When your colleague in the booth is not very good. A serious dilemma.

September 9, 2013 § 20 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

I was once faced with a professional, ethical, and moral dilemma: The person working a conference with me was barely at the minimum level required to do a good job.  Those of you who know me personally and the ones who regularly follow this blog know that I am not a “softie” when it comes to rendition. You know that I value my professional standing above everything else.  Well, on the occasion I am about to tell you I did something that I normally don’t.

I was hired to do a four-day conference by an agency that I had worked for several times before. It was not one of my all-star agencies, but we had a good professional relationship: They offered interesting assignments, had a technician on the premises, good pay, and paid on time.  When they offered this particular conference I had just come back from a very demanding trip abroad. The topic was interesting and the facility was great so I accepted. I asked for the name of my colleague in the booth and they told me they didn’t have one yet. I didn’t think much of it and I soon forgot.

About a week before the assignment I received an email from the agency with all of the conference materials. They gave me the name of the interpreter I was to work with. I was busy with other projects so I did not bother calling this colleague to see who she was. Finally, about 2 days before the event I was having dinner with another colleague who knows everybody because she has been around for as long as I have. She said she didn’t know this interpreter. When I got home I looked her up online and I saw that she had many of the right professional memberships, a profile online, and a website. I thought everything would be fine.

As it is my habit, on the first day of the event I showed up early to check the equipment and the booth. She was already there. I didn’t recognize her. We talked for a few minutes. She mentioned several colleagues I knew well, so once again I assumed everything would be OK.

Because of seniority she asked me to start and I agreed. After the first 30 minutes she started her rendition and she scared me to death. She was way behind the speaker, she was leaving many things out, she was missing or misinterpreting essential information, and more importantly, I realized she did not understand the presentation! She knew that she was way out of her league and looked concerned and embarrassed. It was clear that she cared about the job.

After the first two shifts we had our first break and needless to say I was on the phone with the agency demanding another interpreter. They said it would happen, but not until the following day.  After this conversation I considered my options: I could be miserable for the rest of the day while at the same time accomplishing very little; or I could be open and cooperative, support her during her rendition, and provide a better service to the client. I opted for the second choice. I armed myself with patience and understanding and I went back to the booth.  Of course, at that time my feelings towards the agency were such that it would make Jack Nicholson in The Shining look like Mr. Rogers.

We got through the morning with me taking over the microphone many times when she lost the presenter. Then came lunch time. As I was getting ready to leave the booth and look for the best possible single-malt in that part of town, she looked at me and told me with watery eyes: “I know I am doing a bad job but I know I can do it. I have what it takes and I need the money. Please give me a second chance.”  She asked me if we could have lunch together. During lunch she worked very hard; she asked me many questions, took notes and studied the afternoon’s program. I detected a real desire to turn things around.

She did better that afternoon. After work she told me her life story. I heard how she had put her kids through college; how she helped her folks, and how she had a second job in order to make ends meet.  That night as I was dining with some friends the phone rang: it was the agency telling me they hadn’t been able to get somebody else. At this point, after facing the impossibility to get a replacement, I decided to continue the conference with this colleague who had never done a conference in her life but had demonstrated a desire to learn and improve.

The days went by and she improved every day. By the fourth day she knew the terminology, understood the issues, and she was interpreting all relevant parts. We finished the conference. The client was very happy with the interpretation. The agency was grateful that I played ball and made this event happen, and I was satisfied that I had lived up to my professional, ethical, and moral obligations. My new colleague asked me to sign my book that she had purchased online during the week, and asked me to take a picture with her. I did all that and said goodbye. I have not seen her or heard from her ever since. I want to think that she didn’t give up; that she must be studying and practicing in hospitals and courts. I hope we work together in the booth some day, and then, she will carry her weight and will prove me right because I firmly believe that sometimes you have to bank on your knowledge of the profession, and you always need to teach the new ones how to work. Please tell us what you would do in a situation like this one, and please share your professional “soft-side” stories.

Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

§ 20 Responses to When your colleague in the booth is not very good. A serious dilemma.

  • kaynerlei says:

    The most important fact is that she wanted to learn and improve. That is a reason for me to fully support my colleague. I only give up when people refuse to recognize their own flaws and pretend that they don´t do anything wrong.
    So far I have refused to work with one colleague ever again (a complete and utter nightmare) but I rather not work with some ignorant fools who don´t have the knowledge and/or the Fingerspitzengefühl for the job.

  • Gio Lester says:

    I lived through a very similar story, Tony. My boothmate had never done a day of simultaneous in his life, BUT he knew consecutive. What a nightmare the first time he took the mike!

    I spoke with the technician at the event asking for a replacement. And started taking only 10-minute breaks to get through the day. Except once: The first afternoon speaker told me he was a last-minute schedule change and had not had time to weed out his 2-hour presentation and he had only one hour to cover the material. I hogged the mike. I did not see an option.

    However, during the first break, I approached my colleague and had my suspicions confirmed. Like you, I helped him with the basic techniques – he had the vocabulary, which was a great help, and he was a fast learner. I also suggested a few places he could get some extra training.

    I have had the opportunity to work with him again, and I am happy to say he has greatly improved from that first assignment.

  • Francisco says:


  • Donald Rutherford says:

    I am glad that you handled this problem in this manner.

