Nice Interpreter!

Today's post is about the importance of being, well, nice. It's essential to be a great interpreter -- that goes without saying -- but there's also much to be said about the importance of soft skills. In the interpreting world, these skills are especially relevant in conference interpreting settings, where you will interact with the client who hired you and the people for whom you will interpret. We've heard from many clients that if they have two interpreters who are equally qualified, but one is nicer and more approachable than the other, they would undoubtedly choose the former. It's only natural that clients gravitate towards professionals who do what they promise to do, show up on time, well-dressed and well-prepared, make the client look good, and are pleasant to work with. So what makes a "nice" interpreter? There are many different definitions and schools of thought on this, and ours is only one of them, but here are some thoughts. Be prepared for something we rarely dispense: tough love.  
  • Clients are queens and kings. Of course, this does not mean that you should blindly accepts your client's terms, but it does mean that you should treat your client with the utmost respect at all times. After all, without clients, you don't have a business and can't make a living, so you would be well advised to make yourself popular with them. However, we can't even tell you how many colleagues we've heard badmouth the client, even at the actual interpreting event. If there is a problem that the client can't solve, refrain from commenting on it. As a matter of fact, refrain from saying anything negative at all. You are there as a professional to do a job, so do it without complaining (unless you the problems are preventing you from doing your job, of course).
  • Don't hide insecurities behind a mask of studied arrogance. It's not attractive, and no one expects you to know everything. In fact, some of the best interpreters and most well-known university instructors and interpreter trainers, think Holly Mikkelson and Esther Navarro-Hall, are the first to say that they don't know and that they will have to do the research. Develop the self-confidence to say that you don't know but that you will find the answer.
  • Don't show off. Your client has hired you to do a job, so do it, and do it well. This is not the time for you to pontificate about your knowledge of ancient Greek, obscure grammatical tidbits or general irrelevant stuff. We've seen this quite a lot: many interpreters aren't very good at making small talk with clients (a blog post on small talk will be forthcoming), and since they don't know what to talk about, some opt to boast about their achievements or talk about themselves. Rather, ask the client what you can do for him/her: is everything set for the event? Do they need a restaurant recommendation, as they are probably in your city, which they don't know well? Do they need anything from you? It's essential to think a bit about the client's needs. Go above and beyond what's required and you might just make yourself popular with the client.
  • Be honest. At a recent interpreting event, one of the attendees, who was listening to Judy's interpreting, came up to her and thanked her for a great job. He also pointed out that he wanted to be sure to have all the jokes interpreted as well. This was a difficult thing to do, as all the jokes were almost exclusively US-centric, thus making it difficult to get the humor if you haven't lived in the US (think Gilligan's Island, The Apprentice, Joan Rivers, etc.) Judy had indeed been struggling with trying to interpret these jokes in a way that made some sense, but the jokes were essentially lost in interpretation.  Judy thanked the attendee for his input, explained the challenges and admitted that some of the jokes might not indeed be funny in Spanish and told the client why that was the case. Of course, he'd never heard of Joan Rivers or The Apprentice, so he's lacking the cultural knowledge for the joke to be funny. He fully understood and thanked Judy for her honesty.
  • Extreme examples. We recently overheard a conference interpreter ask the project manager for an illegal drug (really). In general, as a profession, we oftentimes complain that clients don't take us seriously as professionals, but it goes both ways, and we still have a long way to go. In addition, we heard about a court interpreter who decided to change her shirt inside the booth and sat around in her bra while she located the shirt in her bag, treating the attendees to quite a show. 
This is a slightly controversial topic, and we'd love to see some constructive discussion about this. Any thoughts, dear colleagues? Let's get the conversation started. 


Zoya Nayshtut on June 21, 2013 at 12:55 PM said...

Judy and Dagmar, this is a very interesting and detailed post. I agree with all of the points. I would like to add something like "have courage to admit your mistakes and have patience to explain to a client if the changes proposed by him/her are not appropriate", which is patially covered in your "be honest" section. Every once in a while a client or an attendee would come up to an interpreter and say that he/she interpreted something wrong. Sometimes it is true and sometimes it is not. An interpreter should have courage to admit his/her mistakes and learn from them. But if the person who tried to correct the intepreter was mistaken, the interpreter should politely explain that.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on June 21, 2013 at 9:57 PM said...

