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Being the First Glaswegian to English Interpreter: Ten Years on

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: February 20, 2020

Ten years ago this week, I was recovering from the strangest, craziest week of my life so far. My visits to a bingo hall, a pub, a live TV studio and a radio studio would give me some incredible stories to tell. They would also see me feature on national news, several national newspapers, live TV and radio stations in the UK and Canada. This is how that week changed me and affected my interpreting

The Story so Far

It all began with the BBC coverage of a company called Today Translations, who were looking for a Glaswegian to English interpreter. While I grew up in Lanarkshire, about 15 miles from Glasgow, my Glaswegian was still strong enough to interpret. Since it was early in my career, I gave it a try and sent off my then-standard CV and covering letter. For months, nothing happened.

Then, seemingly out of the blue, I heard that I had been chosen for the job. That was good enough, since I really needed paid work, but what would happen next simply blew me away.

A Journalist, a Bingo Hall and a Pub

In an effort to get as much publicity from the story as possible, Today Translations arranged with a freelance journalist to come to interview me. We met in Glasgow and I did some test interpreting with two old ladies we met in a bingo hall, before retiring with him to a local pub for an informal interview.

That was odd enough but more was to come.

After several national newspapers picked up the story, suddenly TV and radio stations were interested. First, STV (a national TV station) sent a cameraman and crew to the church that allowed me to use some space for an office. They interviewed me as part of a short item for the six o’clock news. Next, I was invited to go on a live show from the same company, called The Hour. So I headed to the studio and my wife grabbed a later train to meet me there.

Just after I left makeup and before my wife had even arrived, I got another call, this time from the BBC. As soon as my slot was recorded, my wife and I went for a quick dinner and then hopped over to the local BBC studios for me to record a radio spot.

That sounds more glamourous than it was. I was on my own in a tiny studio, patched into the rather hostile host in Manchester. The spot was eventually broadcast at about 4am, in between an item on dead grey squirrels and a cat with its head stuck in a tin can.

A couple of days later, I ended up doing a radio interview from home, this time for CBC Radio Canada. That was probably the lightest and most fun recording.

Sadly, only the newspaper coverage has survived online, leaving me with nothing but memories of tie mics that were bolted to the ground and producers who seemed to be able to appear from nowhere and disappear as quickly.

The Follow-Up

Today, I am still kicking myself that, with all that coverage, I didn’t really have a business website or really much of an online presence that could have benefitted. As of today, I have received precisely no paid jobs for doing Glaswegian and I haven’t heard from Today Translations for at least 8 years.

Today Translations, if you’re there and you still exist, I’d be happy to work for you again.

So, by some measures, nothing came of all that coverage, apart from the chance to tell the story at an ITI conference. And that is sad.

On the other hand, I can say for sure that my week in the limelight gave me a much needed lesson in dealing with the media and especially in the strange art of crafting sound bites that make it into newspapers.

That has served as the basis for interpreting at conferences covered by the press, drafting open letters for my national association to send to press and government, writing articles for magazines aimed at my clients and generally having a better understanding of the weird world of journalism.

Would I do it again?

I would absolutely do it again any time and I am very open to giving interview on interpreting, including the prospects for speech translation gadgets taking our jobs. Only this time, I would be ready to make the most of any coverage that might come.