An Interview with Author Ewandro Magalhaes

I am a conference interpreter with 30 years of experience interpreting for world leaders, pop stars and ordinary people from every walk of life. The list includes heads of State like presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Lula da Silva, and the Dalai Lama.

As a former Chief Interpreter in the United Nations system in Geneva, I helped blaze new trails in the use of technology for the remote, multilingual delivery of language services.

Of the many things I do, writing is what I enjoy the most. It is also what I have done the longest. Putting ideas on paper is a passion that goes as far back as I can remember.

I am the author of fiction and non-fiction works. I contribute regular articles to specialized journals in the field of language, and I have three books in print. My latest book — The Language Game — provides a behind-the-scenes look at one of the most stressful occupations known to man: simultaneous interpreting.

I have also authored two viral TED-Ed Lessons that have been watched millions of time. I am also a TEDx Speaker and international keynote speaker.

I am a national and a permanent legal resident of the United States. I speak five languages and I have lived on three continents before settling with my family in New York City.

Describe yourself in five words

I am a conference interpreter (a.k.a. simultaneous translator), former Chief Interpreter in the United Nations system, writer, and international TEDx speaker. I am also the co-Founder of a startup that is reinventing the multilingual online meeting space.

What fact about yourself would really surprise people? 

I am originally from Brazil. I have lived in California, Washington, D.C., Geneva, Switzerland, and Brazil before settling in New York City with my family. Now, here is a fact that I believe most people will find interesting. My name – Magalhaes – which is almost impossible to pronounce in English, is the original Portuguese name for Magellan (the seaman who first sailed around the globe). So, if you don’t know how to say it, you can call me Magellan. It makes me feel extra proud!

How do you work through self-doubts and fear? 

Fear is an interpreter’s constant companion, and in time you learn to work through it. I do the same when I am writing. At the end of the day, facing one’s fears is an act of reconciliation, rather than confrontation. It is accepting our imperfections and presenting ourselves as a work in progress, in all our vulnerability.

What scares you the most? 

The thought of never changing, daring or going beyond one’s comfort zone. I guess I am the opposite of most people in that regard. I am always moving, always trying new things. It is the only way to live life, if you ask me.

What makes you happiest? 

Spending time with my family (my lovely wife, our three children, our grandson, and Freddie, our little Yorkie (who just turned 15 today!)

Why do you write?

I write to share knowledge and memories, basically. I am not an imaginative fiction writer, but I produce very imaginative and engaging non-fiction (or so I was told). We all have knowledge to share, which could be beneficial for others. It would be a shame and in a way selfish to keep it to ourselves. 

Have you always enjoyed writing? 

I don’t enjoy writing as much as I enjoy ‘having written’ a book or tale that was dying to get out there. What I am trying to say is that I utterly enjoy the feeling once the book is done. But the writing part is often laborious and emotionally packed. It is a rich experience, but not always light.

What motivates you to write? 

I have been privileged with opportunities and challenges that most people would only dream of: living abroad, rubbing shoulders with the powerful and famous (as an interpreter), getting to witness firsthand some historic moments, founding and growing a multi-million dollar company. I feel obliged to share my story. I feel it my duty to help blaze the trail for those who come after me.

What writing are you most proud of?

My first book on interpreting, written in Portuguese (Sua Majestade, o Intérprete) springs to mind. It meant a lot to me, of course, but it meant a lot for the interpreting profession. It was the first book ever written in Portuguese about the craft of interpreters.

I am also very proud of an animated TED video I authored, under the title of How Interpreters Juggle Two Languages at Once (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cXNTArhA0Jg). It has reached over 1.5 million views and it introduced the craft of interpreting to a mass audience.

What are you most proud of in your personal life? 

My biggest success is my family, especially the incredible children my wife and I raised. I say children, but the youngest is now 25! My career is also a source of much pride. I am mission driven, and I took many calculated (and not-so-calculated) risks that eventually panned out. From very modest beginnings in Brazil, I went all the way up to land a job as the Chief Interpreter of a United Nations agency in Geneva and to later quit that job and found a very successful start-up. If anybody had told me as a kid that I would do any of those things, I would suggest having their heads examined.

What books did you love growing up? 

I learned to read on my own (with the help of my fathers battered Remington typewriter) and I spent most of my formative years reading anything I could lay my hands on. Through most of my teens, I was a very avid reader of fiction as well as non-fiction. There were times when I was reading one book a day.

What do you hope your obituary will say about you? 

I find it a bit egotistical to want to be remembered long after we are gone. I don’t have any expectation that my name will survive those who actually shared their space and their love with me. Yet for those, I would like to remain as a positive reminder of someone who tried very hard to be kind, fair, and fun.

Location and life experiences can really influence writing, tell us where you grew up and where you now live? 

I was born and raised in Brazil, and I lived in Brasilia, the country’s capital, until the age of 45, when I then left the country to study. Brasilia is a city built from scratch in the late 1950s as a way to integrate a continental country such as Brazil. By bringing the capital inland, we were able to claim and develop parts of the territory that otherwise would have been claimed by our neighbors in South America.

Now, in my day, Brasilia was pretty much a ghost city, with a population of foreigners living under a rather odd climatic and social atmosphere. It was also a city without crossroads, with everything divided into sectors, and wide enough to discourage any walking. No-one had a template of how to live in a place like that, and we had to write the user’s manual as we went.

That gave us a lot of freedom to explore and carve our own niches. I guess that, in a way, made me the entrepreneur I later became.