@Zoya: Thanks for reading and for commenting and for adding this very interesting point. We agree with you it's tough to have your work criticized, especially if it's a few words out of say, 200,000 words spoken, but it's essential to keep one's professional composure and to deal with the situation in a calm and collected manner. We wonder how often it actually happens that conference attendees keep track of the interpreter's mistakes, since they can't hear the original (or understand it, hence the interpreter), but we are sure this can be entertaining for some bored attendees who understand the source language a bit.

Let's keep this conversation going -- good stuff.

Zoya Nayshtut on June 22, 2013 at 1:03 PM said...

@Judy and Dagmar: I don't think such situations with attendees keeping track of the interpreter's mistakes at the conferences happen very often. At least, I have not experienced that much. But I have captured some data on when these situations are more likely to occur:

1) When a speaker presents financials and throws around a lot of numbers per minute, someone from the audience who listens attentively and tries to digest all the numbers may notice or, at least, suspect (without even knowing the source language) if a number is misinterpreted when it does not fit into the context. I can give an example which does not represent a common error but I heard it a couple of times in my language pair (English to Russian). In English people often use hundreds to describe four-digit numbers, like "fifteen hundred", while in Russian you should say "one thousand five hundred". If an interpreter ends up with "fifteen thousand" instead, it is likely to be noticed.

2) When a phrase (or a term) used by an interpreter does not make much sense. I remember one time when it happened to me. I was interpreting at a session where one of the speakers mentioned the main steps of the forging manufacturing process and said: "We do .... heat treatment, then aging, then etching". I guess I did not quite catch the last two operations and did not think through the process (which I actually could do because I had worked at a metallurgical plant in Forgings for several years) so I interpreted them in reverse order by mentioning etching first, than aging. For forging experts who were in the audience it did not make sense because etching always goes after aging, not the other way round. And although it was a pretty lengthy presentation, several people noticed my mistake.

3) When a speaker tells a joke and those who understand the source language burst out laughing. If it does not sound funny to those who listen to the interpreter, the latter is the one to blame.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, just some of my observations. And I think that in most of the above cases people would rather turn for explanation to other attendees (for instance, sitting next to them) who understand the source language, then come up to an interpreter during the break.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on June 24, 2013 at 10:22 AM said...

@Zoya: Thanks so much for this very thoughtful and interesting list. You bring up some very important points, and we really think the examples about numbers and jokes are spot-on. Now, about jokes: we have the age-old dilemma about how to solve them. Quite tricky indeed, and that's why interpreting is an art and not a science. :)

Thanks for your fantastic contribution.

Anonymous said...


thanks for all the very precious hints. I just wanted to suggest a last resort solution to tricky joke interpretation that a very good colleague of mine pointed out to me once. Simply say: 'the speaker has told a joke that cannot be translated - please laugh NOW!' I have found myself using it a few times and most times it worked. Well, if people are actually carefully listening to what you are saying, that is. :)

Jokes are tricky as well in training situations: when the speaker/client makes a joke (or even asks a questions) while looking at participants and it takes those fractions of an eternity (that's at least what it feels like for the speaker) before they react. I have had situations where the speaker was quite puzzled, so I went up to him/her during coffee break and explained that the interpretation process unevitably has this short delay. I use these moments to give the client some bits and pieces on what interpretation is about and how we 'function', and also give them - always in a funny way, making them laugh, but that makes them hopefully remember my words - hints on situations that are difficult for the interpreter.

Looking forward to reading your ideas on this!

Cheers and enjoy your day!


Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on July 12, 2013 at 8:32 AM said...

@Carsten: Thanks so much for reading and for your lovely comment. Interpreting jokes is tricky business indeed, and we have yet to come up with a solution that works for every situation, as they can be so different. We'd also heard of the trusted approach of saying "the speaker is telling a joke" and would consider using this as a last resource. Usually, we have been able to come up with something equivalent, but sometimes it just isn't funny. This is one of the big, big challenges of conference interpreting -- jokes. Someone should write a long article/book about this narrow, but very important topic!

Anonymous said...

Another great article of yours. I completely agree. It´s not just in interpreting business, anything you do I think being honest and nice gets you further. Some people get away with the opposite but sooner or later they will pay for it.

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