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The land of the midnight sun - Alaska through the eyes of an interpreter

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Henrietta Belaya photo Many may think that being a simultaneous interpreter is all beer and skittles: international conferences, exciting trips, and rubbing shoulders with celebrities ...

Interpreters would most probably beg to differ and say that we are destined to drudgery, which is not necessarily rewarding. In my eyes, there is a grain of salt in both statements, but the satisfaction of a job well done, unforgettable experiences and the joy of human-to-human communication help cope with any challenge.

I would like to share some memorable moments of a heavy oil production learning and knowledge-sharing program held in the US.

So, we were heading to Alaska. The word "Alaska" immediately invoked the images of a severe snowbound land, Eskimos, and dog sleds... With my mind’s eye I saw Jack London characters and scenes from movies about the gold rush...

Alaska through the eyes of an interpreter

Alaska is not exactly a stone’s throw away from Moscow  the one-way travel time exceeded 24 hours, including a transfer in Seattle (where I felt compelled to buy Sleepless in Seattle pajamas.)

Thankfully, the clients were conscious of the fact that the interpreters would have to work at least as much as everyone else and that all of us needed rest to curb flight exhaustion, so my colleague and I were travelling business class like all other team members. (Just think about how often it is otherwise: an interpreter is doubled up in the cheapest seat and springs into action immediately upon arrival!)

A few words about Alaska. It is not only the biggest US state (being twice the size of the second-largest state, Texas), but it is also the richest in terms of income per capita. The average salary exceeds USВ $4,800. 25% of oil revenues is distributed equally among Alaskans, including infants. The 2018 annual payout was US $1,600. To qualify for dividends, one needs to have lived in the state for an entire calendar year and have no criminal record. Alaska has the population of 750,000 people, almost as many as the Republic of Sakha, Yakutia.

When we arrived in Anchorage, the unofficial capital of Alaska, the first surprise was the weather. It appeared that we should not anticipate ringing frosts as Anchorage is located at the same latitude as the Russian city of Petrozavodsk. And we were also amazed by the mountains  they looked more like a theatrical scenery.

Alaska through the eyes of an interpreter

Believe it or not, but moose wander unhindered around the city parklands. While in our offices we see wet floor signs, caution moose signs are a permanent fixture in Alaska. I remember us, with noses glued to the windows, gazing at an unperturbed female moose with a calf leisurely strolling through the greenspace surrounding the office building.

There was no time or energy left for sightseeing, but we managed to catch a glimpse of the James Cook monument. The great British explorer visited Alaska in 1778. Too bad he did not stay there as within a year he was killed by Hawaiian (not Australian!) aborigines (to be fair, they did not eat Cook, Vladimir Vysotsky’s song stretched the truth).

Alaska through the eyes of an interpreter

And I also noticed that local gift shop owners have a good sense of humor:

Alaska through the eyes of an interpreter

Let’s talk shop: the Alaska "mission" proved to be one of the most challenging within my memory. Unfortunately, right before the departure I caught a violent cold, but it was too late to give up the trip, so I travelled with a whole bunch of symptoms  feverish, coughing and with my voice gone.

Alaska through the eyes of an interpreter

The first three days before field visits, we had a crash course on the nuts and bolts of geology, cold and hot heavy oil production methods (CHOPS, fireflooding, huff’n’puff and heat carrier injection) and field infrastructure. Now, you can wake me up in the dead of the night and I’ll tell you that VAPEX is vapor extraction and SAGD is steam-assisted gravity drainage.

Our hosts tried to present as much information as possible demonstrating a great variety of regional accents one may encounter across the US. Those coming from the southern states were the easiest to recognize. And though a somewhat slower pronunciation with longer vowels (southern drawl) may be perceived as non-prestigious by some people as it is associated with rural Southerners stigmatized as unsophisticated and conservative (be careful, the word "rednecks" may sound hateful), the jolly greeting “Hey, y’all” immediately gave away an oilman from Texas. Light nasality, quick speech and inserting the sound /r/ where, by definition, there should be none (idea – /idear/) plus an open [a]  all this was definitely Noo Yawk Tawk.

On the other hand, Chicago or Cleveland natives sounded like CNN anchors. Being no Professor Higgins, I can still note that the Alaskan accent seems close to midwestern and is similar to the way they speak, for example, in Michigan.

