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Erja Tenhonen-Lightfoot

Erja Aulikki Tenhonen-Lightfoot
Born 8.12.1960, Tohmajärvi

Näyttötutkintomestari (Course for those working with competence-based qualifications) 2011, Hame University of Applied Sciences
Conference interpreter 1997, University of Turku
Licentiate (applied linguistics) 1993, University of Vaasa
Master of Arts (translation and interpreting) 1988, University of Joensuu

University teacher of interpretation 2011–, University of Helsinki
Part-time teacher of interpreting and translation 1997–2011, University of Helsinki
Chief examiner of competence-based qualifications for community interpreters 2010–, Amiedu/ Tampere Adult Education Centre
Lecturer of interpretation 2003–06, University of Helsinki/ Palmenia
Coordinator of the project Passiivisuomi 1995–96, University of Helsinki/ Vantaa Institute for Continuing Education
Project researcher in applied linguistics 1990–92, Academy of Finland/ University of Vaasa

Entrepreneur 2002–, Sanas interpreting services
Freelance legal interpreter in district courts and courts of appeal 2002–
Entrepreneur and coordinating interpreter 1998–2002, Cross Border Communications Oy
Freelance conference interpreter in every organ of the EU

Photo: Johanna Hirvonen
Written by Tomas Sjöblom
Translated by Matthew Billington

A career as a university teacher via the Porthania cafeteria

Weather permitting, the journey home from the University to Suomenlinna island is spent on deck. Photo: Erja Tenhonen-Lightfoot.

One night in 1974 Erja Tenhonen-Lightfoot was listening to the radio in Suomenlinna when a woman working as a conference interpreter was being interviewed. The grammar school student with an interest in languages decided to become an interpreter herself.

“I thought that that sounded like the job for me. I wanted to work with languages but I didn't want to become a teacher. I doubt there are many fourteen-year-olds who want to become a teacher. The job of interpreter became my goal and even a dream of sorts.”

The dream became reality. Ms Tenhonen-Lightfoot first studied translation and interpreting at the University of Joensuu, then applied linguistics at the University of Vaasa, and finally she trained as a conference interpreter at the University of Turku. She has been working as an interpreter since 1985. It was a meeting in a cafeteria in 1997 that led to her becoming a teacher at the University of Helsinki.

“I had just completed the conference interpreter course in Turku and I was having a cup of coffee in the cafeteria of Porthania. I saw a friend of mine, Orvokki Niemelä, amanuensis at the German department, and said hi. She told me that they were looking for a teacher for a course on ‘general language and languages for specific purposes’ and asked me if I'd be interested.”

Ms Tenhonen-Lightfoot grasped the opportunity at once. She had taken a similar course a couple of times, and as far as she knew, her notes were still there somewhere.

“As it turned out, my husband had just cleaned out our bookshelves and thrown away all the old notes. We did try to get them back, but they had already been thrown in the furnace at the Suomenlinna waste disposal centre. So I did have to start from zero, but didn’t turn out to be a problem. At least I learned my subject quite well when I reread all the basic texts, and the course ended up looking like me.”

After this, there was another course and then another and another. Ms Tenhonen-Lightfoot taught German translation, translation of EU language and numerous courses on interpreting.

“Then there was a two-year project through the University of Helsinki and Palmenia to train EU civil servant and freelance interpreters to interpret from passive Finnish into their native languages.”

After working for several years as a part-time teacher and coordinator of various interpreting projects, Ms Tenhonen-Lightfoot completed a minor in pedagogical studies alongside her work in 2008.

“It is an excellent education that you can also take while working. That's what I did. I always tell my students to take the pedagogical studies minor; in the translation and interpreting business it's kind of a lifesaver. If there seems to be no work in your own field, you're fully qualified to temp as a teacher.”

In 2011, Ms Tenhonen-Lightfoot was appointed the first university teacher in interpreting at the Modern Languages Department of the University of Helsinki.

“Since then I've been a full-time teacher and part-time interpreter, instead of the other way round. For a person of my age it's a godsend to have one permanent job and not need to dash about on assignments all over Europe.”

Ms Tenhonen-Lightfoot teaches her students that in an interpreting situation you need to begin with a bird's eye view.

“Every time you start interpreting, you ought to ask yourself, ‘Who? What? Where? When? Why? How?’ When you've asked these questions beforehand, you'll be able to anticipate to some extent what will be said.”

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