When relay interpretation does not go as planned.

March 11, 2013 § 3 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Not long ago I worked an event that required interpretation into multiple languages, there were many colleagues in their respective booths working hard and doing a magnificent job. Because of the constant switching from one language to another, we had to work the relay for most of the event.   Relay interpreting is a resource used in conference interpreting when there is more than one language combination.  The speaker delivers the message in his native language and that statement is simultaneously interpreted into English by the interpreter who works the speaker’s language.  This interpretation is fed to all the other interpreters in the other booths who immediately deliver their rendition of the English interpretation to their listeners.  It is a simultaneous interpretation of the rendition by the interpreter who simultaneously interpreted the original statement by the speaker.  Sounds complicated? Well, it can be.

This interpretation is common and vital in our very globalized society, and many experienced interpreters do an excellent job. Very often the listener does not even realize that there has been a relay.  However, this complicated synchronized work has many “moving parts” that could go wrong without a warning.  During the event I am referring to everything went fine, but I have had my share of problems when resorting to relay interpreting.  Sometimes the equipment malfunctions in the other interpreters’ booth,  in some instances it could be that the equipment in your booth is not working, the sound is poor, the relay button is stocked.  In other occasions the original foreign language speaker is not very good at public speaking and makes it difficult for the first interpreter to interpret and the rendition comes in choppy and late;  Perhaps the original interpreter simply forgot to open the relay switch and the other booths cannot hear what he or she is interpreting, and every once in a very while the original interpreter is not ready to do this type of work.

These situations have to be solved by you and your colleague in the booth. Sometimes a quick tap on the wall is enough to get the other booth’s attention, often a little adjustment by the tech support fixes the problem, but in some cases there is not a quick fix.  You have to think fast when faced with this situation. I have been in booths where my colleague or even myself happen to speak the third language   as a “B” and we just move along while the technical problem is fixed, occasionally you can become the relay interpreter or take the feed from a third booth where somebody knows the language.  I have been in situations where the original interpretation coming in from the relay booth is so poor that we have decided to go with our “B” instead of ruining the event.  Sadly, sometimes I have been left with no other choice than informing my listeners that we have a problem and the participation by those who speak certain language will not be interpreted until further notice.  I ask you to share your experience with this type of situation, and maybe tell us how you solved the problem when that happened to you.

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§ 3 Responses to When relay interpretation does not go as planned.

  • Bora says:

    Thanks for putting such issues out there for everyone to read, share and discuss, Tony. This may be one of the most frustrating things in simultaneous interpretation, as the first explanation in the audience member’s mind is an interpretation problem rather than a technical problem. I have had similar experience with highly skilled Serbian-English interpreters at the ICTY (International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia) in The Hague, where I did simultaneous English-Albanian interpretation on relay from their Serbian-English simultaneous interpretation. The good thing was each of us had next to us a colleague who worked the same languages we did, who would run and try to fix the issue (or warn someone) whenever there was a technical issue. You have to be absolutely focused, swift and resourceful, though, in order to make sure everything is resolved smoothly.

  • duangtip says:

    I agree that relay interpretation can present problems, particularly when the pivot is not up to the task. Once I had to do a relay from one obscure language to another (mine) via English. The pivot was giving out rather incomprehensible statements which I had to interpret as best I could. It turned out that the speaker was confused owing to a fatal ailment and the pivot admitted to me later that he did not understand the speaker much. What could one do under the circumstance? Not much I’m afraid.

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