An interpreter’s worst nightmare: What to do?

February 22, 2016 § 7 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Like all human beings, interpreters have fears and concerns. Everybody has experienced adverse situations and tough times, and nobody wants to be in that situation ever again.  We all worry about getting sick, having no money, experiencing loneliness, suffering a tragic accident, having serious problems at home, and so on. This is normal, and in fact, the possibility of facing one of these scenarios worries most individuals, not just interpreters.  Then, we have the career related concerns: losing your job, not getting any assignments, losing your hearing or your voice, fighting with the bad agencies and unscrupulous colleagues, dealing with morose clients who only pay every other leap year, and many others.  All these things make us miserable, most of them will never happen to us, and if they do, they will likely come into our lives as a “light version” of the problem; but we worry nevertheless.

Everything mentioned above has the potential to keep us up all night and make us lose our appetite, but not one of them can be truly referred to as our worst nightmare.  You see, talking to many colleagues all over the world throughout the years, and reflecting on my own personal fears, I have seen how the things that impact us more, strictly from the professional perspective, are those situations where we cannot perform as expected and, on top of the professional failure, we go through professional embarrassment.  We have all experienced situations when a certain term, word, or fact that we know (or should know) does not come to mind.  This is usually cause for concern, and more so when it happens often or for a fairly long period of time.  For the most part this is taken care of by a note or a whisper from our booth mate with the right term, word, or facts. We correct ourselves, nod at the colleague with a “thank you” gesture, shake up the embarrassing uncomfortable episode, and move on.

The facts I just described above are part of the interpreter’s nightmare, but they are still missing the coup the grace. For this to turn into a horrendous situation, the interpreter’s mishap has to be in public. This sense of embarrassment and professional shame will make you want to shrink to the size of an atom and disappear for the next twenty centuries.  Let me share a story that I witnessed first-hand:

I was retained to work an important high-profile assignment that was going to take place at a country’s top military facility. The name of the country will remain undisclosed for professional courtesy reasons.  The event was attended by people, including many journalists, of about eighty different countries, so there were many interpreters in many language combinations.  On this occasion I had the fortune to work with an excellent colleague, and although I did not know all of the other interpreters, I also recognized many of the other colleagues at the event who had been hired to work other language combinations.  The event presented two tasks for the interpreters: We had speeches and presentations that were to be interpreted simultaneously, but at the end of every high-profile speaker’s presentation there would be a question and answer period that had to be interpreted consecutively.  Interpreters had a table at the end of the stage, and one interpreter from each language pair was supposed to go to the table for the questions while the other interpreter remained in the booth for a simultaneous rendition of the answers. If necessary, interpreters were to rotate every thirty minutes.

The presentations were very technical and many of the questions were more of a political statement by journalists from foreign countries, as it often happens in these events. Throughout the day, my colleagues did a superb job in the booth and with the consecutive rendition at the table. Things were smooth until a journalist, from a country where a language other than English or Spanish is spoken, asked one of this “political statement” type of questions. The question was long, but nothing different from what the others had been asking, and definitely something an interpreter at that level should handle without any trouble.  Once the question was posed, the interpreter looked at her notes and started her rendition. Once she started her interpretation, I noticed that she was not saying what the journalist asked; I am not an expert in this other language, and I would never dare to add it to my language combinations for the booth, but I noticed a big mistake; in fact, as the interpreter was interpreting back the question, I looked at one of my other colleagues who also understands the language at a level like mine or better, and her face told me that I was right.  As the interpreter was speaking, the journalist who asked the question got up from his seat in the audience and without a microphone shouted: “…That is not what I asked. The interpreter is wrong. She did not understand the question, so I will repeat it in English…“  The interpreter sat there quietly, she did not make any noise. She lowered her head and stayed there while the journalist repeated the question in English.  The next few questions were in different languages, so this interpreter did not have to intervene anymore.

