Interpreting in an unwarranted hostile environment.

February 4, 2014 § 20 Comments

Dear colleagues:

I am usually welcomed and nicely greeted when I get to the place where I am going to work.  People are willing to help by showing me where I need to go, asking me if I need anything, and so on.  I used to take this for granted until an assignment a few months ago made me realize how lucky and fortunate I am.  Not long ago I was hired by a very big international corporation to interpret for a lecture that one of their speakers was going to give to a group of middle school and high school teachers and parents.  Although I was supposed to work alone, the lecture was going to be about 45 minutes long and the deal was sweet.  I was told by the corporate representative who hired me that the booth and equipment would be provided by the town public schools.  I got the materials for the lecture, I even got paid before the event, so I entered the assignment on my schedule.

A few weeks later when it was time for the job, I arrived at the public schools auditorium in this town.  The corporate representative who hired me was already waiting for me and she introduced me to the speaker.  We talked logistics and asked to see the booth and equipment. The public schools staff directed me to a woman who was sitting on stage doing nothing.  I approached her, introduced myself, and asked her about the equipment.  Without even saying a word she gave me this very angry look and asked me: “who are you?”  I repeated that I was the interpreter for the lecture.  She got up and walking away from me she said: “you can go. We have our own interpreter.”

Because of the way she had addressed me I decided not to continue the conversation.  I went back to the people who hired me instead.  After I told them what had happened the lady who hired me asked me to have a seat while she got everything cleared.  I sat down and looked at the clock on the wall.  We were about 20 minutes away from the event and I had not seen any booth in the auditorium.  Actually, I had not even seen any interpretation equipment.

After some ten minutes the corporate representative came to me and told me that everything was fine, that she had talked to the public schools superintendent and had explained that their practice as a business is to bring their own interpreters because the lecture is very technical.  She told me that the superintendent had agreed, but there was a requirement that we did not know before:  Because this was a public schools facility, they had to use a public schools staff interpreter, not for our lecture but for the rest of the event (greetings, opening remarks by the host presenter, announcements and so on) Moreover, I was informed that there would be no booth, not even a desk top half booth, that I was going to interpret using a portable unit like the ones used in court.  I am a professional and I was not about to leave my client hanging, so I agreed to the new terms.

At this time the same rude woman from earlier headed towards me and told me: “My boss says that our interpreter will do everything except for the part that your people insisted you had to do.” I asked to see the equipment and she told me that the equipment wasn’t there yet, that their interpreter was bringing it to the auditorium and that she had not arrived yet.  This was five minutes before we had to start the event. Parents and teachers were taking their seats, and it was clear to me that many of them were looking for interpretation headsets.  It was at that time that another public schools official approached us to tell us that we had to start because they had other things to do after the event and therefore this could not be delayed.  My speaker looked at me and said: “what do we do?” I looked at her and told her not to worry, that we would start the lecture on the consecutive mode and that as soon as the equipment arrived we would switch to simultaneous interpretation.  I got up from my improvised work station where I had my iPad and a microphone on a table I had to beg for because at first they did not want to let me have it.  They told me that their interpreters did not use a table and did not sit down to interpret.

We started the lecture and about 15 minutes later the public schools interpreter arrived with the portable equipment. After she tested it and distributed it to the Spanish speakers in the audience she handed me the transmitter and I was able to do the rest of the lecture simultaneously.  Towards the end of the lecture the staff interpreter approached me and began to talk really loud. Because I was still  interpreting I was not able to understand or respond to what she said; in fact, she was so loud that I had a hard time maintaining my concentration to hear what the lecturer was saying.  After I finished she just took the transmitter away from me without saying a word.

The audience had an interesting lecture that they all understood. The non-English speakers were able to follow the entire presentation because I interpreted the event, but the speaker and I felt very unwelcomed by the public schools staff.  We both thought that there had been some unwarranted rudeness towards the two of us (she also had an episode because at the beginning they didn’t want her to use their projector for the Power Point presentation)

After I got home that night I reflected on my work and how fortunate I am, and I also thought of all of my colleagues who have to work with poor acoustics, without a booth, and put up with this type of hostility on a daily basis.  It requires a true professional to make an event like this a success.  I ask all of you who presently or in the past have faced such working conditions to please share your stories with the rest of us.

