Government of Canada
Symbol of the Government of Canada

Official languages professions: interpretation (Part 1)

Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages for
New Brunswick


They work in the shadows. Their names go unknown. And their work is seldom recognized. Yet official bilingualism is impossible without their services. Translators, interpreters and terminologists enable our Anglophone and Francophone communities to talk to and understand each other. The Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages for New Brunswick pays tribute to these lovers of language by publishing a series of portraits. This article is the first in a series of three.

Wilfred Alliston, interpreter

When he talks about his profession, Wilfred Alliston compares it to that of an acrobat—with good reason. An interpreter listens to the words spoken by someone and, at one and the same time, remembers them, translates them and restates them in another language. Acrobatics, indeed.

Born in Fredericton, Wilfred started out as a teacher but found that it wasn't for him. Having learned French, he sought to capitalize on his bilingualism. He decided to apply for a position as a translator/interpreter. He was successful and, in September 1973, he received his first assignment. Wilfred doesn't regret his career change. "It's a profession that brings with it the opportunity and the need to keep learning, and it's that constant learning that makes life interesting, even exciting," he said.

Wilfred was in charge of interpreter training for many years, so he knows the aptitudes that are required to exercise the profession. He says that, apart from an excellent command of languages and strong analytical skills, you need fast mental reflexes and the ability to work under pressure. "You also have to have a passion for words and a passion for learning," he added. The profession has its difficulties as well. "It takes total concentration. That's the most exhausting part for beginning interpreters. With time, you get used to it, but at the start, it's very hard."

The extreme concentration required by the profession explains why interpreters work in teams of two or three and take turns at the microphone every half-hour or every hour, depending on the situation.

You could say that curiosity is what underlies this profession. "We talk about everything, so we have to be interested in everything," Wilfred continued. "That's the appeal of interpretation." He also emphasized that preparation is fundamental to success as an interpreter: "Before a conference, you have to know why the meeting is being held, what the issues are. And you also have to know the specific vocabulary that will be used."

As an interpreter at the Legislative Assembly of New Brunswick, Wilfred witnessed first-hand the political changes of the last 30 years. He believes that the New Brunswick Official Languages Act and other measures enabled New Brunswick's Francophone community to take a giant step forward. "Before those measures, French was around, but more as a private language," he said. "People spoke French amongst themselves, but in public, they spoke English. It [French] wasn't a public language, not to any extent. All that has undergone a major change." He gave as an example the recent conference of a major New Brunswick association during which one of the speakers spoke almost entirely in French. "That sort of thing would never have happened 40 years ago. There's been a tremendous transformation of mentalities, and simultaneous interpretation has a lot to do with that," Wilfred concluded.