The ten worst things an interpreter can do to another interpreter. Part 1

June 25, 2013 § 20 Comments

Dear colleagues:

The “ten worst” series is back again. This time I will talk about those actions, omissions, and attitudes of other interpreters that not only annoy us, which they do, but that also affect our professional performance and the image we project to the client and the professional community.  Obviously, and very sadly, a “ten worst” list is not enough to include all the things we see and hear out there when we are in the booth, the courtroom, the hospital, the battlefield, or anywhere else that interpreters are doing their job.  As always, I am writing this with a therapeutic perspective, trying to add some possible solutions to these problems while at the same time creating empathy and inviting a good healthy laugh when relating to these horror stories. Because of the length of this posting, I have decided to publish it in two parts. This is part one. Part two will be posted next week.

Here we go:

  1. Well, that’s what I charged because that is all they wanted to pay and I didn’t want to lose the client. Nothing really bothers me more than an interpreter that doesn’t know how to charge for his or her services.  This is a business where we provide a professional service and those in the field who don’t understand it and don’t want to understand it are not only working towards a life of misery for themselves and their loved ones; they are hurting us all.  The only reason why some of your clients are always trying to get you to work for less than you deserve is because of this group of interpreters who are willing to do anything for practically nothing. This practice influences your local market because there is a cheap alternative competing against you who is ready to take your client away even if they will make very little money. Let me be really clear, I am not saying that we should constantly overprice what we do, although there is nothing wrong with charging any amount a client is willing to pay: it is a contractual relationship, the meeting of the minds. A quick solution would be to sell your services better than those individuals who charge below the market so the client sees the added value you bring to the job.  Long term solution: Educate your market. Make sure all potential clients know the difference between a good interpreter and a person who will charge little and deliver even less. These paraprofessionals will always exist; in most instances just ignore them. They are not in your league. I don’t know about you all, but I am in the business of working little and making a lot of money. I am not interested in working for peanuts every single day. I can think of many other things I can do with my time.
  2. To snatch the microphone away from you or not to let go of the microphone.  It is very annoying and very distracting to work with somebody who is just watching the clock and the moment the big hand gets to half past or to the top of the hour they grab the microphone or turn off your output on the console. Some of them even stick their wrist between your eyes so you can see that it is time for them to interpret totally disregarding the rendition. They just cannot wait until the natural pause happens and the switch can be seamless.  And then you have those in love with their voice and their rendition who never let go. They simply turn their head away or avoid your stare and continue talking.  Of course I know that I will get paid regardless of who did most of the work, but I am also aware of the fatigue factor and I do not want the audience to suffer through a diminished rendition just because of the ego of my colleague in the booth. In these two scenarios a quick, but many times useless, solution would be to wait for the next break and talk it over with your partner, or in the event that you already know that this will happen because you have worked together in the past, politely and professionally set the “rules of the game” even before you start interpreting.  The long term solution to these very disturbing working conditions would be to refuse to work with that colleague in the future and to explain to the client your reasons for the refusal.
  3. To leave the booth as soon as you take the microphone.  To me it is very difficult to understand how some colleagues perceive team interpreting when they leave the booth or exit the courtroom as soon as they are not actively interpreting.  I understand restroom brakes and important phone calls and e-mails; we are a team and I gladly stay alone when my partner needs to take care of one of these situations.  Is it because they do not know that the supporting interpreter is as important as the one actively interpreting? I have a hard time buying this justification when they have been around for some time and have experienced first-hand the benefits of having a second interpreter sitting next to them.  To me it is very simple: They erroneously understand team interpreting as “tag-team interpreting” which is what wrestlers do when they work in teams. I believe the short-term and long-term solutions I suggested for number 2 apply to this scenario as well. I have a word of caution for my new colleagues and friends who just started in this profession and may feel intimidated or uncomfortable when it is the veteran interpreter who abandons the station:  Treat them as equals. You are doing the assignment because somebody thought you were good at this. Even the “big ones” have to do their job as part of the team.
  4. To cancel at the last minute.  This is another one of those practices that hurt you as a professional who has been scheduled to work with this individual, and also hurts the image of the profession.  Of course I am not talking about an emergency when a colleague has to cancel due to a health issue, a family crisis, or an accident.  I am not referring either to the interpreters who cancel because after accepting the assignments they realized that it was way over their head, unless they cancel the day before instead of two months ahead of time. I am talking about those who were offered another job on the eve of your event, and those who are simply irresponsible and unreliable.   This is a very serious problem that can be worse when you are also the organizer of the event or the interpreter coordinator.  A quick solution could be to talk to the interpreter and see why he or she is quitting at the last minute. Sometimes the reasons can be addressed and corrected (a hotel they dislike, a flight at an inconvenient time, etc.) occasionally a good pep talk can fix it (a last-minute panic attack because of the importance of the event or the fame of the speaker at the conference) and sometimes the cancelling interpreter may agree to start the event while you get a replacement.  A long term solution in this case is a no-brainer: Never work with this person again. Black-list this individual, and if necessary and if the contract allows it: sue him.   It is not wrong to cancel an assignment because you got a better offer to do another job. What is wrong is to cancel at the very last minute.
  5. To refuse to help the new interpreters.  Our job is a personal service. I am hired to interpret because the client wants me to do it; not just anybody to do it. They want me.  I understand and value the fact that getting to the top takes a lot of work, many years of dedication, a devotion to what you do. I applaud those who got to the summit and use it as a marketing tool.  I also love to work with them. It is a pleasure.  Unfortunately, some of these great interpreters do not like to share their knowledge and experience with the new generation.  I have seen, and heard, of instances where the masters of the profession ignore and mistreat the newcomers. They keep the secrets of their trade close to their chest as if afraid that once known, they could be turned against them.  This very real situation creates a nightmare for those scheduling the interpreters for an event and could result on the loss of a client.  As a short-term solution you can talk to the veterans and explain that you need them for the quality of the rendition, and for the same reason, you need them to teach the new interpreters how to work like a superstar, and you need them to help the often nervous newcomers to feel at home in the booth or the courtroom so they can also learn and perform.  Because most veterans are wise and love the profession, the same strategy, at a larger scale, can be part of the long-term solution, together with a campaign to educate and empower the new interpreters so they feel that they also belong in the booth.