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§ 20 Responses to Interpreting in an unwarranted hostile environment.

  • Karen says:

    It is unbelievable that something like this can still happen! Some people had presumably left their good manners at home.
    I had a similar experience several years ago. The local staff was also unwilling to compromise. Luckily all of us certainly have many positive experiences as well.

  • Me too Tony. I have had a few of these experiences over the years..
    And it makes it very hard to concentrate! But I have always reminded and remind myself “it’s not you Inge, it’s them”. “Nothing to do with you”. I’m also a professional like you Tony, and I will always be one under any circumstance. Professionalism comes before any personal issues.
    Well done Tony, thanks for sharing!

  • alchymie2013 says:

    I’m a paper translator but that does not prevent me from empathising with this dismal experience. I am intrigued about where this event took place. It seems evident that it was in a country in which English is spoken in the British vernacular.

    • Alexander Thomson says:

      It seems evident to me that this happened in the United States. Aggressive public school staff, Spanish-speaking parents numerous enough to know upon arrival that an interpreter is provided … it can’t be anywhere else, can it?

      • Sean Mitchell says:

        Reading the account it didn’t occur to me for one second that it was anywhere else but the United States, if only because that it where an English-Spanish interpreter would most probably be needed. I think alchymie2013 had a bad experience with some Brits and is projecting his/her experience, even though it is counter-intuitive.

  • P Diane Schneider says:

    I previously posted on Linked-in a nightmare assignment where I was provided similar equipment for a conference assignment where hotel employees would be addressed by a group from headquarters. We were to work at two different sites. The first was bad enough as there was no booth and no place to hide away from the participants who walked back and forth talking loudly in my presence. I managed by holding a tablet in front of my face so I could talk into the microphone without side noise interfering and without my voice carrying to those nearby. The second site was on a hotel rooftop in open air though a tent had been set up . The tent was so full I was unable to sit inside and it was very cold. Additionally, it started to rain. One of the employees got me an umbrella and I was able to sit just half-way under the tent top while holding the umbrella. I again held a tablet in front of my face to avoid making participants hear my voice. About half-way into the presentation, a late-arriving employee arrived and sat directly behind me. Then she pounded on my umbrella and demanded I lower the umbrella as she was unable to see. She later complained to the organizers that I was rude.

    • alchymie2013 says:

      Sounds like a job from hell. I commend your patience that you didn’t whack her over the head with the said umbrella 🙂

    • dorothyfelicitous says:

      Reminds me of an experience several years ago, when a memeber of audience angrily burst into our temporary booth (set up in the back of the room) and told us to “stop chatting!”

  • Ralph Dexter says:

    Thanks for sharing Tony. I have felt very fortunate to work for 25 years as an interpreter in an environment that is almost always positive (quite unlike the business and manufacturing world in which I had the misfortune to serve as an engineer and plant manager for 20 years before I discovered interpreting).

  • Thanks for your interesting story. My experience is that interpreting is a job where you must always expect some sort of surprise or change of plan. That’s part of the job. I often feel in Spain that speakers are not aware of the importance of providing the interpreter with material beforehand, but I have never experienced such hostility, thank goodness!

    On the contrary, compared to my experience as a translator, my work as an interpreter has been more often acknowledged and valued (which is really nice; we all need a well-done from time to time).

  • Dear colleagues, I was asked to post the following comment that I received privately:
    “Tony – this is a great post – thank you for sharing. Unfortunately, what you describe is a daily occurrence for community interpreters who regularly are asked to interpret under “conference” conditions with little training, support, or resources. Usually the clients aren’t as rude as that but the results can still be similar because of ignorance about what we do. It is wonderful to see conference interpreters such as yourself shedding light on this aspect of community interpreting, which is still so unacknowledged.” Katharine Allen, Co-President, InterpretAmerica.

  • Khethiwe Marais says:

    I can really appreciate what you went through as I went through a similar experience. Sometime in the mid 1990, I was also asked to interpret for a Senate of the South African Parliament. They were having public hearings on some proposed legislation and were going to different communities for these hearings.

