April 3, 2017 § 5 Comments
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.
September 19, 2014 § 6 Comments
One of my worst nightmares is to be in a situation where I am ready, able, and willing to do my job, and I cannot do it because something beyond my control went wrong… very wrong. In a world where we depend more on technology every day, the importance of all the devices we use in our work is paramount. An entire event can turn into a disaster if technology does not cooperate. To stay competitive, it is extremely important that the professional interpreter be knowledgeable and up-to-date on the latest technological developments that impact our industry, such as computer hardware, software, hand-held devices, and social media; that is undisputable. We should have on that same priority level the operation of headphones and microphones, interpreting consoles, portable equipment, and the basic principles of how the interpreting equipment in particular, and the audio-visual system in general, function. The idea is not to replace the computer engineer or the sound technician; the only goal is to be able to understand a problem so it can be better described to the specialist who will, in turn, take care of the issue. An interpreter who can solve small technical problems with a simple suggestion, and therefore keeps the event on track, is definitely a very valuable asset.
Those who know me are aware of the fact that I am mechanically impaired. I cannot do anything with my hands, and I have never wanted to. I am also a big advocate of hiring professionals to do all jobs, from the auto mechanic to the housecleaning person, and from the accountant to the physician. No “do it yourself” for me. Fortunately, I really like computers, electronic media, and all the gadgets I can put my hands on. This has allowed me to keep up with those issues that are relevant to our profession, but always knowing my limitations and recognizing and appreciating the essential role that the sound technician plays in the interpreting world. To be clear: As far as the interpreters are concerned, the sound technician is the most important individual in the venue. They are that crucial; especially the good ones, those who already know you, the ones that know the type of headphones we prefer, the levels we like, and even the little things that make that particular interpreter comfortable and therefore more productive. They travel with us from town to town or country to country, they know us personally, and we call them friends.
For these reasons, when negotiating an assignment I always insist on top notch equipment and the best technicians. I convey to the event organizer, or the agency, the importance of having a capable technician next to the booth throughout the event. The most experienced and prestigious agencies, convention centers, and event organizers already know it, but some newcomers may need the explanation. During my career I have seen that those agencies and promoters who want to be in the business for a long time, the ones who want to have a good reputation, and the ones who care about the quality of the event, always agree to this very basic, logical, and simple request. Unfortunately, sometimes you run into the ones who keep alive the expression: “the exception to the rule.”
Not too long ago, I was working a very prestigious event where we got to see what happens when you try to “save” money at the expense of the technician. On the day the event started I arrived, as usual, plenty early to check the booth, sound, computers, stage, and everything else that you need to be aware of to have a successful event. As I entered the room, I saw one of my friend technicians from way back. Since I had not been involved on the planning of the event, and I was just a “hired gun”, I was very happy to see such a professional experienced technician in charge of the system. I went on to get ready and did not think much about the technician anymore. It was not until that afternoon when we started having some problems with the sound that I saw my friend again; he went into action and took care of the problem in no time at all. It was seamless.
The next day I arrived at the venue and went straight to the booth to get ready. The colleague who was interpreting with me arrived, we talked for a few minutes and then the event started. Everything was fine for about two hours when all of a sudden we had a problem with the sound. There was a lot of static and the quality was very poor. I looked for my friend the technician. I did not see him outside any of the booths or anywhere else. It was then that one of the event organizers came to the booth and told us that a “technician was on his way to fix the problem.” One of the hosts of this event got on stage and announced that an engineer was going to take care of the sound problem, and that we were going to adjourn until the sound was restored. Everybody got up and headed to the cafeteria.
