What do you do when 2nd interpreter in cabin "doesn't work"?
Thread poster: Daniele Martoglio

Daniele Martoglio  Identity Verified
Local time: 17:49
Polish to Italian
+ ...
Oct 2, 2005

I had simultaneous interpreting PL-IT / IT-PL and the second interpreter in my cabin was simply "unable to work". When speaker said for example 100 words, the "interpreter" produced around 20-30 words. The most of the meaning was LOST. Sometimes was translated ABSOLUTELY something else...

Moreover, the conference was IT-PL-EN based, so when someone spoke italian, the translation into polish was used to produce the english translation!

So, i feel sorry for a) people in the room b) the PL-EN interpreters in the cabin beside, and so i made the 95% of the work, using simply the other "interpreter" as 5-minutes help just to survive..

Did you meet similar situations? What did you do in this case?


[Edited at 2005-10-02 07:40]

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Aleksandr Okunev
Local time: 18:49
English to Russian
A business card would help Oct 2, 2005

Daniele Martoglio wrote: What did you do in this case?

You should have had a business card of a trusted colleague who was within reach.
I was through this a couple of times, a good lesson not to be missed!

God luck!

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Matteo Latini  Identity Verified
Local time: 16:49
English to Italian
+ ...
it's never easy Oct 2, 2005

I had the same problem a few months ago. I worked with a totally inexperienced colleague. The first day of the conference was a nightmare, the second slightly better, but still, as you said, I really felt sorry for the people listening to the translation.
My suggestion is to try and speak with your client, or agency, and explain the situation. It is never easy to comment on a colleague's performance, but if you really think it was bad and it affected your performance too, then you should probably try and mention it to your client, they should be interested in providing a quality service and improving it for the next time. Having said this, I have to admit that I wasn't brave enough to do it when it happened to me and didn't mention it very clearly, I just gave hints of what I thought...

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Victor Potapov
Russian Federation
Local time: 18:49
English to Russian
+ ...
A difficult (and frequent) situation. Oct 2, 2005

Dear Daniele,

This is a problem that I did encounter fairly often in my previous work. Moreover, once or twice I actually WAS this "other interpreter" myself - when I was doing medical interpreting for one of the first - and positively the last - time.

Ideally you have to work with your tested and trusted colleagues in the subject area you both feel comfortable (oil&gas is VERY different from medicine which is VERY different from architecture which in turn is different from finance... so specialization is a must).

Also your colleagues must (ideally) have a clear and explicit list of areas in which they DO NOT work. For example, even though I was trained as a biomedical engineer, I do not interpret in the medical area - because I have only a basic understanding of medicine (even though I took a lot of medical courses like normal physiology or biochemistry during my graduate studies). There is a saying that the most dangerous kind of knowledge is knowledge that's superficial and shallow. I will add here "and the knowledge that is not supported by practical, hands-on experience".

In your case an intermediary - a broker or an agency most probably were organizing the event, so you had no say in selecting your booth partner. Ideally this situation is to be avoided - this mismatch harms the agency as well (people will be coming over to the organizers and complaining about "the quality of translation" in general - they do not know or care whether it was you or the other interpreter). Your reputation also plummets.

A textbook case: one rotten apple spoils the whole basket.

In such cases there are two options available:

1) To do your share only - interpret for 30 or so minutes and "wash your hands" of the next 30 minutes - come what may. I do not recommend this route - it is passive and harms the audience (and the interpreters in the next cabin in the example you have described, when your output is their input (relay interpreting)).

2) To take the matter in your hands - interpret for yourself and for "the other guy" as well, taking very short breaks when the going gets easy, never taking the headphones off one ear , monitoring what the speaker is saying, what the interpreter is interpreting and write frantic translations of key terms& phrases on some note paper for the other guy to read.

In option 2 a fine psychological line must not be crossed - I am trying to be helpful but not bossy or arrogant or superior. There is a much higher chance of conflict if this line is crossed. Yes, the "other guy" usually believes himself to be at least a "good" (and often "excellent") interpreter - notwithstanding this 20-for-100 words thing - and tends to defend him/herself instead of saying "thanks".

