Working as an interpreter can sound like quite a glamorous life – I've recently been to Berne, I'm now off to Lyon in a few days, and then Geneva for a four week stint. And yes, it can be brilliant, working with fascinating people from all over the world, but though I absolutely love it, it can be high pressure work and the prosaic truth is that I spend a lot of time on Easyjet.
I didn't have a languages background: I was brought up in north London, neither of my parents were linguists and we didn't do those camping in France type of holiday. I was about 10 when I first discovered I enjoyed French, when my teacher ran an after-school language club. Then in my second year at secondary school – when I was already studying French – we were offered the chance to learn German, Latin or Russian. I took a deep breath and chose Russian, even though I'd barely even heard of the country.
I loved Russian straightaway. Recently I found my old school books, and saw lots of painstakingly written words in shaky Cyrillic. It was a puzzle, a challenge, with lots of cases and noun declensions to work your way through: I discovered that if you have those stepping stones, you can see the language building before your eyes.
The first time I went abroad was on a school exchange to Belarus, in 1995, and the whole experience felt exciting and a bit crazy. I suddenly felt: "oooh, there's so much to explore here!" I got As in my French and Russian A-levels but I certainly wasn't fluent: "passable" would be more accurate. But four months in St Petersburg as part of a year out convinced me that doing languages at university was the right choice. That few months definitely motivated me – I was fascinated by the oddness of Russia. I could only scratch the surface of understanding the culture and I wanted to know more.
I got a first in my French and Russian degree, but it was only when I went back to Russia to teach English after graduating that my skills really improved. I was out there on my own in a flat, and when things went wrong as they inevitably did, I had to call the workmen to sort it out. There were no other native English people to call on, so I was properly immersed, I had to make Russian friends, get stuck in and get over the embarrassment of making mistakes. After nine months my Russian was probably as good as it's ever been, and once I'd come home, it wasn't long before I saw that GCHQ were looking for linguists.
It took six months of interviews, aptitude tests and then vetting before I was accepted. My job was translation, transcription and analysis. You can never really say very much about the detail of that sort of intelligence job – I was living in Cheltenham and if people there know where you work, they know not to ask – you talk about hobbies instead. The bare bones of it is that material will come in, either written or as audio, and you have to translate and transcribe it. You pick out the elements you think are useful, and then liaise with people who are producing reports for government. It was a blast – you learn lots about the world. You also get to use your languages all day: even if something isn't of any intelligence value, you're always improving your skills.
I'd taken a year out to do a masters in interpreting at the university of Bath, and then I did the UN interpreting test. It's renowned for being incredibly tough: I passed first time, which I wasn't expecting. It meant that a whole new career opened up, working on UN missions abroad. I had to give it a go, so I took myself off to Geneva to see if anyone would book me.
As it turned out, if you've passed that test, then they will, and by the end of the first month I had work. I guess it took about year until I felt secure – well, as secure as you ever are as a freelance – that I could make a decent bash of it.
There aren't many of us interpreting from Russian to English, and I work from French as well. Interpreters work in pairs, doing half an hour before swapping over. It's always intense and it's often stressful, because these are communications that matter to people's lives so you have to get it right. The aim is to be 100% accurate but often you can't translate literally, so it's about interpreting idea by idea. If I don't understand I try and hang back a bit, think about the context and try to pull together an idea that fits the situation. You have to think on your feet – I drink a lot of coffee.
There are so many potential pitfalls: not getting a written statement in advance, or getting it just 30 seconds before they start speaking ... or while they're speaking. People often speak very fast, and Russians in particular are prone to send one of their delegation to check you're interpreting precisely as they want you to. It's quite nerve-wracking enough without someone standing over you. Worst of all, they may even stop you mid-flow. Then you just have to repeat what they say even if it's interpreted awkwardly.
There are also accents to grapple with. Various French speaking African republics, for example, have strong accents, and use flowery language and unfamiliar vocabulary. Being simultaneously webcast ratchets up the pressure, because you know there are a lot of people listening. Some events are particularly high profile: I've only done the UN human rights council once – that's a tricky one because it's political and it's webcast, and it's the UN.Bag Clutch Women Satin Black Party Envelope Prom New Bridal Zarla Diamante Evening UK Ladies FYxTq0
My working life four years on is, well, complicated! I have an 18-month-old daughter, and I started back at work when she was five months old. My husband came out to Geneva with me to look after her at that point. We're back in Gloucestershire now, and I mostly try to arrange bookings so I'm away for a few days at a time. Fortunately it's well paid, and I aim to work 10 days in a month. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are a lot of single interpreters, but for our family it works well – I like the flexibility of being freelance, I love the stimulation of the work and I like being able to have time at home with my daughter. Luckily, I've never liked planning too far ahead: in this job, my language skills have taken me to Bali, Nairobi, Vienna, around Europe, and I may soon be off to Copenhagen and Moscow. I never know what's next, and that's the fun of it.
Helen Reynolds-Brown, Russian and French interpreter, works for the UN and other international organisations