Watch This: 4 Essential Interpreter Skills

What does it take to be an interpreter? Well, we won't really have space to list everything here, so for the sake of brevity we'd like to point out a few key skills that, in our humble opinion, interpreters should have to be successful.

These skills go beyond the obvious language skills, memory skills, etc. We purposely picked a few things that we can easily illustrate with videos of... pofessional athletes. Yes, really!  This might sound like a stretch, but please hear us out. We oftentimes hear the -- very applicable and correct -- analogy that interpreting is similar to theater, that you have to perform whenever it's showtime, that there's no way back once you've started speaking (or acting), and that there's no safety net. So: what do interpreters have in common with a tennis player, a cross-country skier, a ski jumper, and a gymnast? Have a look.

1) Interpreters must be fast. 
Interpreters must think on their feet all the time, and they need to speak, think, and process things very fast -- much faster than non-interpreters. Sometimes we feel like we are constantly sprinting, and we are, but there's not always a clearly defined finish line. We like watching videos of all things speed-related right before big interpreting assignments to get our blood flowing, and we particularly like this compilation of best finishes by Petter Northug, one of the best cross-country skiers in the world. He's a two-time Olympic champion from Norway, and you can probably see that it gives him great pleasure to beat anyone from Sweden (big rivalry).

Ready to pick up some speed? Watch this.

2) Interpreters must be precise.
Not unlike Olympic champion gymnasts, such as Aly Raisman, interpreters must be very precise, especially in judicial settings. You need to nail every twist and turn, err, every sentence just so in order to enable communication and keep the register and tone. From the outside looking in, we've oftentimes heard that interpreting seems like magic, and while it's not, it is an art to master. When we need a little reminder of how important precision is, we remember that we have one (just one!) thing in common with American gymnast Aly Raisman: we are very precise (but we are afraid of the uneven bars).

3) Interpreters must be passionate.
We are both quite passionate tennis players (Judy is a former NCAA Division I tennis player), so to illustrate passion and dedication, we could not think of a better example that perhaps the best tennis player of all time (male or female): American Serena Williams, who has won 23 Grand Slam singles titles--the most in the open era. It's very rare for any one athlete to dominate the sport as much as Serena does. Just like Serena, interpreters must be passionate about what they do, because it requires a lot of dedication and commitment to be a truly great interpreter. Get inspired by Serena:

4) Interpreters must be fearless. 
In a way, interpreting is an act of faith because you never truly know what's coming at you next. It's like jumping off a cliff without being 100% sure that there's enough water underneath for you to dive into. Or it's like jumping off a huge ski jumping hill at a speed of up to 60 miles an hour. Yes, interpreters, on one level or another, have to be fearless (but prepared, of course). It's normal to feel some nerves before important interpreting assignments, but you have to believe that you can do it in order to start. Once you've started, there's no way back. No one knows this better than ski jumpers, such as Austrian world champion Stefan Kraft.

Basic Listserv Etiquette

Happy Friday, dear colleagues and readers! Today's quick observations revolve around mass e-mail lists, usually organized and hosted by a professional organization. These are known as listservs, and they are a very valuable tool for translators and interpreters. We are members of myriad listservs hosted by many T&I organizations, such as ATA, NAJIT, Universitas Austria, and others. We have found these listservs to be very enriching, on both a professional and personal level.

Unfortunately, throughout the years we have noticed some very disheartening trends, including rude and completely inappropiate messages, personal insults, and everything in between. Perhaps it's a reflection of our society in general that civil discourse has deterioriated, but we still believe that most of these interactions can and should be positive. That being said: we do think some of the tone used on listservs is getting worse these days, and we'd like to share some thoughts on the topic. Ready for some tough love?