Another huge problem is whether to tell your agency contact. My experience shows that good brokers or agencies are asking you to come with your booth partner. Bad (or inexeperienced) agencies do not care - yet. So telling is probably a bad idea in any case - you may get a reputation of a whining person who loves to complain. On the other hand, do you want this "other interpreter" to continue poisoning the lives of good people working with them?

I usually avoid telling - but if I am asked (a sign of the good agency - always requesting feedback!), I give my opinion always qualifying it "as solely my opinion and my personal perception of the situation".

In no case you should answer like this, or tell (or worse - complain to!) the end client (e.g. the conference organizer) or members of the audience. This is going over the agency's head, smacks of trying to sell your services by telling the client "the agency you have hired is bad because it hired this other, bad interpreter, and I'm good, sir, yes, I'm really good!" ...

This behaviour also has other unpleasent implications - all of which damage the reputation of the interpreter and create a bad image for him/her.

So I think when you interpreted for your "colleague" you did the right thing - even though this cost you some extra effort. Smart interpreters suggest a different split of the fee - but I have only seen this once - out of maybe 10 "sub-optimum" interpreters like the one you have described.

This is one of the downsides inherent in our profession - and to avoid the risks of doing extra (unpaid) work in the future - become known to the agencies as "the guy who always comes with reliable booth partners". In this case you need to agree with your "reliable booth partners" that they will not try to poach this agency from you - i.e. that they will not offer this agency their services alone, without you as their booth partner - otherwise you will be acting as a free intermediary supplying good interpreters to agencies you once worked for!

Wow. Quite a lot of text - but the question you asked is very important and I believe this situation repeats itself quite frequently in the booths all over the world.

Best regards!

Daniele Martoglio wrote:

I had simultaneous interpreting PL-IT / IT-PL and the second interpreter in my cabin was simply "unable to work".

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Robert Zawadzki  Identity Verified
Local time: 17:49
English to Polish
+ ...
Simultaneous translation of a simultaneous translation? Oct 2, 2005

I guess it is a horror story even if you leave out the 'bad second guy' part.

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Jerzy Czopik  Identity Verified
Local time: 17:49
Member (2003)
Polish to German
+ ...
Why? This is not that bad, provided you get understandable basis Oct 2, 2005

Robert Zawadzki wrote:

I guess it is a horror story even if you leave out the 'bad second guy' part.

Just recently I had an assignment with GE-RU-EN-PL involved.
We were forced to use GE as the common basis and survived.

OTOH this has nothing to do with the problem of Daniele.
The only thing one can do in such situation is to take over and do the job, if necessary full alone. Next time I would then simply refuse to work with such a "helper".


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José Luis Villanueva-Senchuk  Identity Verified
Local time: 12:49
English to Spanish
+ ...
True story Oct 2, 2005


Some years ago, I was in London with over 180 participants at an 'Financial Executive Retreat' at The Carlton Tower. The audience included the most prominent and top brass bankers (i.e. CFOs, CEOs senior Board members..) from Europe and some non-European central banks.

It was a two day event and I was in the booth with someone I did not know. He was a Spaniard who lived in London, I was flown from Barcelona for the event. When I went into the booth, he looked at me and asked for my references. He was quite concerned about the fact I was called from BCN to go to London. He said "why did they fly you from BCN? What is your experience in this kind of events? I do not know you... bla bla. I (him) have a MA from the Univeridad de Las Palmas..."

Right before we started, one of the liasons from Washington DC came into the booth and introduced herself. She warned us about a couple speaker and said: "X is a fast speaker and has a Southern accent; so and so is a joker and uses lots of local US expressions plus current news headlines - hope you are into current events going on in the US as he will refer to them, a lot... I have told all the speaker to remember they are being interpreted but you know how it goes..."