But I also traveled the world, with long trips to Africa, Europe, the Americas, the Middle East, and Asia. I have seen a bit of it all.

How did you develop your writing?

I guess at first I just wanted to imitate my father and grow in his image. Dad was a very talented writer of short stories. He was my first and perhaps only role model in writing.

What is hardest – getting published, writing or marketing? 

It used to be getting published, but now, with the advent of Amazon and other online retailers, that it taken care of. So, I would say writing remains as the most laborious, gut-wrenching experience. Marketing is hard enough, but there are rules you can follow. You can’t say that about writing.

 What marketing works for you? 

I do a lot of bulk sales in connection with my speaking gigs. Other than that, word of mouth and some limited online promotions seem to do the trick.

Do you find it hard to share your work? 

Not really. I am often engaged as a speaker, and although I do not talk specifically about the book, I always look for ways to schedule a book signing along with most talks.

Is your family supportive? Do your friends support you? 

My family, especially my wife, is absolutely supportive. I could not do any writing without their understanding and support.

What else do you do, other than write? 

I am a conference interpreter by training. I have spent my life (well, the last 30 years, at least) lending my voice to heads of state and government, pop starts, Nobel laureates, and ordinary people from every walk of life. I translate their speeches in real-time, from English into one of my working languages and back. I have interpreted for 5 Brazilian presidents, 2 American presidents, the Dalai Lama, Lenny Kravitz, Alanis Morrisette, and dozens of prime-ministers and politicians from all over the world.

What other jobs have you had in your life? 

Oh, my. I started as a PE teacher and swimming instructor (I have a BA in fitness and physical education). I then proceeded to land a dream job at the Brazilian Congress, where I stayed for about 7 years. It paid really well, especially for someone in their mid 20s, but I was getting bored out of my mind. I eventually quit that job and started my own business –a translation agency—which I ran and grew for the next 17 years, having my wife as my partner. At the time I grew a lot as an interpreter, and we eventually decided to come to the U.S. for a Master’s degree in interpretation (at the Monterey Institute, in California –now called Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey).

After that I became a high-level diplomatic interpreter, working for the IMF, the World Bank, the State Department, the OAS, and other multilateral organizations. Then came the United Nations (7 years in Geneva) and my experience as a co-founder and Chief Language Officer of KUDO, a language technology company (my current occupation).

Oh, wait… I also worked for Lufthansa Airlines for about two years. Those were fun days, travelling carefree –and for 10% of the lowest fare—anywhere in the world.

If you could study any subject at university what would you pick? 

I love psychology and history. So, one of these two, for sure.

If you could live anywhere in the world where would it be? 

I kind of did! We have been fortunate to live in the most scenic places in the world: Monterey, CA, Washington, D.C., Switzerland, and, of course, Brazil.

But if you ask me where I belong, I will tell you Brazil, hands down.

Tell us about your family? 

I guess I already did. I have been married to Mena, my loving wife, for 30 years. We have three beautiful children (two girls and a boy) and a 6-year-old grandson. Freddie, the Yorkie, is also part of the family. He’s been with us for 15 years.

How do you write – lap top, pen, paper, in bed, at a desk? 

I haven’t used a pen in 20 years. I do all of my writing on a computer (a MacBook Air, these days).

How much sleep do you need to be your best? .

I am good with 5 and a half hours of sleep. In fact, I wake up groggy if I try to sleep beyond that.

Is there anyone you’d like to acknowledge and thank for their support? 

No-one is self-made. As I said, I would not be here without the loving support of my wife and children. I also have a debt of gratitude towards my father, for being such a great role model in writing, and to my mother, who very early on filled the shelves of our home with books, especially poetry. That really left a mark on me.

Every writer has their own idea of what a successful career in writing is, what does success in writing look like to you? 

To me, the most rewarding experience is not in the numbers, but in the feedback I receive from my readers. To hear that I helped them through, or that they felt inspired to change something about their lives, is priceless. I guess, at a deeper level, I write to transform. And those testimonials, that kind of feedback, shows me I am on track.

 It is vital to get exposure and target the right readers for your writing, tell us about your marketing campaign? 

I have none! My readers are mostly interpreters or, more accurately, aspiring translators and interpreters (young men and women who speak different languages and would like to do something with that skill).

Tell us about your new book? Why did you write it? 

The Language Game: Inspiration & Insight for Interpreters is a compilation of stories and advice to anyone who loves languages and looks for ways to apply their skills in the real world. The book is the result of 30+ years of experience as a professional linguist. But it is a very relatable book, with stories and trivia that will appeal to non-interpreters as well. Language is such a fascinating subject! My book unlocks a number of secrets employed by interpreters. It brings the reader into the interpretation booth for a close-up look at one of the most exciting (and most stressful) occupations known to man.

If you could have a dinner party and invite anyone dead or alive, who would you ask? 

I would love an opportunity to catch up with dad. He left us in 2001, still at a very early age. We would have a great time finishing some of the conversations we left pending.

When you are not writing, how do you like to relax? 

I am a former PE teacher, remember? So, relaxing for me equals exercising. If the sun is shining, you will probably find me outdoors, on my bike, running or walking. If it is cloudy, I will probably hide in the gym for some resistance workout.

What do you hope people will take away from your writing? How will your words make them feel?

I hope my improbable journey –of how someone from Brazil, who didn’t speak English until late in his teens, ends up interpreting for kings and queens, at the United Nations and beyond—will excite them and encourage them to pursue their dreams.

I believe my website does a good job of summarizing under one roof a lot of information about me: https://ewandro.com

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