  1. Your colleagues and potential clients are reading what you post and respond. Keep in mind that responses and/or posts will go out to everyone on the listserv, which can be in the thousands. This is not the place to pick fights, air dirty laundry, or have unreasonsable disagreements with anyone in particular. Take those offline or contact the person in question directly. We don't frequently respond to posts, but we read most of them, and we always take note of unreasonable and disrespectful posters and make sure to not work with them -- and many other linguists do to the same. 
  2. Know your technology. Oftentimes we see linguists post along the lines of "Please remove me from these mass e-mails, they are stupid and annoying." Such a message is not only not appropiate to send to the entire community, but it also reveals a lack of understanding about technology in general and listservs in particular. You don't want to be known as the person who struggles with basic technology. In general, listservs are opt-in only, and the user controls how they want to receive messages. An "unsubscribe" link is usually conveniently located at the bottom of messages, but you have to unsubscribe yourself. No one can do it for you.
  3. Be helpful. The idea behind listservs is, in part, to strengthen the community from within by sharing information, resources, interesting articles about our profession, and to help solve tricky terminology issues. If you can contribute, be sure to do so -- but agree to disagree. There are many ways to skin a cat or to solve translation puzzles, and it's important to respect others' solutions. We've often found that arguing over who is right makes linguists seem petty and close-minded, and remember: those reading might become clients, and petty and close-minded are not good traits. Sorry about the tough love here, but we've literally seen (and read) it all, including colleagues being banned from listservs by the moderators (yes, really) for bad behavior. This is undoubtedly bad for your reputation and for your business.
  4. Think before you post. Translators spend a lot of time by themselves, so sometimes the almost-human interaction that listservs provide can be a very welcome distraction. That being said, think before you fire off a response in anger. You will never be able to take it back, and do you want, say, 3,000 of your colleagues reading something you wrote while angry? Don't do it. If you wouldn't say it to anyone's face, there's no reason to type it. The same rules of basic human decency still apply online, and you can't hide behind an anonymous e-mail address --although incredibly, some do.
  5. You don't have to read everything. Some of the complaints that are frequently aired is that "I don't find this interesting." Well, that's reality: you won't find everything that's posted interesting, but someone will. It's not about the individual, but about the community, and if you don't find the subject line interesting, don't read it. Our tip: switch your message delivery options to "daily digest" instead of getting each individual message or set up an e-mail rule on your Outlook (or whichever program you use) to send all listserv messages into a special folder so they bypass your inbox and you can read them at your leisure.
So that's it; a short summary of some things we think we can all do to make listservs even more enjoable for all. We'd love to hear your comments. 

Interpreting Incomprehensible Speakers

 A few months ago, Dagy witnessed any interpreter‘s worst nightmare: during a large conference organized by a multi-level marketing company, one of the speakers turned out to speak an almost incomprehensible Austrian dialect (he was from the southern province of Styria). 

Is this Judy or Dagy interpreting? We actually don't know.
Dagy was in the English booth and understood him alright (here’s to the advantage of working from your first language). However, this meant trouble in other booths staffed by excellent interpreters who were working into their native language. Not surprisingly, they understood very little of what the motivational speaker was saying since his German had almost no resemblance to the kind of German usually spoken at conferences. Apparently, after a few moments of shock, my fellow interpreters did the best they could, which involved mostly guesswork. At some point, they decided to switch to the English channel and work from there into their languages, which was probably the best call. 

However, in the meantime, many conference participants who depended on the interpreting service had already started to complain to the organizer, which prompted her to send up members of the organizing team who grabbed the microphone from the professional interpreters and tried to do their job. This only made matters worse. These staff members might have understood the Austrian German, but they spoke only basic foreign languages and had absolutely no training in interpreting, which is why they threw in the towel after a few minutes. To me, that’s one of the biggest imaginable affronts that any interpreter might experience in their professional life. I felt vicariously humiliated and decided to mention it to the client after the conference.

But it got even worse: the company’s CEO spoke on the following day and actually made fun of the hard-working interpreters and their troubles on the previous day, while thanking just about everybody else for their work. This struck me as particularly offensive, given that it was the company who had hired an incomprehensible speaker whom even a lot of native German speakers in the audience did not understand (I overheard many conversations to that effect during the coffee and lunch breaks).

I later e-mailed the client about this matter and she mostly dismissed my concerns, which considerably lowered my willingness to work for this client in the future. What would you have done in such a situation?  We would love to hear your opinions. 

The Interpreter and the Prince

Image copyright: Bernhard ELBE LPD Wien
Have you ever wondered what it's like to interpret for a real prince? We have, too, and now that Dagy has had the experience, she's delighted to report on it for you. 

To curtsy or not to curtsy? That was the first thing that crossed my mind when the Austrian State Department (officially the Ministry of Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs) called me about an interpreting assignment during the official visit of the Prince of Wales to Austria. To make a long story short: there was no need to curtsy and it was a great experience.

