An interpreter’s worst nightmare: What to do?
February 22, 2016 § 7 Comments
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.