When client and agency do not listen to the interpreter.

April 3, 2017 § 5 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

After years of working as a professional interpreter you get to see and live many things. It is called experience. Learning from our mistakes, observing the way other colleagues solve a problem, and years of practice and study make us better interpreters, and gives us the confidence to tackle tough assignments.

Once, years ago, I was retained to interpret during a very important event with the participation of some of the highest government officials from many of the most powerful countries in the world. The event was held in one largest city in the world. It involved several interpreter booths, and interpreters of different language pairs.

The assignment, we were told, was to take place at three venues and it would include all of the guests: A big ballroom for a round table discussion by the dignitaries during the morning session; a press conference in a separate room but at the same facility right before lunch; and where they would eat, there would be several speeches by some of the distinguished visitors right after lunch.  In my particular case, the Spanish booth would have several dignitaries needing interpreting services.

The city hosting the event is a world-class city that holds many top-tier events throughout the year, but it is not the capital of a country.  The local government officials in charge of the activities had great experience with logistics of summits like the one about to take place, and the local interpreting agency is arguably the best one in the region. Unfortunately, they were overconfident and did not prepare for an event involving so many celebrities and such a myriad of languages.

The interpreters in the booths, and the interpretation equipment technicians, who are often the same all over the world, had worked in these conditions many times and knew what needed to happen.

From my first telephonic conversation with the agency, certain things had not been planned thoroughly and I raised my concerns. The main problem was that, after the first session, the dignitaries would have a press conference somewhere else in the building, but unlike the first ballroom, this time there would only be interpreter booths for certain languages: the ones expected to get most questions from the media, and Spanish was not one.

When I asked what would happen if one visitor was asked a question, I was told to just walk to him, whisper the question in his ear, and interpret the answer consecutively.  Logically, I had the two obvious follow-up questions: How am I going to find my way to the guest quickly when surrounded by so many bodyguards; and second: What about the context? Are these VIPs supposed to divine what was said before the interpreter gets to them? Had they thought that these visitors would have no context and no idea about everything said in the press-conference up to that point?

First I was told that they would look into it. Days later nearly at the event, I was told that things would stay the same despite my objections and concerns.  I suspected something would get ugly the next day but it was too late to back out of the project. I was left with one last recourse: Use my experience as an interpreter to do the best I could under those circumstances.

When I arrived to the ballroom on the morning of the event, I was greeted by a well-known interpreter equipment technician who told me right away: “You know there are no booths for you at the press conference and at the luncheon, right?” Well, I knew about the press conference, but the luncheon situation was news to me.  I was told that only the English, Arabic and French interpreters would have booths at those two events. I just threw my hands up in the air, smiled, and told him: “well, at least it couldn’t get any worse, right?” He looked at me right in the eye, and answered: “at least you are not the Korean interpreter. They don’t have a booth here either.  The will be asked to sit right behind the Korean delegation and whisper the entire thing…”  I just turned around and retrieved to the safety of my “morning-only” Spanish booth.

The morning session went fine. My colleague in the booth and I did our job as usual and the round-table moved along as scheduled. I must say I was impressed by the professionalism of my Korean colleagues. After taking a deep breath when they learned there would be no booth, they went to their delegation, sat behind them, and interpreted magnificently without complains or remarks about the adverse circumstances they encountered.

We moved on to the second event. The Spanish interpreters were lucky at the press conference because there were no questions to any of our clients. I felt bad for them as they sat there without understanding a word of what happened during the session, but at least I was not in the shoes of the Portuguese interpreters who had to do their best Harry Houdini impersonation to squeeze in and reach their delegations from Brazil and Portugal to do a whispered rendition for their clients, without the benefit of any prior context, followed by a consecutive interpretation of a long answer by one of the two delegations.

The luncheon was another disaster with little room for extra chairs for the interpreters and without headphones. I call this interpretation “silverware interpreting” because it is difficult to hear anything a speaker is saying when you must listen over your own voice and the symphony of spoons, forks and knives dangling against the china.  I heard no derogatory remarks, but the delegations were not happy with the interpreting infrastructure offered by the program organizers.