At that time I saw a couple of individuals coming to the interpreting area, they approached us, and asked questions about the sound. I began to describe what the problem was. As I was describing the problem I noticed the nervousness on the face of this young man who was going to fix the problem. At that point I asked him for my friend, the experienced technician. I had seen him in the room the day before, but I had not seen him that day at all. The young technician told me that my friend was not there, that he had only been hired to do the set up and to be there on the first day in case something went wrong. He then told me that he and the other technician with him were full-time employees of the company that had organized the event, and they were “IT support”, not sound system technicians. He told me that they had never worked with interpreting equipment before, and that everything they knew about these equipment was what they had learned from my friend in the last two days when he and his crew did the equipment set up, and what they saw him doing the day before. It turns out that this very important, and profitable event decided to save money on the tech support.
What happened next was a comedy of errors. These hard-working IT staff had the best intentions and tried their best, but they did not have the knowledge to solve the problem. After almost an hour of unsuccessfully trying to fix the equipment, I suggested they replace all equipment with the back-up units my friend had left in case they were needed. They did it and the event continued. There was another glitch that afternoon when a speaker played a video from his laptop and they expected us (in the booth) to capture the sound from the conference room through our headphones and interpret the video that way. Needless to say, this was impossible. We could barely hear the sound; there was no way to interpret the video that way. I asked them to hook the laptop into the sound system so we could get the sound in our headphones just as if it was coming from a microphone. They did not know how to do it. I described the cable they needed and told them that they could buy it anywhere for very little money. Once I said “little money” they listened. One of their staffers went out, purchased the cable, and we had perfect sound in the booth. The video was interpreted, but there was another delay.
At the end of the day all interpreters from all languages got together, we talked about what happened during the day, and we all decided to request a real sound technician for the duration of the event. When we went to talk to the organizers we found them buried in complaints from the attendees who were not happy about the delays due to equipment malfunction (that could have been resolved in a few minutes like the first day when the professional technician was in the premises) At that point I knew we were getting our technician without even having to request him. Sure enough, after the commotion ended, a representative of the organizers came to inform us that they had talked to the technician and he would be at the event first thing in the morning. He then told us that the professional technician was going to stay for the rest of the event, and that he would be our point of contact in case there was another technical problem. The organizers learned their lesson! Unfortunately, they learned it the hard way. Now they know that there are many ways to cut costs, but having an event without a sound technician is not one of them. As things go sometimes, the next morning my technician friend checked all the equipment and adjusted certain things that had been changed by the IT staff the day before, he stayed with us for the rest of the week until the event ended, and we never had another incident. On the last day, as we were leaving the venue, I reminded all my colleagues from the other booths of this valuable lesson, and I asked them to always remember it, and use it as an example when another agency or event organizer decided to go without a full-time sound technician to cut costs. I now ask all of you to please share with the rest of us your stories of equipment malfunction, and what was done to solve the problem.
April 11, 2014 § 11 Comments
I have been very fortunate in my career. I have worked with some of the very best in the profession, and yes, sometimes I have worked with some colleagues, thankfully very few, who would fall short from that rating. As many of you know, I have worked all over the world and I have worked conference, diplomatic, court, and escort interpreting for many years. During those years I have observed and learned many things from this spectacular interpreters and I have also seen so many different styles.
One of the things that many colleagues do when simultaneously interpreting is that they close their eyes and gesticulate a lot. They use their hands to express what they are saying and to understand the concepts they are absorbing from the speaker. This works fine for them. Their renditions are impeccable. After years of working in a booth next to some of them I have become used to their style. I interpret differently. I do not use my hands or head to express what I am saying. I just sit there without any gesticulation. This works for me just as well as the opposite works for many great colleagues. I have no problem with either style when you are working in the booth and you are out of sight; in fact, I applaud those who have found this to be a tool to improve their interpreting skills. The important thing is to provide a good service and bridge the communication gap between the speaker and his audience.
Unfortunately, I am not so convinced that this effusive style is as effective in court as it is in the booth. Interpreters who work in the courtroom are not shield by the booth. Even if they work with equipment they are not out of sight. The equipment is usually of the portable kind, and even though many courts use wireless transmitters and receivers, the interpreter sits at the table next to the defendant or somewhere else in the courtroom in plain view of all participants: judge, jury, attorneys, witnesses, and defendant.
