Interview with Susan Vo – Part 1

By Jonathan Goldberg

Note from the editors: We are taking the unusual step of presenting this interview of interpreter Susan Vo by Jonathan Goldberg in two parts, the first covering her early life and introduction to the interpreting profession, and the second covering her work as an interpreter at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. Publishing the interview in two parts also resolves the issue of length: as it stands, the text is quite a bit longer than our limits for articles, which we set for online readability.

While the two halves of this long interview reveal Vo’s depth as an interpreter, each can stand alone in its own right. The insights she shares in Part 2 were directly influenced by her early life. Growing up in a culture other than her own, which she knew only secondhand through her parents and other refugees, she came to understand her Vietnamese birth culture more fully by comparison with that of her adopted country (Canada). This might well have given her the perspective that made her capable of an ethical approach to persons who had done great harm: no culture is without its moral outliers.

We see the parallels between Vo’s professional life and the panel discussion about ethics in interpreting conducted by 6 experienced interpreters at the NCTA September 8 General Meeting. The panel was held in response to the impassioned discussion about the role of interpreters in crucial political meetings, sparked by the circumstances surrounding the Putin–Trump summit earlier this year. The Khmer Rouge Tribunal took place after the fact; the Helsinki summit between two world powers has portent for the future. Part 1 of this interview reveals how Vo reached an understanding of differences between cultures; Part 2 brings the past into the present and the future, emphasizing the importance of skill and ethical stance in interpreting.

You can find part 2 here. A French translation of this interview is available on Jonathan Goldberg’s blog, Le mot juste en anglais, here.

How the journey began

Susan Vo Headshot

Susan Vo

At the age of 1 month, you fled war-torn Vietnam, together with your parents, in a fishing boat headed for Singapore; from there your family made its way to Calgary, Canada, where you were able to build new lives. Is there any part of your heart that you feel has remained in Asia?

My knowledge of Vietnam had been limited to hearing secondhand accounts, speaking the language, and living the culture in a strictly family context while growing up in Canada.

Growing up, I always felt a kinship with that part of Asia, and my experience as a young adult confirmed that when I first visited Vietnam in my 20s.

Boatman Mekong Delta Vietnam

Mekong Delta, Vietnam
Photo credit: ID 17381078 © Luciano Mortula |

What struck me about the region and has been continually reaffirmed throughout the years of travel: its richness. There is a richness in culture, a history that oscillates between the tortured and the sublime, and an energy that pulsates throughout the region, matched by people’s desire to move forward and embrace the future. It’s a dichotomy that I—and I think most people—inhabit: building on our natural make-up and straddling between the sum of our experiences as we open ourselves to new learning and embrace the unknown. So I wouldn’t state that part of my heart remains there, but rather that what the country represents occupies an important space in my own heart. I suppose on a much more primary level, I love Vietnamese food—Italian comes within a hair’s breadth—and adore living in a hot tropical climate. Something can be said for that!

Your communication with your parents and other relatives who followed you to settle in Canada has principally been in spoken Vietnamese (Tiếng Việt). I was surprised to learn from you that written Vietnamese (Quốc ngữ 1), although a non-Khmer language, adopted a Romanized alphabet in the seventeenth century, which later facilitated the spread of literacy during the French colonial period.

The legacy of the French in codifying Vietnamese with the Latin alphabet, based on earlier works of Portuguese missionaries, and the push to expand it as the national script in later centuries, accounts for the country’s success in achieving mass literacy. This in part, I think, is a testimony to Vietnam’s characteristic resilience. Education became more widespread when this writing system was adopted, and teaching and communication became more expedient. As a result, you have more people who are more literate. It’s a basic rule that applies to any society. But this education also reinforced a true love of literature and of learning, which I also believe are national traits.

To fast-forward to today, is the French influence still able to resist the domination of English as the primary foreign or international language?

Remnants of the French language exist within the Vietnamese language. Standard Vietnamese uses a good amount of words borrowed from the French (for example, búp bế, poupée, doll; bê tông, béton, concrete), and fragments of the culture are present in the country’s architecture and traditions. However, nowadays, as in many countries, English is likely the first language people choose to acquire to communicate across the broadest range possible.

Education and early career

You turned your love of languages into a profession. What gave your career a kick-start?

During my student days as a history major I worked as a page in the Senate of Canada, where I came across interpreters working in the booth and was both beguiled and bewildered by the skills and performance aspect of the job. The following year, I was studying abroad in Brussels, at Institut libre de Marie Haps, which happened to be right across from the European Parliament. I took an introduction to interpreting course and discovered the thrill of interpreting. I found the mental dexterity required and the power of being entirely truthful to what was being communicated both stimulating and intriguing. This profession actually combines many loves—love of language, history, and culture—because an interpreter has a privileged vantage point from which to view current events of contemporary life. From a macro perspective, we are part of situations, albeit passively, that are relevant and will form history. From a micro perspective, when interpreting for someone and for an audience, one must have a very real and deep understanding of where they’re coming from, how they use their words, what they want to achieve—that’s where anthropology, and even a bit of psychology come into play. It is always changing and one is always learning. After Europe, I finished my degree and returned to Canada to complete my master of conference interpreting at the University of Ottawa.

To obtain your accreditation, you went on to interpret for the Canadian Parliament as a staff member. You found yourself in the eye of the hurricane when the world economy, including Canada’s, went through a tumultuous time in 2009. Can you elaborate on that?

Canadian Parliament Ottawa

Canadian Parliament, Ottawa
Attribution: © Can Stock Photo / rabbit75can

Working in Parliament and for its various committees that cover all manner of public policy at the start of my career was a privilege. It was both the training and building-ground to foster what every interpreter needs: versatility, confidence, and support. I was still a very new interpreter when the financial crisis was well underway—it started in 2007, really, with the subprime mortgage crisis and the ensuing collapse or near collapse of many investment banks. I was the resource interpreter for the House of Commons Finance Committee in 2009, and by then, the effects of the global downturn were wreaking havoc. The Committee undertook a study to examine the stability of the financial system, hauling before it a line-up of CEOs, fund managers, and experts. The bilingual hearings were televised nationally, written about in the media—all during a time of collective anxiety. But situations like these force interpreters to summon their best. And that’s how I felt. The profession of interpreting was having a brief moment in the limelight too—this context being quite different from that of diplomatic interpreting or UN General Assembly deliberations. In this case, we were holding tense hearings, talking numbers, very technical financial concepts and terminology, high stakes, dealing with big egos and angry voices. The takeaway: stay calm and prepare…and prepare some more.


1. chữ Quốc ngữ, literally “national language script” in Vietnamese.

Stay tuned for part 2!