The Prince of Wales and his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall, were on a whirlwind tour of Europe and Austria was to be the last leg of their journey. They arrived Wednesday afternoon, met a few dignitaries and attended a state banquet. I was to interpret on their second and last day during Prince Charles’s short visit to the Austrian Integration Fund (ÖIF), a government agency that provides services to recognized refugees.

My main task was to spring into action whenever the Austrian Minister of the Interior needed me and to interpret any German-language statements into English for His Royal Highness.  A few days before the job, I received plenty of background information, made sure to memorize the correct form of address (“Your Royal Highness”) and I also learned that curtsying was not required. I’m all for respecting the protocol, but I was actually quite relieved about that.

Image copyright: Bernhard ELBE LPD Wien
Since most of the talking was done in English, I rarely had to intervene and I mostly enjoyed the (almost) royal company (naturally, I saw him mostly from behind and from the side). Not surprisingly, Prince Charles came across as very approachable and likeable. He talked to refugees from Syria and Iraq, learned about the services and volunteer-run programs offered by this government agency and attended a so-called values and orientation workshop designed to introduce refugees to Austrian values and society (see picture on the right).

The whole visit lasted just 45 minutes, with perfect timing. After the motorcade with Prince Charles left, everybody was happy that things went smoothly, including the interpreter.  Since Prince Charles last visited Vienna 31 years ago with his late wife Diana, let’s hope he will come back sooner than that, maybe as king. I certainly wouldn’t mind being part of that experience again. 

Waiting for Translations: New Pricing Model?

On call: doctors and translators.
The German-speaking blogosphere recently saw an interesting discussion about pricing models for translations centered around whether should you should charge by the line/word or by the hour/project, which is an important topic, as is pricing in general. While the jury is still out on this one (we personally like the hour-based approach for certain projects and have written about this issue extensively), Dagy recently had a very unique request from an advertising agency client that we'd never had before: they asked her to provide a quote for her availability for possible translations, six days in a row, including the weekend.

After consulting with her favorite business partner, Dagy decided to charge EUR 500 per business day and EUR 750 for every day of the weekend, plus a slightly discounted rate per line for any translations. In exchange, she guaranteed permanent availability and the fastest possible completion of all translations, every day from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.  Even though we've worked hard on developing and insisting on professional rates for our services, Dagy did fall into the stereotypical self-exploiting freelancer trap with one thing: she didn’t even think about including a lunch break in her quote. We've made many business mistakes, and we usually don't make the same one twice, so next time we will definitely contractually set a lunch break. Lesson learned!

The client happily accepted after zero haggling. Dagy had to cancel quite a few appointments she had scheduled during those days, but it certainly paid off. Most days, she received no translations. On two days, she did a lot of translations, which had a nice impact on the final invoice. While Dagy did feel a little limited in her daily activities, she was certainly happy with what ended up being a highly lucrative week. During her stand-by times, she also proofed several hundred pages of a German-language annual report, which is per se a major project, and also worked on a wide variety of other client projects.

We believe this experience goes to show that even very unique pricing models are possible in our industry and that clients are prepared to pay adequate prices for extraordinary services. Why not keep that in mind next time you negotiate with a client?

By the way: what Dagy ended up translating were documents regarding a highly confidential company acquisition by a large European company. The estimated purchase price was in the billions. It does feel nice to have been part of such a major deal, even to a very small extent. 

While a friend suggested she use part of that money (it was, after all, a lucrative week) to upgrade to business class on her upcoming flight to the US, Dagy decided to put some of the money aside for future tax payments and to make a donation to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (also known as the UN Refugee Agency) to benefit people who are much less lucky than she is. 
Join the conversation! Commenting is a great way to become part of the translation and interpretation community. Your comments don’t have to be overly academic to get published. We usually publish all comments that aren't spam, self-promotional or offensive to others. Agreeing or not agreeing with the issue at hand and stating why is a good way to start. Social media is all about interaction, so don’t limit yourself to reading and start commenting! We very much look forward to your comments and insight. Let's learn from each other and continue these important conversations.

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The entrepreneurial linguists and translating twins blog about the business of translation from Las Vegas and Vienna.

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