I realized there are no valid excuses for these mistakes. It is understandable that clients and agencies who rarely work these events, especially if they are monolinguals, may not think of all these basic needs of the foreign language audience; what is inexcusable is to ignore the interpreters’ and sound technicians’ comments and observations when they live and breathe these programs. Ignorance or stinginess should never be an obstacle to the correct delivery of a professional service.

I now ask you to share with the rest of us those times when you knew more than the agency or the client but they did not listen.

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§ 5 Responses to When client and agency do not listen to the interpreter.

  • This is a very frequent scenario. For instance, at the Climate Change Conference in Marrakesh, Morocco last year, for one session the interpreter equipment (the tour guide system) was stuck in customs! The customs officers in many third-world countries do not understand about interpreting equipment and how it needs instant clearance and will be returned abroad within days. I also recently interpreted at a conference for a car manufacturer that turned out to be a couple of short prepared speeches, using only one simultaneous interpreter. I got to hear some of my colleagues, and at least two of them were clearly not simultaneous interpreters, their English was frightful and they only had court interpreting experience but it did not matter because they were only interpreting out of English and it was a more-or-less set speech. I dread to think what would have happened if they had to work genuinely like simultaneous interpreters.

  • Steven Marzuola says:

    My most recent and vivid experience.

    A multinational company was holding a two-day sales conference with its distributors from Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. All I had was given the meeting agenda with titles and speaker names, but no indication of exactly when interpreting would be needed or how it was supposed to work.

    I arrived early and met with the event coordinator. She was friendly but her words didn’t inspire confidence: she kept calling me the “translator”.

    The venue was a large meeting room, with eight or nine tables that could seat eight but which would be about half occupied, by people facing the screen and speakers. Most of the participants would be bilingual, not all. Most of the presentations would 30-45 minutes long and in Spanish, but the opening and a few other sessions would be in English. No booth, no equipment.

    The hastily devised plan was for the English-only participants to sit at one table, while the Spanish-only group would sit at another. I was to stand or sit near whichever group needed me.

    The opening session was the easiest. The English speaker spoke slowly without too many acronyms or buzzwords, and I could relay most of what he was saying during the pauses in his speech. His onscreen material was in English. I asked someone at the Spanish table if they needed that material interpreted, and one said no.

    Next came the first Spanish speaker, and I switched to the English-only table. I explained who I was and asked where I should sit. The good news was that only three people needed me there.

    The bad news: lots: The Spanish speakers spoke very quickly, without pauses. Whenever I spoke, I couldn’t hear what they were saying. But if I listened for too long, the English speakers would turn and look at me, so I had to keep going. The slides were packed with words (violating almost every bit of advice ever given about how to use PowerPoint). Fortunately, most of the slides were in English.

    During a break I asked the group how well it was going. I explained that it was difficult to keep up in those circumstances. They were generous; I think most of the subject matter was familiar to them.

    I stayed with that group most of the day, but returned to the Spanish speakers a few times. On the first return visit, I asked if any of them required my services. None acknowledged me. I started to interpret but this time the English speaker spoke very quickly, and I thought: This is ridiculous.

    So I stopped, and no one at that table reacted. But after a few minutes, one of the meeting leaders hurried over and asked me to resume. I did, but kept wondering to myself: why am I doing this. From their remarks later in the day, I now believe that most all of this group understood English quite well, but chose not to speak it, and the meeting leaders didn’t realize it.

    That was how it went, all day and half the next day. Relief came after lunch. The meeting broke up in to smaller groups that didn’t need interpreting, and I was allowed to leave.

    When I got home I called the agency and explained how it had gone. I said, I think the client will tell you that they’re happy with me. But I urged the agency to contact the client and have a follow-up discussion about using equipment for their next meeting. It seemed a shame to fly those people thousands of miles and pay for meals, hotel, and transportation, then skimp on the interpreting.

    P.S. Much of the meeting was marketing baloney. Each speaker began with a summary of their own career, how great it was to be part of a wonderful team, and explaining how their material fit into the overall marketing plan. The useful information exchanged during those twelve hours could have been conveyed using just a fraction of that time.

