No matter how well-prepared you are, be ready for the unexpected.

April 16, 2013 § 7 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Some months ago I interpreted in a high-profile federal criminal trial that involved very complex issues. Because of the difficult terminology, topic, and importance of the assignment, the colleague that worked as my teammate and I did copious research, studied the subject matter, and developed glossaries and a bibliography. It took months of professional preparation and I believe that we did a very good job. As we interpreted for witnesses during their preparation before trial and we bounced concepts and terms back and forth to develop uniformity and correct any mistakes, I grew pretty confident that we were ready for this assignment.

Once the trial started everything went smoothly for us as interpreters. As we were getting the job done as expected and beyond, it was time for the experts to testify. These expert witnesses were coming from another country, which added an extra layer of complexities to their testimony. It was not just a matter of specialized concepts and terminology; it was a matter of adjusting to a different culture and idiosyncrasy that the experts showed during their testimony preparation. We fully understood this added “curve ball.” Experts testify in the way they feel more comfortable with, and the interpreter should not even suggest that they modify that.  We just had to be on our toes as experts from other countries, for cultural and language reasons, tend to be more formal and solemn than their American counterparts.

I was feeling pretty confident that all preparations and hard work had me ready for the task, so the day when this expert had to testify finally arrives and the expert takes the stand. After some minutes of smooth sailing, he finally dropped the first “interpretation bomb” as he rendered his testimony ceremoniously using words and terms he had not used before. All our research and study did not cover this unexpected lingo.  What did I do from the witness stand at that moment when I heard the first of these words, realized that I had not studied it before, turned back to where my teammate was seating behind me just to see her furiously looking through all the materials we had at our station, and saw the face of the attorneys, judge and jury all waiting to hear my rendition of the answer? First I kept my cool, second, my brain went to work trying to find any coherent contextual meaning to what the witness had just said in Spanish, and third, I opened that “brain vault” where the Latin I studied ages ago had been stored away for decades. All of these brain functions and actions happened within a fraction of a second. All of a sudden, to my absolute surprise, and that of my colleague as well, the correct English version of the term just came out of my mouth! At that time I experienced the same thing that many interpreters and translators have during their careers: a word that I did not know I knew came to the front of my brain and got me off the hook.

These type of testimony continued for days until the expert finished testifying, but from that moment, my teammate and I realized that studying for the assignment is essential, but as important as that part of your preparation may be, you also need to bring other tools to the table: The interpreter needs to be calm, focused on the task, confident that his memory will click at the time it is needed and confident that the other member of the interpretation team will have his back. However, even after all of these elements, the interpreter has to be aware that there are other resources at hand: he can ask the witness for a clarification, or he can just leave the word in the original language (or in Latin if that is the case) As interpreters we just know when it feels right to leave a word in the source language. It is a gut feeling.  Keep in mind that if you did not understand a word or a term, even after all the research and preparation you did, it is likely that the judge, jury and attorneys do not know that term either. Finally, remember that the expert is that: an expert. He is used to people asking for clarification and explanations when he testifies. No matter how well-prepared you are the expert will always know more than you. Everybody knows that; the only things you do know that he does not are the two languages and how to interpret from one to the other.  Please post your comments and maybe your war stories about those instances when you faced a similar situation in the booth, the courtroom, or the hospital.

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§ 7 Responses to No matter how well-prepared you are, be ready for the unexpected.

  • What you experienced is what I now call yoga. After all the years of moving and getting into asanas (postures) on the mat, I finally got it. It is just training to calm down, relax, focus and let your inner knowledge flow. This inner realm is surprising at times and yes, that has happened to me, the moment when you observe yourself from somewhere else and think: where did that come from? We are wiser and more knowledgeable than we know, if we do all the important tasks and learning, but then just let it flow!
    This may be to lalaland for many of my colleagues, but just ponder for a moment…

  • Correction: may be too lala…(not to lalaland, though I’ve been there also).

  • Great post! Very true on so many levels! Jen

    Sent from my Verizon Wireless 4G LTE Smartphone

  • I have clammed up before in a situation like this and was saved by my colleague. The unexpected was a joke I had no idea how to render. Don’t wish these situation on anyone, but if it happens, I hope you are as savvy as Tony, and can negotiate it with the same clarity of mind and poise.

  • 1bettina says:

    Great post! I believe that all conference interpreters would know exactly what you felt and how this “miracle” was possible.. Veronica calls it “yoga” (nice)…I call it “experience”…

  • Kirsty Heimerl-Moggan says:

    Love the post. For me and my colleague the unexpected happened on Tuesday (even after 20 yeas in the business…):
    Pharmaceutical conference, we were interpreting for the webinar broadcast, went in well prepared, of course – and then came the questions from the webinar participants, read out by the heavily regionally accented chair who mumbled. Then we had to interpret the answers given (to the questions we hadn’t heard!) by a very nervous speaker at the speed of lightening. You actually feel your tongue is getting in the way!
    I agree with the above comments: Keeping calm is essential but also experience – because experience tells you that this is simply impossible, so you give it your best shot and that is as much as you can do!

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