These are my first five. Next week I will post the other five. In the meantime, I invite you to share your stories, anecdotes and opinions regarding this part of our professional practice.

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§ 20 Responses to The ten worst things an interpreter can do to another interpreter. Part 1

  • I was a Newbie then on an exciting big audience assignment. My older colleague let’s me begin (not nice to a newbie). In my excitement I whack the microphone into gear as the IBM CEO begins to address the world – and the damn pink Sony Mike-knob breaks off and flies over the console and dissapears beyond retrieve into a gordian knot of cables under the desk.
    As I fumble with a pen to turn on the microphone and die a thousand deaths while the speaker is well under way, my older colleague powders her nose.
    Today i lough hard – but who DOES that to a Newbie? seriously!

  • P Diane Schneider says:

    I resent interpreters who present themselves as qualified and appear in court, then not only are unable to interpret accurately, but seem unaware of proper courtroom dress and protocol. I remember one who asked me something about interpreting, and since he was already in the courtroom, I suggested he at least tuck in his shirt, and that he observe the other male professionals in the courtroom and seek to dress accordingly in the future. Later I saw him sitting with one of the defendants carrying on a conversation, obviously not sight-translating a document, in full view of everyone present in court that day. I suggested we talk, but he was no longer interested in talking to me at all. I heard other interpreters complaining about his inadequate command of the Spanish language afterward. I later learned that at another court he caused a mistrial and may well have been blacklisted by the court. Of course these individuals degrade that professional image we are making efforts to portray.

  • duangtip says:

    Love yr article . Soooo true..cost cutting , microphone hogging, cancelling for better jobs , wandering off or falling asleep, not sharing info and worst of all trickery, using a novice or relative as a booth dummy, claim of a non-existent third language in CV, pretext of illness to name a few.

  • I would rather we concentrate on what goes great in the profession rather than what annoys us.

    • Chris says:

      Jonathan, when you go to see the doctor, you don’t tell them what does NOT hurt, you tell them what’s wrong, don’t you? This text is a brilliant diagnosis of what’s wrong with our profession these days. I would very much like to read a text you write about what’s great, but that is not the purpose of this text. Hats off to the author, by the way.

    • Aude-Valérie Monfort says:

      Well, after reading more and more comments on this blog I come to the conclusion that we seem to forget that when we write or talk about interpreters, we in fact write and talk about ourselves. WE are the ones behaving in the booth, nobody else. As for going to the doctor to expose all your problems (see Chris’ comment below), one does it with the expectation that he prescribes you a remedy. In our case, who can help us unless we do it ourselves? So far, only issues have been mentioned, no remedies. So I can only agree here and suggest to focus on the positive and thus spread a positive spirit in the booth. By the way, I have been working for 24 years and can only report on the great collegiality, support and sense of humour of my colleagues. Have I been particularly fortunate? I do not think so.