Dear friends and colleagues, this is an interpreter’s worst nightmare: to make a mistake and be corrected by the person you are interpreting for; to know that this person, who is not an interpreter and does not speak the target language at a level comparable to yours, is right and you were wrong; to have this all happen during a very high-profile event, and for this to be witnessed by many of your colleagues who work at this very top level of the profession.

In this case the interpreter did not do anything, she did not defend her rendition; she did not ask for clarification of something she did not understand; she did not apologize; she did not get up and leave; she did not cry; she did not ask for her booth mate to replace her; she just remain there, sitting with her head lowered and her hands on her lap.

I did not know this colleague, although I believe that I had seen her in the booth a couple of times before. I do not know if she is new to the profession, which I doubt because no newbies start at the level of the event where this happened.  I do not know if she is a great interpreter, or if this was not her preferred language pair; I do not even know if she was ill, or going through a personal crisis at the time of the incident. All I know is that she had to endure this interpreter’s worst nightmare, and she handled it by staying there, quiet, without moving a finger.

After the event ended I tried to see if those who knew her best were approaching her to show their support, or to show their contempt as it happens sometimes, but no one did. She continued acting as if nothing had happened for the rest of the day, and for the next few days that we worked together at the event.

That night at the hotel, I thought about the incident and wondered how I would have reacted to that situation. I could not tell for sure.  I do not know.  Maybe she checked her rendition as soon as she could to make sure she was truly wrong; maybe she reached the journalist who asked the question and apologized afterwards; maybe she talked to the event organizer and explained what had just happened; maybe she cried with a dear colleague in private; maybe she realized that she was not ready for these events yet.

That night I fell asleep with two certainties: That we are all vulnerable to a situation similar to what happened to this colleague, and that nobody really knows how they are going to react when faced with this horrendous scenario; all we can wish and hope is that it never happens to us and that if it does, our training and experience will guide us to the best reaction to minimize the damage caused by our mistake and to control the negative effects this could have on our professional careers.  I now invite you to tell us about your worst interpreter’s nightmare and how do you think you might react if something like this happened to you.

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§ 7 Responses to An interpreter’s worst nightmare: What to do?

  • Bob Feron says:

    I know of a similar real-life situation, which may have actually been even worse for the interpreter. This occurred at a plenary session of a major international organization, where dozens of countries were represented. One of the major countries was represented, at that session, by an Ambassador who was also a former President of his country. At one point, after listening to an interpreter’s translation of a speech being given in another language, when it was the former President’s opportunity to speak, he said roughly these words:
    “I’d like to say that the interpreter who is translating into the language of my country is totally incompetent and should not be permitted to work as an interpreter!”
    Hearing these words, the interpreter in question silently stood up, left the interpreting booth, walked out of the plenary session and didn’t return.
    Unfortunately, this really did happen, but I prefer not to say where and when. This story was told to me by an interpreter who was present on that occasion (which I was not).
    — Bob Feron

  • These realities are why we should NEVER enter the “ring” at less than 100% ability and 0% distraction. Olympic athletes, opera singers, navy pilots landing on a carrier, etc. are all examples of other professionals who do the same. What we do is extremely important, and we should not try to do it when we are struggling with something.
    I almost had a worst nightmare not too long ago, when I was utterly exhausted after driving about 12 hours, barely getting enough sleep, and upon arrival, being told that I would be the lead interpreter on a totally televised murder trial! Thankfully, my colleague was a consummate professional and suggested (and I agreed) that I rest some before interpreting at the witness stand. Things went well.
    In over 7,000 assignments, I’ve learned that the “battle” is won, not at the moment, but the night before and the day before, etc.
    Oh, one of my “best moments” was over a decade ago when I was about to interpret inside a booth at a German company’s largest facility in the world, and moments before the German CEO started speaking with an extremely thick German accent in English, I spilled a huge mug of coffee on my suit! I sucked it up and interpreted! The suit was pitch black in color, so the coffee didn’t show!

