Journey of a Recent Graduate

Zilin Cui (MACI, 2018)

This is my interview of Zilin Cui who graciously shared her interesting career moves since graduation.

  • Tell us about what you have been doing since graduating in May 2018.

I moved to New York in June to pursue an internship with the United Nations. I started in July with the Chinese Verbatim Reporting Section (CVRS), and then moved on to Chinese Translation Service (CTS) in September 2018, finishing in January 2019. A little back story: I applied to the CVRS internship in March of my second year and was accepted in April; I had applied to a different internship with the Chinese Text Processing Unit (part of CTS) in the winter of 2017-2018 and was pleasantly surprised when I heard back in April asking if I was still interested. I said yes and the rest fell into place over time.

While working in New York, I have also been freelancing as an interpreter and translator first part-time and then full-time after my internship. I worked on some interesting assignments, including a training course at Georgetown University, two assignments at the UNHQ, and one with the Inter-American Development Bank in Costa Rica. The assignments at the UN were unexpected. I received an email one day from one of the chief interpreters asking if I’d be available for the United Nations Alliance of Civilization Group of Friends Ministerial Meeting during the last week of General Assembly. Turns out I had been recommended by a Spanish interpreter with whom I had  previously worked at a conference. The conference itself was poorly organized and what was supposed to be Chinese < > English simultaneous interpretation ended up involving a lot of Spanish > Chinese on the fly and there was no time to set up relay with the Spanish booth. Having worked as a Chinese < > Spanish conference interpreter before in Chile and trained in three languages at MIIS, I was fortunate to have no problem handling the situation. When we finished, one of the Spanish interpreters commented that she had never heard anyone work from Spanish straight into Chinese. I thanked her and thought nothing more of it until I discovered a few weeks later that she had recommended me to a colleague of hers who happened to be looking for a Chinese < > English interpreter with Spanish in their combination!

I’ve also been doing translations into Chinese and English. I am currently working on three short stories by an Argentine writer, and I translate less exciting things like contracts and investment pitches. I passed the freelance translation test for the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in Chinese < > English, and yesterday I received news that I was awarded the second prize in the 14th UN’s St. Jerome Translation Contest for into Chinese.

As the freelancing workload comes with a lot of ebb and flow (more ebb than flow since I’m new to the market here), I’ve also been volunteering as a humanitarian translator, attending lectures and conferences, reading and exploring New York City – one of my favorite cities!

  • Why did you choose to take the internship at the UN given that it is unpaid?  How do you think it has or will benefit your career?

I chose the internship because it would help me prepare for the UN Chinese interpretation exam at that time, as one of my long-term dreams is to become a UN interpreter (the reason why I came to MIIS). Even though I did not pass and I’ve realized during my time at MIIS that it may take years before I achieve that dream (hence the importance of diversification and flexibility), I was thankful for the opportunity to learn about the UN and the challenges involved in doing T&I work there. During my internship, I translated speeches given at the Security Council and General Assembly, Main Committee meeting summary records, and worked on bi-text realignment (to improve translation memory), terminology management and proofreading. All my translations were reviewed by senior translators and there were one-on-one opportunities to discuss certain challenges, techniques and solutions, which was one of the most rewarding parts of the experience. It had always struck me how unusual “UNese” was, but it wasn’t until my time there that I learned about the multitude of challenges involved, and how a seemingly unnatural choice was usually the result of difficult negotiations where linguistic and political concerns all come into play. I learned a tiny bit about translating in a concise, precise and politically sensitive manner. It was a humbling experience, and it has given me a new appreciation for our profession.

I took this opportunity knowing that it would not come again (only available to students and recent graduates). I was lucky to have very understanding supervisors who allowed me to take on freelance assignments as long as I turned in my work on time, and former professors and fellow MIIS alums who kindly recommended me for assignments, without which I would not have been able to survive financially. A big thank-you to the MIIS Mafia!

  • Knowing what you know now from a career management perspective, what words of wisdom would you share with those MIIS students who are graduating in May 2019?

Speaking from personal experience: you may not get what you strive for on your first try, but do not lose heart. Be patient, positive and persistent. Make sure to always deliver top-quality work; this is the best marketing trick out there. Keep on learning and growing through every experience that comes your way. Once I was at an assignment when a concept came up that was not in the reference materials. I would not have been able to understand it and express it on the fly had I not read it in a book on my hour-long commute to my internship! Keep your eyes peeled, ears pricked and mind open. You will get from your career what you put into it. If you are intellectually insatiable and love helping people understand each other, you will love this profession!

  • What are your next steps career-wise? 

I am moving back to Beijing in the summer to freelance full-time as an interpreter, barring any unforeseen circumstances. Having lived abroad for 12 years now, this is exciting and scary, but I’m ready to embrace the challenge and join forces with the MIIS Mafia in China.  

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