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Sirpa Seppälä

Sirpa Kristiina Seppälä
Born April 3, 1962, Helsinki

Bachelor of Arts, 1996 (Western and Southern Slavic Languages and Cultures), University of Helsinki
Travel guide foundation course 1994, Käpylä Night School
Conference interpretation trainer course 2004, University of Helsinki Centre for Continuing Education, European Commission interpretation service SCIC.

Several short interpretation courses organised by various organisations
Several courses for travel industry professionals organised by various organisations in Finland and the Czech Republic

Language industry entrepreneur 2004– Sirpukka
Worked as a freelancer in different positions in the language industry 1990–2004

Board member of Helsinki Tourist Guides 1995–1996
Board member of the Finn-Czech Society 2004–2014
Member of the MaPa project

Photo: Kimmo Eskola
Written by Riitta-Ilona Hurmerinta
Translated by
Matthew Billington

An Interpreter Transmits the Message Precisely and Without Changes

The courtroom is one of the places where Sirpa Seppälä works as a public interpreter. She has also been involved in training public sector interpreters, checking and drawing up questions for vocational examinations, and teaching interpreting to adult learners.

– Interpreting is the thing I am most comfortable with in the language industry. Sometimes I think that my brain was made for interpreting.

When she was 14, Seppälä wrote to a language institute in Kouvola and asked how to become a simultaneous interpreter. She recently found the reply she received while cleaning her cupboards.

– I received a very thorough answer from Kouvola. A friend from the University, Jaana, has also reminded me that even as a student I had often spoken of interpreting. There was just no training for it in the languages I had chosen to study.

The conditions and the locations vary from one assignment to another when working as a public interpreter. One extreme is the courtroom, where interpreting is carefully structured. Another possible setting is a child care centre, which is a very different work environment.

Seppälä says that first and foremost interpreting calls for attention. Concentration on the work at hand requires that the interpreter is able to forget everything else. Good memory is also a must. How an interpreter works, however, depends on the individual. Two excellent interpreters can work in completely different ways.

– One interpreter might prefer to hear a very short bit of speech and then interpret it instantly. Another might want to hear more to be clear on the contents of the speech before interpreting. I prefer the latter way, but it really requires that you have a good memory.

Interpreting demands a lot of preparation before the actual interpreting takes place. Moreover, the financial compensation for interpretation does not always cover the “homework” required.

– I prepare carefully for every assignment. In public interpreting, which deals with official matters, one of the problems can be that there is no information available in advance, owing to confidentiality issues, such as when medical records are involved. Fortunately, when it comes to court cases, the interpreter receives material to read in advance. I translate the cases and look up the words I do not know. Sometimes the pay is in no way commensurate with the work you put in, but sadly that is all too common in the language industry.

Public interpreters must be able to process what they hear and not get stuck on any single word they might not understand so they can express the content of what is said accurately. Interpreting is also challenging when it comes to elocution. You have to be familiar with voice control so as not to lose your voice. Consequently, Seppälä is glad she has studies in speech science under her belt.

– An interpreter should be like a parrot that repeats the message in another language without any changes. Detachment is also a part of the profession. When interpreting you cannot show emotion or let the subject matter influence the interpretation process. Of course my own communication is different when speaking in court to a judge compared to when I am speaking at a child care centre, but an interpreter must nevertheless always remain neutral. It is similar to translation in the sense that good translators do not bring their own views and emotions to the text.

On one occasion Seppälä noticed that the parties being interpreted could not understand each other owing to societal differences. She shared her observation with the parties and ended up filing an unofficial report on the matter to the European Commission. The event took place at a time when the Czech Republic was in negotiations to join the European Union and representatives of the state were visiting Finland to study matters related to health care and social services.

– I have also provided cultural consultations afterwards. For instance I have given cultural training to corporations expanding their operations to the Czech Republic.

Seppälä emphasises that just knowing a language will not get you very far. To work in the language industry you also have to be familiar with the cultural background of the languages.

– Arts graduates are needed in many fields precisely for this reason, because language alone is not enough in intercultural communication. Particularly in the business world and in relations between nations, the importance of cultural expertise should be acknowledged.

The necessary instruments of a judicial interpreter.


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