Nice Interpreter!

dog in love with a red heart balloon
By Judy and Dagmar Jenner
Reblogged from Translation Times with permission from the authors
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.

One thought on “Nice Interpreter!

  1. Judy and Dagmar, at the Hillsboro Chamber of Commerce they say that people work with people they know, like and trust. I see a lot of examples of how to develop that in this post! Thanks for sharing it!

    Regarding honesty and insecurity, here’s how my husband puts it. He’s an engineer. “How many people should know you are an idiot? One (the speaker, when in the course of getting a preview of the presentation you ask for some information before the event) or 200 (the audience when you say something wrong)?”

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