    One of the hearings venue was in Ulundi in KwaZulu-Natal province (KZN) at the legislature of KZN. At that stage there were big tension between the National Government and the provincial Government of KZN and as a result they were not cooperating with the National Government on many political aspects. I think that they had communicated this information to all their administrative staff within the Legislature. The technicians were not allowed to set up the booth and equiptment at the venue. As the Senators were already there, the technician improvised with transmitters, mikes and headphones on the desks. So, before I began to interpret I went to ask for a glass of water and a jug. I was told that we could not have water here, we had to go all the way in Cape Town to ask for water. I also requested information on where the toilets were, and again I was told that they would not provide any toilets here. Needless to say that there were various forms of other hostilities which were directed to us as interpreters and the technicians as I think the administrative staff could not be openly hostile to the Senators (politicians) So, we were the ones to bear the brunt of their hostility. We interpreted without water or any assistance until the session was over and ran out of this venue like bullets at the end of the session.

  • John says:

    I have been in a similar situation and my opinion is that some school districts can become very parochial; they view any “outsider” as an intrusion into their domain.

    My experience was with the local school district: I received a last minute call from one of the agencies I work with that they needed me ASAP as the meeting was already in progress -fortunately it was close to my office.

    Upon arrival I was met by an irate principal who proceeded to berate me for not :bringing in the equipment” and what was my excuse for being “late”. -I explained that I was an independent contractor with XYZ agency. She could care less.

    I proceeded to complete the meeting [PTA] and then when I asked her to sign the service order as required by this agency she wouldn’t do it, citing that since I wasn’t the “official school interpreter” she had no duty to cover my charges.
    Fortunately I have had a long and good working relationship with this agency so my word was sufficient to cover the assignment.

    Later one of the other agents confided in me that they had dropped this particular school from their contract, citing other similar incidents with this one school official.

    Stuff happens, we just need to adjust and improvise.

  • […] Dear colleagues: I am usually welcomed and nicely greeted when I get to the place where I am going to work. People are willing to help by showing me where I need to go, asking me if I need anythin…  […]

  • Sean Mitchell says:

    This seems to happen when you have public servants who don’t see themselves as such, but rather as kings in their fiefdom, and no doubt it goes much deeper than just dealing with interpreters.

  • Julia says:

    Dentro de lo cabe le fue bien a pesar de la falta de profesionalismo del personal del distrito escolar. Animo compañero y para adelante con todo lo demás bueno que si tiene!

  • Edson Lopes says:

    I have been lucky most of the time in dealing with clients, speakers, and public. Interpreting for over 30 years now, I could say that I had equipment problems a few times, lack of material for preparation a number of times, and only once or twice a minor disagreement with organizers. The most frequent difficulty I have faced has been sound quality, which most of the time has been solved by technicians. Thank heavens I now interpret for an organization that not only has the best equipment, but also values interpreters’ work and efforts. I empathize with those colleagues that face the described difficulties, and I wish client education could be more widely spread.

  • Barbara says:

    You certainly faced serious rudeness and a few major challenges. You handled it with dignity, The red tape and nonsense at some public schools can be unbelievable. It makes you want to tell them to think outside the box for awhile.

  • Katarzyna Diehl says:

    This story proves your professionalism and the strength of your character.
    Let me share my worst story. This happened several years ago. The assignment was to do a press conference after a very senior meeting – consecutively. The meeting behind closed doors to which I was not admitted was in progress so we just stood there in the hall and waited and waited: me at the mike and around 100 cameramen and photoreporters with their heavy cameras in front of me. We waited nearly an hour so almost all these gentlemen got truly mad because they still had other jobs to do that day. And in such a pleasant atmosphere the conference began with first an introduction into what had been discussed. Unfortunately, the mikes were situated in such a way that the sound did not go in my direction. I could not hear a single word. That was really an awful experience. As a result of bad acoustics I could interpret only bits and pieces, and it was really a nightmare job. No wonder that nobody else wanted to take it 🙂 If I had been to the meeting I would have at least known what were the main issues raised. But to the meeting I was not invited. I was really upset but I received a lot of support and words of consolation from my colleagues who saw and understood what happened. And this also led to a major improvement in this government office building – since then most press conferences have been done through a conference system which usually eliminates any problems with the acoustics (though, as we all know, not always).

  • […] Not long ago I was hired by a very big international corporation to interpret for a lecture that one of their speakers was going to give to a group of middle school and high school teachers and parents.  […]

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