Conference Interpreting: Booth Etiquette 101 (And Beyond)

Inside the booth. Picture by Judy, 2014.
We've both had the pleasure of working at many high-level conferences, with many great booth partners. Most of our experiences have been extraordinary, but we've also learned from our own (and others' mistakes). Without further ado, here is a brief (by no means exhaustive) list of what to do to make yourself popular with your booth partner.
  • Go the extra mile. If you are the local interpreter and your booth partner is flying in from elsewhere, contact him/her and offer some advice and pointers. Traveling to a new city is stressful, and suggestions are always appreciated. We usually also ask if our booth partner has forgotten something at home that we can either easily bring (say, our own hair straightener) or pick up (think healthy food). We know what it's like to be stuck in a hotel without a car, working long days, and sometimes all you want is a carrot-ginger juice. And we can certainly grab that for our booth partner.
  • Share information and glossaries. We recently heard from a lovely colleague that she routinely has to work with fellow interpreters who cover up their spreadsheets even inside the booth as to not share their information with their booth partner. This doesn't make any sense to us, as the booth is a team and you have to work together to have a good experience. Be sure to e-mail any glossaries to your booth partner ahead of time so you can share terminology and materials. Being prepared is in everyone's interest, and not sharing can backfire: if there are two women in the booth and one doesn't want to share notes, thus affecting the performance of the other, the entire booth will look bad. Attendees simply won't be able to distinguish who is speaking when, unless, of course, the team is made up by one male and one female interpreter, which is relatively rare.
  • Share the space. Booths are small and crowded spaces, so make sure you stick to your side of the booth and leave plenty of room for your partner. If you are bringing snacks, share them with your partner. Don't wear too much perfume and be aware that everything you do in such a small space will affect your partner. 
    Choose your language. Photo by Judy, 2014.
  • No goofing off. Conference interpreters usually work 20 minutes (or 30 minutes) each and then have the other person take over. However, when you microphone is not on, that doesn't mean you can leave the booth and take a break. You are the back-up, and you should be paying attention. A few weeks ago, Judy's lovely booth partner ran out of steam and they had to switch sooner than they thought -- good thing Judy had been paying attention! Another time, Judy muted her microphone to ask her booth partner: "What did he just say?" Turns out the speaker had said, "Dallas Cowboys," which for some reason Judy hadn't caught (it was completely out of context), but luckily, her booth partner had heard it.
Again, this is just a short summary of some suggestions that we think might be helpful for (beginning) conference interpreters. What do you think, dear colleagues? We'd love to hear your suggestions. Just leave a comment and share your experiences.


Skrivanek Group on April 10, 2014 at 7:41 AM said...

Great article concerning etiquette. I've did a few conferences in my time and this was an interesting twist. Many people wouldn't even think about booth etiquette, but it holds a level of importance. Great tips and advice. Thanks for sharing.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on April 10, 2014 at 12:31 PM said...

@Skrivanek Group: Thanks for reading and for commenting. We are happy to hear you enjoyed our blog post! We do, however, think the vast majority of conference interpreters are very good about thinking about booth etiquette.

Inge Gomez-Michel on April 11, 2014 at 6:45 AM said...

Great tips. Thank you both.
I usually make sure that both of us have water, tissues, paper and extra pens. I never grab the mic when it's my turn unless I have a clear signal from my colleague and when there is a natural pause in the speakers speech. As you said, we are a team and we are there for each other.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on April 11, 2014 at 9:25 AM said...

@Inge: Many thanks for your thoughtful comment. Those are fantastic ideas -- yes, extra pens, paper and water never hurt and come in very handy. We also love your observation about not grabbing the mike unless your booth partner has established eye contact and wants you to take over. Thanks for sharing and happy interpreting!

Katka Gabris said...

It almost seems silly reading about these tips as they are very basic rules but I know from experience that they bear repeating ;)
I think bringing a cup of tea/coffee for your colleague in the morning won't hurt, especially if you are a young new colleague. Arrive on time, send a message to someone if you know you are going to be late. Don't be noisy in the booth (have you noticed how noisy pencils are?). Share your knowledge. It was such a lifesaver when I was a fresh new interpreter at SCIC and more experienced colleagues gave me a USB stick with a folder containing all of their electronic glossaries. I gladly printed a copy of my paper glossary for them (what with being new and inexperienced I was often the best prepared one ;)).
Oh, and please, no applying polish on your nails in the booth...

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on April 14, 2014 at 9:21 AM said...

@Katka: Many thanks for sharing your tips here. You are right: these are quite basic, but so many don't pay any attention to these, so it probably doesn't hur to repeat them indeed! And yes, no fresh nail polish in the booth -- we agree! That's what the nail salon is for. Did we tell you about the one interpreter who decided to change her shirt inside the booth? Yep, really. We should have an open thread about this --> Your worst interpreting experience... (or something like that).

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