I still remember that lackluster room at the old NATO headquarters that had been converted into a Université Sorbonne Nouvelle campus. My friends were with me waiting in the hall after the exam. Mr. Thiéry came to the door and called, "Monsieur Violet." Inside the room, facing an array of ESIT professors, he was kind. He explained that the message was complete but the delivery was "laborieux." I'm sure he was right. I had to do another entire year as a repeat of the first. That's the French system in some cases. You don't just repeat a class. You repeat the year. I spent another year working on my consecutive. For me that was both directions, from French to English and English to French, as well as from my C language, Portuguese, to English. The second time around I passed.
Christopher Thiéry was the director of the Interpreting Division at ESIT, where I studied from 1983-86. I know that he put down in his little book that I could do a passable consecutive from French into English and that Philip Minns, my teacher in consecutive from French to English, also did because I was only required to do the exam from English to French after my first year. I failed that exam, as mentioned above. Danica Seleskovitch was the director of the school, which included both interpreting and translation divisions. I had weekly classes with both of them. There is something about the French education system that to an American is quite strange. They create what you might call a "bootcamp" atmosphere, where you need to be stripped down before you can be built back up. When I first saw Seleskovitch, she struck me as a feeble and insignificant presence. By the end of a few weeks, she towered over my world like a dragon over a grass hut. I used to say that I'd feel less nervous interpreting for Reagan and Gorbochev than to be called upon in class to do a consecutive for Seleskovitch.
Thiéry was a somewhat milder version of the same. I was 28 years old and had already taught French at UC Berkeley. The whole French approach seemed like bizarre theater to me. But there was no escaping their power. They held the keys to my future.
I have to admit: their system works. I ended up working my ass off. My dear fellow students and I would book practice rooms and fill our days with sessions. There was an "us against them" feeling among us, which created a sort of war-buddy bond.
In second year, Mr. Thiéry, among all my teachers, was the only one to actually go into the booth and do simultaneous as we listened. I respect him for that. And his teaching, along with most of my professors, was good. He used to tell stories about how AIIC was created, how he first got into the profession, etc. He loved to talk about his research on how one becomes a "true bilingual." According to him, you have to have grown up speaking one of the two languages in either home, school or street to have it as a true mother tongue. I assume that this assertion is pretty much accepted today. The video below is courtesy Lourdes de Rioja. In it, he speaks of this research.
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