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A Slovene speaking Mandarin? Meet our trainer!

I have always felt intrigued by the sounds and rhythms of foreign languages. As a child growing up in Yugoslavia, later Slovenia, I absorbed the sounds from the TV like a sponge - in addition to poetic hand-painted Czechoslovakian cartoons, also Japanese anime & The Flintstones dubbed in German, and gobby MTV presenters from across Europe. At the age of 7, I formally started learning German as a second language, followed by English at age 10. My favourite pastime as a child was talking to myself in various languages and accents whilst pooping, which is something I still do sometimes when the circumstances are right (like, when I am stuck at home due to a global pandemic).

It was in secondary school that I developed an interest in Mandarin - that completely bizarre language with completely new sounds and no references to any existing vocabulary. I still remember how, during a family dinner at a Chinese restaurant, I listened to the waitress casually switching between Slovene and Mandarin and decided at that point that one day, I will learn this language, walk into a Chinese restaurant and order food in their language!

With this vision in mind, I embarked on my journey of studying Chinese language and culture in 2002. Many of my friends and family members told me it is IMPOSSIBLE to learn Chinese and served me cheesy Chinese jokes all the time, but I was determined to prove them wrong.

After 2 years of studying all aspects of the language at the University of Ljubljana, it was time for me to put into practice where it’s spoken every day: China! I flew there with a great deal of confidence, as my grades at Uni were above average and I thought I had a good ear for the language, but as soon as I interacted with border officials, the taxi driver and the train ticket salesperson, I realised I have a lot more to learn!! I spent a year immersed not only in Mandarin, but also in Russian and Korean, courtesy of my international housemates. Whilst my Russian and Korean never reached fluency, I have nurtured them through additional language courses and mainly through maintaining relationships with many friends I met in China. My Mandarin, tough, really improved when I spent my second year in China, during which I joined 3rd year Journalism students at Yanshan University. The experience of studying in Mandarin form 8am to 6pm every day was close to brain-damaging but at the same time, it accelerated my learning and greatly contributed to my mastering of the language.

Even before I graduated, I started working as a Mandarin translator and interpreter; I even interpreted for a Chinese business delegation visiting the Slovenian Chamber of Commerce at some point. This was possible mainly because there were so very few students or graduates with a good enough level of Mandarin, and we took every opportunity we got to practise and enhance our language skills. Unfortunately, at no point during my studies, I was taught how to interpret - I was left to figure it out myself, so I followed my gut feeling (and advice from others) and just did my best. Just like everyone else. We muddled though complex terminology, summarised long ideas into few words, ignored bits we couldn’t understand, and hoped both parties left the meeting happy.

It was only after I moved to the UK, started working at Refugee Forum and had the pleasure of being amongst the first group of wannabe community interpreters trained by the amazing Alice Johnson of Cairo Community Interpreter Project, that I realised I have been doing it wrong all this time! The intense 9-day interpreting course, which provided the basis of the interpreting course we now run at Voices in Refuge three times a year, opened my eyes and planted the seed of self-doubt: Is my Mandarin really good enough? How do I deal with ethical challenges? How do I remain neutral and unbiased? What do I do if I can’t understand a word, or forget how to say it in the other language?

Our first group of interpreters alongside Alice Johnson.

Whilst we were challenged and pushed to the limits, I began to understand the enormous responsibility interpreters carry. This is particularly true in the context of asylum and refugee status determination, where an untrained, unprofessional or unethical interpreter can be the difference between life and death for asylum seekers. We understood the importance of interpreting messages fully and accurately, regardless of our opinions or judgements, and of staying out of the conversation for the sake of enabling it between the parties who do not share a language.

Four years after attending the course, and after training close to 200 interpreters through Voices in Refuge, I still get nervous when someone asks me to interpret for a Chinese service user at Refugee Forum. I know that advanced technology nowadays offers all kinds of apps and gadgets for interpreting, but I am convinced that trained human interpreters are still the best “tools” for empowering people to speak up, be heard, understand others and respond to them on their own terms.


The most recent group of trained interpreters alongside VIR staff.


I am proud to inspire others to find their passion and purpose in interpreting, and hope to help set higher standards of community interpreting in Nottingham and beyond.


Barbara Spreiz

Trainer at VIR & Volunteer Coordinator at NNRF.

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