Professional / personal dilemma: what would you have done?
Thread poster: Joseph Jeffries (X)

Joseph Jeffries (X)  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 08:53
French to English
+ ...
Apr 26, 2011

Morning everyone,

I've been wrestling with a bit of a dilemma for the past week or so. I've actually made my decision now and the problem has been resolved, but still, I can't stop running it all through my head and wondering whether or not I made the right call. Here's the situation:

My godfather is a well-known and respected agronomist. Every year, he goes over to France with a group of professional colleagues for a 2-day meeting / conference with one of the industry's biggest players. There's only one person in the group who can communicate in French, but for one reason or another he can't attend this year.

As such, my godfather asked me if I would like to go with them and act as their 'translator' (I think you can see where this is going). He said that it would be very informal, with little pressure and that I would only be there to help them with general conversations.

Of course, my instant reaction was "what a kind offer, and how nice of him to think of me". But at the same time, it put me in a rather uncomfortable position. I clearly wanted to help him, as he's done an awful lot for me over the years and this would be a small way of repaying him. On the other hand - and here's the problem - I know absolutely nothing about agronomy, and science in general is just about as far removed from my field of expertise as you can possibly get.

If I could have been sure that the job would have been as laid back and general in nature as he'd described it, I probably would have gone for it without too much hesitation. The problem is, I've been put in similar situations many times before; what experts in the field consider 'general' knowledge is very often a lot more complex than most laypeople can comprehend, and what starts as a general conversation can quickly evolve into something extremely technical.

Not fully understanding the interpreter's role, people then turn to him / her as if he / she is a walking dictionary, and are then surprised or disappointed when he / she is not able to come up with the specific term. As the interpreter, I would obviously have researched the topic as thoroughly as possible. However, I can't help but think that I would have been well out of my depth, and that the somewhat gaping holes in my knowledge would almost certainly have been exposed at some point.

I have a lot of respect for my godfather, and the last thing I'd want is for him to feel let down or to have a negative impression of me as a professional. What's more, I would have been speaking directly with a lot of very influential people from the world of agronomy, and if I were to have cocked up or shown a lack of knowledge, that would potentially have had a damaging effect on my reputation.

So, after weighing things up, I decided to decline the offer. I'm not sure he fully understood why I felt uncomfortable with the idea, and I'm worried he got the impression that I was simply making up excuses. In his eyes, it was an offer of casual work that could potentially have brought me future business. The reality, though, is that I set myself extremely high professional standards, and when I do a job I like to do it to the very best of my ability. That would not have been possible with this job, and I would not have felt at all comfortable in that environment. The fact that it involved a very close family friend only increased the pressure to perform (as well as the potential for awkwardness if things had gone wrong) so in the end it was a risk I wasn't prepared to take.

What would you have done if you'd been in my shoes? Do you think I should have just gone for it, ignoring my doubts and professional concerns? I'd be really interested to hear your views, as I'd like to be able to deal with this kind of situation a lot more confidently in the future.


Lingua 5B  Identity Verified
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Local time: 09:53
German to Serbian
+ ...
Some thoughts Apr 26, 2011

When I worked in-house, I had impromptu interpreting assignments at meetings with any possible field you can imagine. I couldn't decline anything, because I was an in-house employee. Sometimes it was as short as a five-minute notice ( e.g. I would just be told: let's go for a meeting, we need you for interpreting). Comparing to that, your case is easy, because you still have time to do a little research and ask them what they will be discussing ( in more precise terms, like topics, background etc).

However, that's the freedom of freelancing and you can always decline the offer. Since you cared not to hurt your godfather, you could have said you were simply too busy and overbooked and thus couldn't possibly go with them.

[Edited at 2011-04-26 14:04 GMT]


Tomás Cano Binder, BA, CT  Identity Verified
Local time: 09:53
Member (2005)
English to Spanish
+ ...
You did the right thing Apr 26, 2011

Being bilingual for family reasons, I have been in this situation many times, and indeed your decision was the right one: if you cannot guarantee the best results, it is best to let it go.

In your case in particular, it would have been bad for your godfather's reputation if the other people, despite knowing that you just go there to help a bit, detected that you don't know enough about the matter at hand to provide a solid help. They would tend to think that your godfather sent you as a way of nepotism (as an alternative to a professional interpreter who was more acquainted with the matter).

To me, the difficulty here is to properly convey your reasons to your godfather. You could probably go to see him in person, spend some time with him doing something agreeable (probably this would be a nice present for him, since he seems to love you indeed), and explain that you rejected the job since you did not want to create any impression on the other people that your godfather did not make an effort to choose the best interpreter for such an event.

Now, I wonder whether you could help your godfather look for an interpreter who is knowledgeable in the matter and could do a good job? Maybe you could pay the interpreter's fees. This way, they would have a person that is useful, and your godfather would appear as someone who really cared about the event and its outcome.


Phil Hand  Identity Verified
Local time: 16:53
Chinese to English
People will accept you for what you are Apr 26, 2011

I run into this all the time as an interpreter - technical concepts and that I'm not fully familiar with. In my experience, if you're honest at the beginning of a meeting, and ask for definitions and explanations when you need them, clients are very relaxed (in relatively informal settings).
That's the great thing about working in consecutive - in simultaneous you just have to bluff!
I think you would have been justified in taking the job, explaining that you're not a specialist, doing some reading before hand and then just doing your best. But you're right, non-interpreters don't understand the requirements they make of us, and you're right to be wary of "general conversations".


