in the booth far more easily than in other situations except perhaps when having an MRI scan). The world is outside, I can relax and breathe, no one will disturb me. I admit it is a bit odd.
In 2010, I decided to continue with my studies. First to do a Master, which I did with the American Military University. I was interested in military studies; I had carried out much research in military subjects in my ICTY years. After I finished my Master in 2013, I decided to do a PhD in history and memory. I wanted to investigate the reasons why the memory of the First World War is so important in Serbia today. This was my thesis which I defended in 2021. I then wrote a book based on the thesis. It is due to be published this year. “Everything passes except the past”. Unfortunately, it’s true.
'Monolingualism is curable'! A very apt comment coming from this incredibly gifted linguist and wordsmith.
Many, many years ago in a Cambridge school for advanced English, I'm proud to say Alex was our star pupil.
It doesn't surprise me that her advice to wanna be interpreters is to read widely in all your languages
(expose yourself to them); I always call Alex the vacuum cleaner because her interests are so wide in means
she hoovers up everything, high and low culture, in many languages, Seinfield to Shakespeare and everything in between.
Posted by: David Lambert | 01/30/2023 at 09:19 PM