Grad profile

Yuan (Jeff) Ji

Yuan (Jeff) Ji. Photo by Greg Ehlers.

"You have to be a bridge. You have to make them feel like they're actually talking to each other. There's a delicate balance you have to achieve."

As a phone interpreter in the language access industry, Jeff receives up to 50 calls a day from people with limited English proficiency all over the world. His work ranges from helping customers deal with banking issues, to assisting medical staff at a hospital. Jeff once took a call from a doctor whose patient was refusing treatment for liver cancer. He was able to communicate with the patient and convince him to take the doctor’s advice—potentially saving his life.

“I listen to stories,” explains Jeff. “I help in an invisible way. When the call is finished, I disappear from their lives, but during the call I was their facilitator. Someone was able to achieve something with my help, whereas before they didn’t have a voice.”

Sometimes the calls Jeff receives involve interpreting legal situations, such as traffic or public disputes. After a particularly challenging call of this kind, Jeff decided he wanted to pursue more training in the legal interpretation profession. When his dad came across SFU’s Legal Interpretation and Translation program in a Chinese newspaper, Jeff knew he wanted to complete the certificate and eventually become a certified court interpreter—one of the profession’s highest skill levels. 

Jeff found the balance of information and hands-on practice he received in the program especially useful. Small class sizes and group discussions, in-class and take-home assignments, and field trips to live court sessions helped Jeff refine his interpretation skills and achieve greater speed and precision over time. Perhaps the most valuable aspect, he says, was the ongoing guidance and feedback from instructors.

“The instructors are real-life practitioners who know the industry,” says Jeff. “If you want to get a job or get more experience, they have the resources. It’s not only a learning experience, but also a socializing and networking experience.”

For Jeff, interpreting is not simply a skill, but also an art form—a performance: 

“When an interpreter is translating, there’s no word-for-word interpretation. An expression in one language doesn’t always have an equivalent in another language. You have to preserve the meaning, while also finding the most suitable answer in a flash. It’s a precision job that requires a lot of concentration.”

In addition to focusing on the task at hand, interpreters have to preserve the emotion behind certain words or expressions.

“Those people that were communicating never actually spoke to each other,” says Jeff. “They were always talking to you. You have to be a bridge. But also, your role is not to be centre-stage. You have to disappear. You have to make them feel like they’re actually talking to each other. There’s a delicate balance you have to achieve.”

Today, Jeff not only feels more prepared to handle the calls he receives at work, he is also committed to his ambition of becoming a certified court interpreter. Having completed the Legal Interpretation and Translation Certificate, he’s now one key step closer to reaching his goal. 

"You have to be a bridge. You have to make them feel like they're actually talking to each other. There's a delicate balance you have to achieve."

More about Jeff

What did you want to be when you grew up?

An astronaut, like every other kid! My parents were semi-diplomats who were in Russia most of the time. I probably inherited some of their ability. I actually came to Canada after high school to study agriculture, but eventually decided to pursue my language learning abilities.

What are you currently reading?

A book about the modern history of China, set in the 1900s.

What’s one food you would never give up?

Any kind of noodles. Not just Chinese noodles, but also Italian pasta, Japanese udon, etc.

If you could hang out with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be?

My grandfather. He had already passed away before I was born. I didn’t get to meet him. I would ask him questions about where I come from. I could know myself better by knowing him better.

Do you have any hidden talents or special interests?

I love anything electronic or mechanical. Ever since I was a kid, I tinkered with my toys and took them apart to see what made them tick. During university I bought and sold used cars. I also subscribe to Popular Science and Popular Mechanics. Anything related to IT or gadgets is my secret passion.