ATIL KAYHAN  Identity Verified
Local time: 11:53
Member (2007)
Turkish to English
+ ...
Would Accept the Offer Apr 26, 2011

I would accept the offer, and hope for the best. This would be just a learning experience, and life is just a collection of learning experiences like this one. It is only for a few days anyhow.


Kuochoe Nikoi  Identity Verified
Local time: 08:53
Member (2011)
Japanese to English
I would've done it Apr 26, 2011

I'm not an interpreter and I have never interpreted before. But since I would have had the chance to brush up on the subject beforehand, I would have taken the job. It could lead to new work in the future, and to another possible specialization for you. If big names in agronomy were going to be there, all the better.

Of course, first I would have sat down with my godfather and leveled with him: "I really don't know anything about agronomy so tell me everything you think I should know." See if you can accompany him to some informal meetings in English and note down words you can't say in French so you can look them up later. Get the full program and all the material you can get your hands on, etc. etc.

Still, I don't blame you for feeling this was all too much work. The above is only what I would have done in your place.


Local time: 09:53
Spanish to English
You have to lay down your own rules Apr 26, 2011

You arrive and explain who you are, what you're there for, and the limitations of your service.

Once years ago I was interpreting between a big banking software provider and the Colombian president's brother and a pal of his who was one of the country's big bankers. The software people started a very technical presentation about their product and I interrupted after about two minutes and told them, "This presentation sounds great in English, if you're a specialist, but if you want it to make any sense in Spanish for your guests you'll have to break it down into shorter, clearer, less technical sentences. I can't translate this stuff!"

Nobody jumped at me or objected. Afterwards the software people told me it was the first time they were really happy with the interpreting for a presentation (their clients understood it!).


Liliana Galiano
Local time: 05:53
English to Spanish
+ ...
I would have done the same Apr 26, 2011

Sometimes people put us in awkward positions or do not measure exactly how much effort a certain task will take. When it comes to interpreting, whether formally or informally I am always doing it as a job which has to be paid, and in your case I'm sure it would have been almost as demanding as a formal conference in technical vocabulary at least.

When it's hard to draw the limits clearly it's better to refuse an offer. I think you did the right thing.

[Edited at 2011-04-26 12:01 GMT]


Lisa McCreadie (X)  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 00:53
Spanish to English
+ ...
You did the right thing Apr 26, 2011

Personally, I would have done the same. But the point is you made the decision you thought was right and you won't be damaging your or your godfather's reputation in any way. I'm sure that you'll feel a weight lifted off your shoulders when you see your godfather and he will probably be fine with it.


Franco Rigoni  Identity Verified
Member (2006)
English to Italian
+ ...
I would have taken the job Apr 26, 2011

I would have done it for 3 reasons: 1) when you work as an interpreter you can't expect to work exclusively in your fields of expertise (otherwise you would not have enough business), you have to study things in advance to be sure you will do a good job 2) you had the chance to speak to your godfather and he would have been pleased to provide information about the topic 3) the meetings were going to be informal, hence why you are allowed to sum things up and interrupt the speakers when you are not sure what they are talking about.

I am giving you an example: the other day I did a liaison interpreting, an informal interview about the use of cathethers in urology. The agency told me about the job 3 hours before the interview so I had no time to get ready. However, I accepted the job, even though I had never translated anything about that. I must say that I interrupted the english speaker a couple of times as what he was saying was quite difficult to understand, but in the end the outcome was rather good. You know, it's not a translation where you must be 100% correct, it's an interpretation, so you have to convey the message.

Ring him back, tell him you need to read a few documents about the topic and ask him to spend a few hours with you to talk about agronomy. Also relax!


Lingua 5B  Identity Verified
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Local time: 09:53
German to Serbian
+ ...
Informal meetings Apr 26, 2011

At informal or semi-formal meetings, discussions often stray and you may end up interpreting a subject totally unrelated to the main topic. How exactly do you prepare for that?

As an example, some people like using saying or make puns and jokes and then you have to convey that ( in a matter of seconds). It's often one person at the meeting who keeps using sayings and puns, since it's their personal speech style.


Tatty  Identity Verified
Local time: 09:53
Spanish to English
+ ...
You should have gone for it Apr 26, 2011

I couldn't agree more with what Franco has said. Plenty of opportunity to prepare, informal environment, sounds ideal. Relax - is also a very good piece of advice.


Clarisa Moraña  Identity Verified
Local time: 05:53
Member (2002)
English to Spanish
+ ...
I would have accepted! (If I had time) Apr 26, 2011

First, it was your godfather... I would have accepted if my mother, father, sister, daughter or any beloved one had requested me to do so, provided I had nothing else to do (I mean if I had not any previous requested job). It is not a question of money: family takes priority. Sometimes we have to resign some things, even work or money, to help our beloved ones. And sometimes we can help our family with our knowledge. (My sister in law is accountant and she assesses my husband with taxes, my husband is Mechanical Engineer and selects the machinery needed by my brother in law for his icecream factory...).
I would have studied and prepared myself, creating terminology and so on, exactly if a client were paying me.
But I would had explained him, in good manners, that we are not walking dictionnaries, that our bills are paid with the money we get from interpreting/translating...
And I would have enjoyed (sorry for the verbal forms, I'm not quite sure of the verbal sequences) the great time spent with my godfather! It would have been a nice opportunity to share with him.




[Edited at 2011-04-26 19:57 GMT]


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