Deputy print editor Mina Omar sat down with Lewis Fairfax to talk about his job experience, meeting Desmond Tutu and workplace inspiration
Lewis Fairfax is a French and Russian student who spent his summer in Monaco, working as a translator and interpreter. Stationed in a glamorous country, teaching international lawyers what he calls “the new lingua franca,” English, and helping to conduct interviews with international celebrities, he certainly had a memorable summer.
During past summers as a university student, he has organized volunteering schemes in Kyrgyzstan (a country whose official language is Russian). But this summer he was interested in getting some actual professional experience rather than continuing to volunteer. He was certainly proactive in finding an interesting appointment. He says, “It goes back to February or March, and I was thinking I had to find something to do because I couldn’t just sit around on my backside all summer.”
Jump ahead to June, and he found himself at a translation company based in Monaco where his official job title was translator, interpreter and project manager. As the only English speaker in the officer, he was responsible for dealing with anything having to do with his native language. As he was working as a translator and interpreter, he was also able to put his French and Russian language skills to use.
Monaco proved to be a surreal place to spend the summer. He says, “The thing about Monaco is you get there and you just get this overwhelming sense that it is quite glamorous and everything is very shiny. People have lots of money. It was a really cool place to work – it was sort of seeing how the other half live.”
Interestingly, Monaco is a microstate with its own government and one of the most powerful monarchies still operating in Europe. Prince Albert II is officially a constitutional monarch, but he wields an enormous amount of power that has been stripped from most other European monarchs.
Lewis remembers a funny Monaco moment that speaks to the singularity of this environment. “I was walking past an estate agent and I saw a listing for a rentable space for €900 a month,” he says. “And I thought, ‘€900 a month! In Monaco? No way.’ And so I crouched down to have a closer look at the listing, and it was for a parking space. So that’s the kind of place it is. It’s another world.”
As part of his job, Lewis was introduced to celebrities and international power players alike. His first event as an interpreter was the Monte Carlo Television Festival. While there, he saw Jerry Bruckheimer, the famous American producer behind Top Gun and Pirates of the Caribbean, and Ted Danson, an American actor.
While at the festival, he also met and helped to conduct an interview with Desmond Tutu, the Archbishop of Cape Town. Tutu was at the festival to promote a film he had worked on about the plight of people in Syria, and was being interviewed by a major newspaper from the South of France. Lewis served as the translator and interpreter between the journalist and the archbishop.
Lewis says, “The journalist was speaking via me to Desmond Tutu. It was quite daunting asking Desmond Tutu these questions – even though they weren’t my own. I had to ask him questions like, ‘Do you think there is any hope for peace in the Middle East?’ But he was such a nice guy. He saw me later on and even remembered my name. You get an emanating niceness from him, and he is obviously a man who has done a lot of really important work.”
Luckily, Lewis got a break after such a stressful job assignment. He says, “There were lots of people that I didn’t recognize who were from American soap operas, so I wasn’t really intimidated talking to them because I was like, ‘Well, I don’t know who you are!’”
Despite the challenge of working at the festival, Lewis says it was well worth it. The day after the festival, he fell asleep on the train because he was so exhausted from working with so many people. But he says, ‘Then I woke up, and I was like, ‘I met Desmond Tutu yesterday and he remembered my name!’ It was really fun.”
So what was the takeaway from his summer job? For starters, Lewis received unbeatable help from the University that enabled him to take the job in Monaco. He says, “The support from the Uni was amazing. They were able to handle all of the paper work with the French authorities. They knew how it worked, and I can’t thank them enough for the help that they gave me.” Additionally, he also received a grant from the University of £1,000, which covered many of his expenses. He says, “If you are from a less well off economic background like I am, it should not put you off from traveling overseas because the support is there if you’re willing to put the work in.”
Secondly, his job experience proved invaluable for helping him decide what kind of career he would ultimately like to pursue. Lewis says, “Everyone should consider it because I think it is very daunting to go into a job after your degree having never done it before. For me, I realized after three months or so that perhaps translating was not for me because I did enjoy the high points but it’s very hard work. It really requires a certain eye for detail that only some are gifted with, and I often found myself lacking in that regard.”
However, working as a translator was hardly a negative experience. He says, “It really gave me an idea because I was working with other people, I was exposed to other fields that I could be interested in. That’s something you don’t really get during the university experience, but that you do in the world of work.”
One of his tasks was to teach English at the nearby international law firms. While there, the lawyers would talk to him about their major cases. “Actually, I found it so interesting that I’m now trying to qualify as a solicitor rather than as a translator,” he says. “You find inspiration in the oddest of places.”
Finally, Lewis was able to learn about life in a new culture. Lewis says, “There is a different work structure in France. You have to pay interns there. You have to pay them €430 a month. So basically my salary paid for my rent and my grant paid for my living costs.”
His boss even encouraged him to take longer lunch breaks, something very much at odds with the miserable, unpaid intern stereotype some of us have come to expect. He says, “It was adapting to a different work place culture. I mean, faculty takes two hours for lunch, which would be almost unthinkable here. They thought I was really weird because I’d sit at my desk and eat. At one point, my boss was like, ‘Switch your computer off and sit in the sun for twenty minutes.’”
Of course, sunbathing was only a very small part of the job. Lewis says, “Generally, it’s a very stressful job working as a translator. It’s something people often underestimate because they think, ‘Oh, you speak two languages, it’s easy to go between them.’ But it’s not easy. What works in French is not always what works in English. I often found myself having to find like 90 per cent matches because I couldn’t do it directly. And you only have two seconds to think about it.”
Nonetheless, he managed to escape some of the more menial tasks. “They’d try to make me do regular intern tasks like make the coffee,” he says. “But then they realized I was English and so I can’t make coffee.” Despite the challenges, the victories – as big as interviewing Archbishop Tutu and as small as avoiding the dreaded coffee maker – made his assignment one he is grateful to have had. “In any case,” he says, “it was worth it.”