  • Dana says:

    I was retained once to interpret Arabic English at a world-renown university with a famous International Studies department. They organized a conference where they invited international, eminent panelists to speak.
    The experienced agency that hired me took care of booths & material, hired pairs of interpreters for each language being spoken, and did everything that could possibly be done.
    What wasn’t expected is what happened next. The other interpreter, which I was supposed to do a relay of simultaneous interpretation with in the booth, discovered that the rendition of all interpreters at this conference was going to be recorded. She refused flat out to work and turned her back and left.
    I was left to do 7 hours of conference by myself, which any professional interpreter knows to be impossible especially in the simultaneous mode.
    I spoke to the agency owner who was fortunately there and told them I’ll have to take breaks or my rendition will suffer. They agreed (reluctantly). So I worked that conference all by myself and took breaks to rest, unbuzz my ears, and drink water.
    The university rep was very unhappy about why the interpreter “just stopped talking”. I didn’t comment & let the agency deal with it. At least they were fair with me.
    But I was wondering privately if he could talk 7 hours straight in his native English language, without pause and without breaks, let alone interpret simultaneously several scholarly speeches.
    And I do say seven hours because I was asked to interpret even during the lunch break, at the table where I shared the VIPs’ meal.. So I had to be careful to listen and understand, over the noise of several conversations all around in a large ballroom absolutely filled with tables of eating laughing attendees, and try to swallow fast each bite to interpret into both Arabic abd French, abd the answers back to English, and do my best to “compensate” for the bad impression I must have given for daring to take those breaks.
    Ultimately it wasn’t the agency’s fault, nor the university’s fault for what happened. But I’m satisfied that I did good work as much as humanly possible, and even went above & beyond to help the agency that hired me.

  • I always have high-quality, pocket-sized interpreting equipment with me, give brand-new bud headphones to my delegates that they get to keep (in conferences run by me), and we use steno-masks (so we don’t need a booth if one is not available). They never miss out on context. I introduce myself to the security team, and I make sure that I look official: tuxedo, black impressive suit, whatever.There is no excuse for these so-called “reputable” interpretation companies to put us professionals and delegates/dignitaries in an impossible situation. For the silverware interpreting, I’ve been tempted to use a micro-parabolic hand-held microphone, but it looks like a ray gun from Lost in Space, and I don’t want to get kicked out.

  • Maria Galetta says:

    Unfortunately I can relate to all of your experiences, dear colleagues.
    Most times the agencies or conference organizers don’t listen to us simply to save money, and we are left trying to save their derriere. The next time they do it again simply because it worked, and they expect it will work again.

    I am wondering if it wouldn’t be best for us to walk out of situations where we are not given the tools to do a professional-quality job.
    In normal conditions [not thinking of war zones] a surgeon would not operate in a non sterile room without proper surgical tools. Why is that expected of us?

    In the end we are the ones who risk losing face when we interpret alone for an entire conference day, in consecutive or simultaneous, and we don’t have the benefit of a colleague to relieve us and give us a consistent and reliable break, and assist us while we work.
    We may be able to do a more or less decent job depending on our specific situation, age, hearing, position in the room, adrenalin, etc., but we pay an extraordinary toll no matter what, one that money cannot compensate.

    The colleague who left when she found out she was going to be recorded did the right thing. Don’t blame her, blame the conference organizer. They should have known that we own our work, it cannot be recorded without our permission, and without compensation, any more than a concert or a play can. Try to record a performance at Carnegie Hall and see what happens to you.

    As for the “silverware” mode, I understand the need to cooperate as best we can for the success of the event, but I have usually warned the people at the table, saying that working from ambient sound an interpreter can only do so much and apologize if something gets summarized or happens to be missed, and I ask permission to ask people to repeat what has been said at the table, were I not able to hear it. I don’t complain or blame anyone, just want my listeners to know what is humanly possible to expect, so they don’t think I am an incompetent interpreter. Do you think this can be handled differently?

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