As part of their work, court interpreters can interpret difficult complex concepts and very detailed information. One of the reasons to have a court hearing is to assess the credibility of witnesses and litigants. The jury’s attention has to be focused on those testifying or arguing the law. The non-English speaker needs to understand what is going on in the courtroom and for that he often has to concentrate. Because of some of my professional interests, I often attend court hearings in different parts of the world and as an observer who is not involved in the process, I have noticed that gesticulating interpreters can be distracting. I have noticed how members of the jury are sometimes more interested and amused by the interpreters hand movements than by the witness’ testimony. I have seen how defendants pay more attention to what the interpreter does than to what the interpreter says. I do not think this is appropriate. I believe that the interpreter who is working in the courtroom has to be aware of the fact that he cannot be the center of attention; that unlike conference interpreters, court interpreters are visible to all. I understand that this may be their natural way to communicate, that they may need to do this to understand the message they are about to interpret. Unfortunately, I do not think that most jurors, attorneys, and litigants can just ignore their gesticulation and focus on the testimony. I think court interpreters should learn to control these movements and concentrate on accurate interpreting while being inconspicuous.
I find this to be a fascinating, delicate, and frankly touchy subject that is not easy to discuss with our colleagues. For a long time I hesitated to write this blog, but I finally did it because I want to hear what you all have to say about it. I ask you to please avoid personal attacks and comments about how gesticulating helps the interpreter. Instead, I invite you to share with the rest of us your thoughts on this issue: Is this interpreting style distracting to those participating in a court procedure?
February 4, 2014 § 20 Comments
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.
March 11, 2013 § 3 Comments
Not long ago I worked an event that required interpretation into multiple languages, there were many colleagues in their respective booths working hard and doing a magnificent job. Because of the constant switching from one language to another, we had to work the relay for most of the event. Relay interpreting is a resource used in conference interpreting when there is more than one language combination. The speaker delivers the message in his native language and that statement is simultaneously interpreted into English by the interpreter who works the speaker’s language. This interpretation is fed to all the other interpreters in the other booths who immediately deliver their rendition of the English interpretation to their listeners. It is a simultaneous interpretation of the rendition by the interpreter who simultaneously interpreted the original statement by the speaker. Sounds complicated? Well, it can be.
This interpretation is common and vital in our very globalized society, and many experienced interpreters do an excellent job. Very often the listener does not even realize that there has been a relay. However, this complicated synchronized work has many “moving parts” that could go wrong without a warning. During the event I am referring to everything went fine, but I have had my share of problems when resorting to relay interpreting. Sometimes the equipment malfunctions in the other interpreters’ booth, in some instances it could be that the equipment in your booth is not working, the sound is poor, the relay button is stocked. In other occasions the original foreign language speaker is not very good at public speaking and makes it difficult for the first interpreter to interpret and the rendition comes in choppy and late; Perhaps the original interpreter simply forgot to open the relay switch and the other booths cannot hear what he or she is interpreting, and every once in a very while the original interpreter is not ready to do this type of work.
These situations have to be solved by you and your colleague in the booth. Sometimes a quick tap on the wall is enough to get the other booth’s attention, often a little adjustment by the tech support fixes the problem, but in some cases there is not a quick fix. You have to think fast when faced with this situation. I have been in booths where my colleague or even myself happen to speak the third language as a “B” and we just move along while the technical problem is fixed, occasionally you can become the relay interpreter or take the feed from a third booth where somebody knows the language. I have been in situations where the original interpretation coming in from the relay booth is so poor that we have decided to go with our “B” instead of ruining the event. Sadly, sometimes I have been left with no other choice than informing my listeners that we have a problem and the participation by those who speak certain language will not be interpreted until further notice. I ask you to share your experience with this type of situation, and maybe tell us how you solved the problem when that happened to you.