  • Oh my God! This is definitely the interpreter’s worst nightmare!! I don’t know how I would react if I were in her shoes… I saw another similar case on TV when Mourinho, who was sat hearing the consecutive interpretation of his speech, suddenly stood up accusing the interpreter not to say what he had just said. I would die from shame…that’s for sure!

  • Ivelina Vaykova says:

    The very big expectations for the “bilingual” interpreters are the cause many events are not prepared for such “nightmares”. Years ago I did participate at a conference where “anything not written should not be interpreted” and one delegation did not prepare for this giving their statement in the last moment only to the chairman. When they asked to be translated the chairman stopped us and explained to everybody that thay had to be prepared for this as required and not put the decisions of the commetees in such situation to make decisions only on the basis of last-minute-translation. Well such high-level events have to prepare even for the journalists’ participation with questions written before in order to be correctly translated, understood and answered. The same way I did feel when a pleader in the court began to read very fast and did not take in consideration that it could not be translated correct and in due time to the defendants. I did try first to translate all in a way that the defendant would understand but it was impossible since half of the sentences were references to some articles in the law/s she did repeat without explanation. Sure, everithing she did read was corect and clear to the judge. Sure I did translate the most part of it but for sure the defendant did not get 1/10 from all. When I did ask this lawyer before the trial to give me to read and clarify her speech she did not give it to me stating that it is not correct and too late. Should I ask somebody else to jump in? At the same time the other interpreter /in another language/ seemed to talk much and explain a lot about the same thing. I wonder – when the recording secretary in court writes the statements who is responsable for the statements in the respectiv language? In that case the language I did interpret to was not the native, but “citizenship” language of the defendants… In all Europe this is a dangerous procedure that is not recognised as such and is neglected.
    This is a nightmare for more people not only for the translators…

  • Liliana Mercado says:

    I can certainly appreciate this interpreter’s nightmare. The thing is, we are expected without a doubt to be 100% mentally awake and aware at all times so as to do our jobs right. But the fact is, we are imperfect humans and no matter how hard we try to focus, sometimes things will go bad pretty quickly if you allow personal or professional difficulties you may be experiencing at the time cloud your mind. We are professionals and as such we should try at all cost not allow this to happen, but the reality is eveident in that particular interpreter’s nightmare. Now, how we react and handle a mistake of that lnature is however critical. It’s perfectly reasonable to allow yourself a moment of disbelief in what you said or didn’t say, however upon realizing your mistake no matter how small or insignificant you think your mistake was, it is your professional responsibility to appologize for that mistake, especially, if you are corrected by the party that is not even familiar with the language you are interpreting for ( can you say humiliation) No matter how embarrassing or humiliating the issue at hand, it speaks highly of the interpreter who, after apologizing tries not to let what just happen affect you while still at work in that assignment.

  • Cilmara Lion says:

    Hi Tony and all.

    True, we are just human beings, although many times it doesn’t seem that people are aware of the level of difficulties we find ourselves in many times nothing to do with the subject we are interpreting.

    Ours is surely an Art and there are situations which one simply can never be prepared for – no matter the level of subject knowledge, years of experience or cool. This is just a fact.

    I don’t do conferences, but I have seen myself on a number of high profile petrol deals and Army Forces meetings and I confess that more than once I wished I could just disappear…

    What do we do when a speaker insists in saying jokes (many times not politically correct ones) not funny at all and he keeps on laughing of his own “jokes” but your translation seems odd? What about those times when some of the people attending the meeting insists in speaking English (or whichever other language) but is clearly not able to express himself/herself but nobody else in the room is able to tell him or her to speak his own language (after all this is why they employed an interpreter)…so you just sit there trying desperately to make sure other people know what is really going on and what has been said…. but you can’t really put an end to your misery and just have to go with the flow…

  • eltonuk says:

    Reblogged this on eltonuk.

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