Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey


Karen Gross, Conference Interpreter at the European Parliament

Karen Gross graduated from the Institute in 1986 with an MA in Conference Interpretation. A seasoned interpreter, she has worked for the European Parliament for more than 20 years.

1) Could you tell us more about yourself?

karen_grossI started my career as a freelance conference interpreter after graduating from the Institute in 1986. Now I’m an in-house interpreter at the European Parliament. Spanish is my mother tongue, and I also have German as an active language, which I occasionally work into in the consecutive mode.

2) What's your typical day like working at the European Parliament?

There’s actually no such thing as a typical day for interpreters at the European Parliament. We get to interpret different types meetings, on all kinds of topics, and with different schedules. We work for political groups and Parliamentary Committees, which specialize in a variety of subjects: fishery, agriculture, industry, culture, sports, economy, finances, to name just a few. The latest topic that I interpreted about was racism in Europe. We also interpret press conferences, organized hearings, and sometimes televised debates. We travel to Strasbourg once a month and work at the plenary sessions there. We don’t have a fixed daily schedule, either. It all depends on the meetings and the day.

3) Could you describe your career path?

It all started one year before I finished my graduate studies at MIIS. I read in a Spanish newspaper that the European Parliament was looking for interpreters with a Spanish and German combination. I wrote them a letter and said that I'd be ready in one year and asked if they’d be still be interested. They replied immediately with a yes, encouraging me to get in touch with them upon graduation because they were really interested in my language combination. That door was already open.

When I graduated I went back to Spain first, and then I decided to look them up again and gave them a call. They immediately gave me a test as a freelance interpreter. I passed the test and started working as a freelancer for them in Brussels. A year later, with the experience I gathered at the European Parliament and in the private market in Brussels, I took a test with the European Commission started working for them as freelancer. By then, I had worked for the European Parliament, the Commission, and the private market. It was a very complete set of experiences with different types of work, institutions, meetings, and subjects.

4) Did you take another test to become an in-house interpreter?

Yes. Nowadays fortunately you only have to take one test for all the institutions. Back then you had to go institution by institution. I actually moved back to Spain after a couple of years in Brussels, because I was interested in gathering some experiences in Spain as well. I stayed there for a year and then the competitive exam at the European Parliament came up in 1991. They wanted in-house conference interpreters for the Spanish booth, with German in their language combination. That was perfect for me. I decided to take the competitive exam and I passed. Since then, I’ve been working as a conference interpreter in the Spanish booth.

5) What’s the most rewarding part about your job?

I keep on learning things. I keep up with the news and what is happening in the world. Take the economic crisis: How did it happen? What caused it? Who’s responsible? You keep learning in preparation for the meetings. It is also rewarding to have people who come to thank you after a meeting, which let you know that you have helped these people to communicate, to understand each other. That is something very positive about my job.

6) What are the challenges of your job?

There still are challenges every day after 20 years of work. It’s a tough job. You work in a plenary for two hours, and you feel completely exhausted afterwords. There are occasions where speakers have a text and read full-speed, but you don’t have it in the booth—there’s no way to prepare for it. You’ll just have to deal with the situation. Working for television is also very stressful. My job is a challenge in itself, but I love it.

7) What kind of interpreters is the European Parliament looking for?

At the European Parliament, they prefer interpreters with one very strong A language, the mother tongue, and several C languages, instead of interpreters with only one A and one B language. This is because interpreters here normally work in what is called a “pure” system, which means that they only work into their mother tongue. Over time, this has changed because of the enlargement. There are not enough interpreters who know Polish or Czech or one of the Eastern languages. So the interpreters with those A languages have to work into English, French, or German. But for the classic languages, such as Spanish, German, and French, you don’t work into a foreign language. That’s why they’d rather have interpreters with one strong mother tongue with two or three or even more C languages, from which they work into their mother tongue.

8) Have you met any the Institute graduates in your booth?

I have met three MIIS graduates, one of them in the Spanish booth. He works for the European Commission right now, not the Parliament. I have met him a couple of times. The two other graduates are freelance interpreters in the English booth, as English is their mother tongue.

9) What was the most important thing you learned at MIIS?

The most important thing that I learned from the Conference Interpretation program is self-confidence. I was trained hard by many different teachers as I built up consecutive and simultaneous skills: public speaking, note-taking, the ability to control the situation and your nerves—never showing the audience that you’re insecure or not feeling confident about what you’re saying. Upon graduation, if you go immediately to an international organization like the European Parliament to sit for a test, it is important that you know how to control your nervousness and how to be in control in a difficult situation.

10) Any words of wisdom for current Translation & Interpretation students?

Exercise, exercise and exercise! Never give up, just keep on trying! You will have good days, and you'll have difficult days. But keep on trying to do the best you can.

If you have a specific market in mind, then you’ll have to start polishing your profile and adapt it to what the needs are in that market. It’s never too early, and you’ll have to learn about what the market situation is like. If you’re thinking of adding a language, say it’s Portuguese, and then you find out that in the market there’s a greater need for French, you’d better adapt to that. The sooner you do that the better.

If you’re interested, the European Parliament has Facebook page called “Interpreting for Europe,” as well as a YouTube channel where you see all the interviews with our Director General. We need people to come over and start working for us, because we’re all getting old and thinking about retiring! [laughs] So we would definitely like to hear from you.