Day 1: Almost down with a fever, I worked with the brain on autopilot.

Days 2 and 3: Without drilling down into detail, I can say that the circumstances forced me to work "in splendid solitude".

There is no denying that simultaneous interpretation requires a lot of concentration, and the World Health Organization even put it on the list of most stressful jobs along with air traffic controllers and test pilots. That’s the reason why simultaneous interpreters usually take turns of about 30 minutes each, and in exceptional cases, alternate every 20 minutes.

There is no need to explain to a professional interpreter what it means to do "solo" simultaneous interpretation of technology deep-dives to discipline experts for 10 hours a day. To cap it all there was no sound-proof booth and none of the presentations had been provided in advance for preparation.

As a cherry on top to cover all the topics on Day 3 both parties decided to skip lunch and coffee breaks - the participants were invited to help themselves with coffee and sandwiches and take individual comfort breaks when needed. Sadly, no one thought whether the interpreter was thrilled about the idea.

I could not but think about George Miloslavsky from Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future, "One does not treat interpreters like that!"

Some colleagues are known to come over with Bell, Book, and Candle when someone agrees to work alone. However, the question is "What could one do under the circumstances – pack up and leave, go on strike and let the whole team down?"

It is often argued that the voice of a "soloist" gets strained, and the output quality is compromised after 30 minutes of interpretation. I can answer the question with a question: "Why do professional singers perform, for example, Wagner’s operas for five hours in a row and do not lose their voices?" Like vocalists, an interpreter needs a well-trained voice. And as to quality, I witnessed egregious examples of bush-league performance by some "pairs" and stunt pilot routines displayed by some "soloists".

The next day we were flying to Prudhoe Bay.

Alaska through the eyes of an interpreter

We shared the flight with fly-in/fly-out workers who looked slightly despondent. But on the way back with outgoing crews there were peals of laughter and even cheerful songs. I noticed that there were very few middle-aged people on board, apparently, the US oil industry was also understaffed in 1990-s.

Now a few highlights:

We were impressed by the shift camp comfort and infrastructure  we wished we could go to the gym or relax in one of the inviting lounges.

There was a wide variety of restaurant-level food and exotic fruit available in the canteen in early February. The only difference from a restaurant was zero-tolerance policy towards alcohol.

Our male colleagues were lucky to be accommodated in rooms with all modern amenities but when the rooms were booked, the interpreters were forgotten, so my colleague and I had to settle for less and stay in a double room for short rest. Though such rooms were not for long-term accommodation they were equipped with comfortable beds, a TV-set, a fridge, and in-built wardrobes. All other "utilities" were at the end of the corridor. Time and again, George Miloslavsky kept coming to my mind...

Alaska delighted us by its rare balance of human endeavor and pristine nature. The beauty of its nature is wild and peculiar. Never had I seen such brilliant-white Arctic foxes freely and fearlessly sauntering around through crystal-clear snow as in Alaskan oilfields.

Alaska through the eyes of an interpreter

I also remember giant claw marks on a control room door. It’s a pity that we had to leave our phones and cameras in the office after our regular toolbox talk and could not take pictures. Witnesses told us about a furious she-bear who had broken into the building and smashed all equipment in the area near the entrance. Fortunately, the people were quick enough to hide behind a steel door; the angry visitor could not claw it open despite all her efforts but left an impressive dent as a "souvenir", which the staff decided to keep as a reminder. However, since then entrances to stand alone buildings on remote sites were fitted with "cages" as a protection from uninvited sharp-clawed visitors: people step inside the cage, close the latch, and can take their time to turn off the alarm and unlock the entrance door.

It must be said that the field infrastructure looked shiny as a new pin. I was also impressed that well operators and equipment were not exposed to the elements because of the well shelter system.

Such "miracles on wheels" plow the vast expanses of Alaska:

Alaska through the eyes of an interpreter

I would like to drop the curtain with a picture of the Arctic Ocean... Standing on the shore I thought that it was worth traveling with a cold to the other end of the world, overstretching myself, getting up in the middle of the night to catch another flight to the next field. And I was also thinking that being an interpreter is a fantabulous job...

Alaska through the eyes of an interpreter

And here is our team of heavy oil production enthusiasts, tired but happy.

Alaska through the eyes of an interpreter

Читайте также: Земля полуночного солнца - Аляска глазами переводчика

Published - September 2021.

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