      • Janeth says:

        Aude, could you tell us where the alleged paradise you talk about is located? By the way, you said you have been working for 24 years, does this mean you have traveled around the world and are well informed of what goes on in other places? Also…I wonder if you have you taken the time to look for other valuable posts Tony has kindly shared with us…I believe you will find plenty of solutions/ideas/suggestions there.

        Tony, thank you so very much for another interesting blog! Thanks to your professional and knowledgeable posts we get to learn what goes on in our profession and learn form it; thank you! Your generosity and kindness are appreciated by many! Do keep up the great job you do to benefit others, please!

    • Masud Hasnain says:

      Please read the title of this blog before criticizing. Therefore, the objective of this article is as the title states: “The ten worst things an interpreter can do to another interpreter”. The objective is met.

      If you want to be an ostrich, please be my guest, I will not disturb you.

  • Estela says:

    Jonathan Downie, why don’t you write the column exactly to your liking? Just let us know where to read it. It is easy to critize, hard to create!

  • Estela says:

    I definitively believe that by pointing out “the bad and the ugly” serves as a reference to do a little bit of soul search. Knowing the difference between good and bad can guide our journey in translation or interpretation or in any area, and it helps us avoid and perhaps mend those behaviors that are detrimental to our profession and to us. If we concentrate only on the “good/beautiful/happy” (that we all carry within, as human beings, I hope), then we won’t have a real framework to base our performance on and to improve upon.

    Hence the problem with so many Healthcare interpreters that I work with. Not because I am all great and lovely, but because I have invested in improving my skills, education, opportunities, and so forth. Once they get a job -and they do, sadly often- they never grab a book again, nor consult a glossary, or learn new terminology, or ask questions, nor attend a class or a seminar. They only engage in criticizing doctors on the basis that they don’t know what they’re prescribing (!) My colleagues, are arrogant, they believe that with their little, basic education and observation know more than someone who actually went to college, got an education, has many years of service under strict supervision, and continues to attend classes as a prerequisite to keep his/her employment!!! (Yes, there are a lot of ignorant healthcare interpreters out there, and they seem to be under the impression that they are all great and wonderful by virtue of coming from another country (!). In addition, they seem to be under the impression that is OK to make this type of assertions (but again, nobody has taught them right FROM wrong).

    Those who deny reality might be because they see their reflection on it.

  • Yilda says:

    I agree about helping the new generations, but at the same time, I have had to share the booth with new interpreters who think that the veteran is going to do their job and, therefore, they study nothing or close to nothing. Some times they do not even know what button to push to take over. I propose to establish differential rates for apprentices and for veterans. It should be said upfront who is who, and be paid different fees. One thing is to help a colleague who needs to cough or suddenly got stomach ache, or who is having difficulties with a tough accent, and something else is to do the job of someone who is not prepared for the task but is making the same money as the veteran.

    • Aude-Valérie Monfort says:

      In some countries, among sign language interpreters, the practice is to take novices on board with the rest of a team made of experienced SLIs. Novices are paid less, but more importantly, they can make their first steps into the profession supervised and advised, not having to undertake long and difficult assignments right from the beginning and fall on their nose. It is more like an apprenticeship period. Only after a certain amount of hours/days work will they be let on their own. Perhaps we should consider developing this practice in other interpreting settings?

  • Ana says:

    The hysterical and the constant complainer.

    The hysterical will want the light just so or they get a headache. using a laptop will ruin their concentration. Must you really? Are you at least doing something that is work-related? Because they can’t possibly work next to someone whose fingers are moving. Do not turn a page. Do not pour water. You’re allowed to breathe. Very quietly.

    The complainer keeps up a constant whine about speakers. All are awful. They can’t talk. They have accents. They’re reading. It’s too fast/slow. These interpreters huff and puff and sigh their way through their half hour until you want to throttle them. They don’t seem to realize colleagues see right through the ploy.

  • JC says:

    What about those Interpreters who accept an assignment (as a team leader!) and arrive so sick with a contagious disease that they rely heavily on their booth partner (who, although she is paid the same fee,ends up doing a lot more work) on top of taking the risk of contaminating the whole team and any client and who hasn’t prepared for a medical conference (!) since she was so ill?!? Very thoughtful and professional isn’t it?
    Or the one (same person, same conference) who tells the client that he was “right to go through that agency” as he’s sure to get a professional service that way although said agency didn’t even take the trouble of sending any preparation documents other than the contract and draft program to the interpreters (and told the client that that was all that was needed!…

  • As a young translator, it was impossible for me not feel extremely inspired. . I will certainly let everyone know on this blog when that happens. Any translator will find the material extremely interesting and diverse.

  • Aga TEIXEIRA-VAZ says:


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