This said, the event started. I was the first in the mike. Yes, a subtle Texan accent was there coming through the headphones; yes he was flying! I did well and got a thumbs up from the liason, who spoke Spanish quite well. My colleague took over and... It was the first time I had to take the mike away from a colleague. He mumbled, hesitated... It took less than a minute for faces to start turning around and looking towards the booth.

I took over and stayed on until the first coffee break. I asked him if he was feeling Ok, if he had revised the texts... He said he had one of those days. When we went back, I gave him the mike back...disaster. I stayed on until lunch. By that time, the liason came to me and said: "I called Washington and they are aware of the problem. Could you stay at the microphone until the end?" The subject was tough, the spakers were fast; she realised I could burn any minute.

[I did break down when I was in my room. I called Argentina to speak to Aurora and I suddenly was in tears when she asked about the event. My stress level was up the roof... It took me two Malt whiskeys more than usual to bring me down ]

When we finished at aprox. 5:30 pm, I called Washington. They told me they will send someone for the next day. They did, an excellent colleague.

In cases where you partner freezes and has a fear/panic-?? attack, I think, whenever possible, one's mission is to:

1. Save the event The booth is one block, not two independent voices.

2. I will take over the mike if needed. Doing my part and letting my colleague sink, results in the booth sinking.
I understand that some subjects are impossible to interpret for 6 hours. But, I bet the audience will understand the good interpreter's decrease in quality and appreciate the effort rather than listening to a mumbling (or mute) booth.

3. If feasible call the agency at once and explain the situation. If it is your direct client and the colleague you were referred to is not up to the situation, call a trusted colleague. I doubt one will take a bad colleague into the booth.
[If I have had a negative response from my agency in the US, I would have called a friend of a friend. It would have taken longer in London, but the next morning or late in the afternoon (if they were available) I would have had a booth mate.]

Now, if the colleague DOES NOT want to work and likes to put the burden on you, talk to him/her and put the cards on the table.



[Edited at 2005-10-03 10:09]

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Henry Hinds  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 09:49
English to Spanish
+ ...
I've had it happen Oct 3, 2005

One evening at a medical conference my companion, who turned out not to be too competent, started choking up on me, so essentially I had to to carry the burden until the session ended. His excuse was that he had suddenly gotten a "terrible toothache", and was not even sure he could carry on when the conference resumed the first thing the next morning.

Since it was late in the evening and the coordinator was already gone there was nothing I could do. The next morning I told her "you've got to get "E" (a trusted and competent collegue) over here as soon as possible to help out, "J" (the one with a "toothache") is not going to show up and I'm going to have to go it alone.

So I did, and after about 2 1/2 hours and five diferent speakers "E' finally came in and I handed him the mike and took a well-deserved rest.

Of course that was not nearly as rough as the day I had to work alone WITHOUT a partner (I had agreed to work alone) and ended up going nine and one-half hours straight with who knows how many speakers, NO breaks and a speaker during lunch (no lunch for me). At one point a speaker said: "let's all stand up and stretch for a moment before we continue" and I got up and ran to the bathroom. By the time I returned they had already started again without me.

But I got through the day, and many others not quite so bad. It's not supposed to be done, you understand, but sometimes it just has to be done. How I wish they would realize that even conference interpreters have physiological needs.

It is also a bad precedent, because once you do things like that they (clients) think it can be done by anyone on any day, and it is just not so.

Best ways to avoid such situations:

1.- Choose your own partners.
2.- Don't agree to work all day alone unless it is certain that the program will allow for many long breaks for the interpreter (sometimes the case in training courses) during the day.
3.- Try not to ever let them know what you REALLY can do.

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Parrot  Identity Verified
Local time: 17:49
Member (2002)
Spanish to English
+ ...
Henry Hinds Oct 13, 2005

Henry Hinds wrote:

3.- Try not to ever let them know what you REALLY can do.

I'd give an eyetooth to learn what this means for YOU. I know what it means for me, but I'd prefer it from the horse's mouth.

the Parrot

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