  • I think you handled it beautifully. BUT from the very beginning, and even “hog the mike” as somebody suggested.
    Here are some suggestions based on our experiences:
    1. A TEAM of interpreters (or translators) is a MUST.- Some agencies ask an interpreter if he/she has a preferred partner. My answer is always Yes, after finding out about the subject. Then I draw from what is now known as “Franco’s Angels”.
    2. Since there is no Perfect Interpreter (expert on all fields and disciplines). we name a Captain of the Team: the one most knowledgable about the subject. My expertise is Technical/Medical.
    3. I learned from a Brazilian interpreter at a Brake Colloqium in Brazil to get out of the booth whe the other interpreter is working. One, to rest, hydrate, bathroom, etc. and the second, respect for the interpreter’s space. How many times was somebody bothered by a “correction”, a better word, etc.? It sometimes can prove to be distracting for both.
    4. The pre-session between interpreters is very important. Agreements on timing, participation, presence, etc. should be worked out ahead of time.
    5. The “weaker” interpreter should take the most general portions of the subject. The “stronger” interpreter should the the hardest ones. Could it be that one participates more than the other? Sure, why not? Some interpreters deman a strict 50/50 participation. I fail to see it from that point of view. To me the audience should get 100%.
    6. I’m sure many Pros have welcomed. at one time or another, the timely participation of another interpreter.
    7. One should be prepared for the unusual. That’s why I strongly believe in pre-teams and pre-sessions.
    Thank you.

    • Gio Lester says:

      Franco, I am not sure I agree that my boothmate should leave as soon as his turn is over, or that I should do the same. The arrangement is made so that colleagues can support each other, and that’s specially crucial on technical assignments. I want to be corrected, I want my colleague’s input: I want to deliver the best performance ever and my colleague’s input might be required to ensure that.

      • Lucas Amuri says:

        How about the call of nature? Your colleague would better be able to support you if s/he takes a break, breathes fresh air and returns energised. I have had senior colleagues object to what I have just written but seen them do it! Without legal protection this profession is now ‘practised’ by literally anybody who speaks two languages yet the two are not the same.

      • Gio Lester says:


        What does the “call of nature” have to do with experience I am yet to find out. That aside, there is a reason we work in pairs and our vocal cords is not the only one – once a colleague chocked on his water. Boothmates are each others support, we don’t have to be glued to our seats: there are restroom and refreshments runs, I have had to go check on specific terminology for my colleagues (company jargon, not found in any glossary), etc.

        In 33 years in this business, very few times have I been left alone for the 30 minutes, and each time was for a very good reason, and a substitute from within the team was appointed “just in case” there was an emergency and my colleague could not return in time.

  • Great job at handling a very stressful situation!

    I was sent to a conference to replace one interpreter who couldn’t handle the speed nor the terminology. He was sent home. I was hesitant to accept because I had not time to prepare, but this agency begged me. When I showed up my booth partner, had horrible BO. He had no glossary, no dictionary, no idea what to say for certain terms, and this was the second day. He’d disappear for an entire half hour and then comeback reeking of cigarettes.

    At the end of the day, I took the program and split the presentations. I told him he needed to study overnight. I went to my room and studied like crazy and found body part images in both languages. He was a nightmare and I didn’t see a willingness to learn.

    We all start somewhere, being generous with our knowledge builds great working relationships that may last a lifetime. Not to mention how good it feels to give.

  • Jeff says:

    I have been exercising my ability to repeat what is being said from recordings in the same language. In the beginning that was almost impossible for me. Learning to listen really well while at the same time speaking is tough. I realize that it will take me some time before I would even consider doing consecutive interpreting in a booth. This is a great cautionary tale.

  • […] Dear Colleagues, I was once faced with a professional, ethical, and moral dilemma: The person working a conference with me was barely at the minimum level required to do a good job. Those of you w…  […]

    • Louise says:

      What you did was admirable both from a professional standpoint and from a human standpoint. Congratulations to you, and to the newbie interpreter who did not give up.

  • Thiago Nascimento says:

    I remember when I first started, not a long ago though, my booth partner was telling me how seasoned he was, some 15 years working as interpreter and stuff, then he asks me how long I had been around, and I was like “er, more like 20 booth hours lol”. Man, that startled him. He tried hogging the mike but I kingly stopped him every time and proved I was capable of doing the job. At the end of the day I even helped him out of a few traps. 🙂

  • Lucy Menezes says:

    Like in other segments, this was a crisis situation you managed in an exemplary manner. Exemplary for all of us, whether long-time or ‘fresh’ interpreters. Both of you showed an extremely positive professional conduct – she, in particular, was humble enough to listen to and learn from you, which demonstrates her value as a person. Good examples to keep in mind (I will)!

  • Suzanne Sandrine says:

    As “fresh interpreter” (trained), I think I am really close to that lady and the way you handle the situation is really admirable and encouraging. Many seasoned colleagues don’t do the same forgetting that everything has a beginning and that young colleagues need a leg up.

  • stopbreakup says:

    Thanks for sharing this moving ‘soft-side” story, I don’t think anyone would have handled it better than you did. So long as someone is willing to learn and humble enough to accept their weaknesses, they deserve support. This doesn’t apply only to our profession but to any field in life. Don’t we all need a push in our lives at some point?

    It’s amazing how you controlled your feelings and gave all the support you could provide. I’m sure you’ll get back the same support and consideration in a way or another, probably in a different area and in a very unexpected way. It’s in giving that we receive!

  • Katarzyna Diehl says:

    Thanks for sharing this story, I guess that many experienced interpreters have been in a similar situation. Regarding this sentence: “After the first two shifts we had our first break and needless to say I was on the phone with the agency demanding another interpreter.” Do you consider this a standard thing to do when your booth partner is not doing very well ? Do you actually tell him that you’re going to call the agency? Anyway, I was happy to learn that everything ended so well.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

What’s this?

You are currently reading When your colleague in the booth is not very good. A serious dilemma. at The Professional Interpreter.


%d bloggers like this: