Resetting our ways


Resetting our ways

The video accompanying this text was recorded some time ago and on reviewing it I realised that it contained questions but few answers. Interpreting is changing but what can we do about it?

This article is an attempt to answer that question. It is well nigh impossible to produce a single solution because no two interpreters have quite the same work pattern, or the same active and passive languages, or split between private and institutional clients and what is more we live in different places.

Work well

This may sound blindingly obvious but bears repeating.  Prepare the meeting you’ve been hired for. How you do so will depend on whether it’s the first time you’ve worked for a given client or whether you’re an old hand, but it is vital to recognise that the interpreter begins every meeting with an information deficit in that we know less about it and have less background than those listening to us.  We can make up for it by preparing the meeting documents and speeches, by reading around the subject and by listening actively at the meeting.


This is really the continuation of preparation. Jot things down, from the name of the association’s officers to the international instrument just mentioned, grasp the main arguments and – if you can – get some idea of the political intricacies. You’ll notice that interpreters of a certain age work holding a pen or pencil – there is a reason it was drummed into them at interpreting school. You may every so often come across someone from the old school who derides preparation by claiming they work best when relying on the flow of adrenalin – don’t listen to this delusional myth. Listening continues during your half-hour off; clearly you can leave the booth and get a coffee but it is not a good idea to systematically disappear for 28 minutes for every hour – you won’t keep up and it makes a bad impression on clients who are paying for two interpreters and getting one.  So have writing materials to hand and be not only physically but also mentally present.

A changing market

Having a degree will of itself not bring you work.  Your career entry and progression will depend on what your local market requires, and that increasingly seems to be the national language plus English, meaning you’ll be expected to work both ways, a move away from the multilingual markets of the past. An English B is a tall order but if you are prepared to put in the necessary effort then do it properly. English Bs are acquired in Anglophone countries and through hard work and concentration.  The first lesson is not to buy into the myth that English is an easy language: verb forms, phrasal verbs and prepositions. Need I say more?

Passive languages

There are still markets that require interpreters to work from several passive languages into their own. The market’s requirements will change by location but I would suggest learning Russian or German or Portuguese, at least in my markets. Inevitably Chinese will increase in importance so there is bound to be a buoyant market, at the moment it is covered by people working both ways but if there were people able to provide the service there is no reason why it should not be interpreted into European languages that could provide relay – say Chinese into English, French or Spanish. To maintain your employability my advice is have two or three mainstream languages (E, F, D, Esp, It, Port, R) and an exotic that might appeal to the organisations or to niche markets (Scandinavian, Latvian, Hungarian…).


With the best will in the world chief interpreters cannot predict what their language needs will be in five or ten years from now.  They can make an intelligent guess but are subject to the dictates of their political masters. A language might be all the rage this year and then a new government decides it’s not that important, and such policy swerves skew the market. At the moment we are all wondering what the effect of Brexit will be.  I would guess within the EU English will only be provided at meetings attended by Ireland and Malta, thus cutting demand (NB: I did say guess).

On your side

Every meeting is important to the person organising it, it is therefore also important to us, and we must convey that. In the past there were interpreters who had something of a “them and us” attitude towards delegates, priding themselves on never attending receptions and disdaining attempts at humour in the meeting.  The profession has grown up (such attitudes sprang from insecurity) but it is important to show our clients we share a community of interest with them, that we are there to help them bring their business to a successful conclusion or boost their membership or launch their new product.  Take the example of a product launch, we are part of the whole event from stage design, lighting, show callers and it is important to act as such. And if the client at a product launch wants the interpreters on site at 09:00 for an event at 13:00 turn up with good grace and bring a book.

Easy listening

Think about your voice and how you project it.  Enunciate clearly and aim for a smooth performance with a pleasant and well-modulated voice.  The use of voice is covered in interpreting school but we do well to remember that delegates have to listen to us all day so we need to make it easy on them.  I have seen interpreters move away from the mic to scrabble in their case, or blether away miles from the mic with nary a thought about how it sounds.

Update your skills

We need to work on the languages we already have, taking courses and visiting the countries.  AIIC has come a very long way since I joined and there are now many courses organised around the world, some on language and politics and culture, others where you can work in the booth and receive some useful critique of your work. Such courses are offered for people working into their B and to those wanting to add or boost a C by keeping  up with political and social changes and evolving language. Perhaps you’ll learn how to render “snowflake” in your language.

Walk away

We’re constantly hearing at international meetings that the world of work is changing and that applies to interpreting as well. Gone are the fat cows of yesteryear and even at the time their days were clearly numbered. I remember in the 1980s being flown week in week out to Brussels and saying to myself that it couldn’t last, a commercial company would give you six months or so to move – it took the EU some 30 years but it was clear to all that it would happen one day.

In the modern world people cannot expect to stay in a single job throughout their working life – they are more likely to work at different jobs for different employers and it seems likely that in future few will be able to live from interpreting alone. So if you’re not able to get a foothold cut your losses and do something else, opt for an expanding not a contracting sector.


It is worth considering what we mean when we talk about professional quality. We may ask: how solid are the interpreter’s passive languages; what is the rendition into the target language like, does it inspire confidence in the listener; does the interpreter keep up with the speaker or lag a long way behind; has the interpreter prepared the meeting; is he helpful in the booth?

In a perfect world interpreters would be recruited only on the basis of their professional quality, but as everyone want to keep their costs down the place of residence is probably the most important consideration, so live where the work is.


Sometimes colleagues arrive at work, take out their laptop and start checking their emails – a trap we can all fall into.  We should resist the siren call of email because it can remove us from the room. Don’t get me wrong, the Internet is great for looking up ideas, concepts and background but it should not distract us from the job in hand. Remind me of these words when you next catch me on Candy Crush.


If you find yourself under stress, worry about documents and hyperventilating every time you turn on the mic then you’re probably in the wrong job.  Don’t torture yourself, your colleagues and most of all your listeners by insisting this is your calling when it clearly isn’t.

Starting out

Tell people you are now on the market, but tread lightly in your early days. You are moving onto a mature market so manage your expectations about the amount of work in your first year or two, all depending on what your languages are and where you are based. Do not put all your eggs in once basket, in other words try to work for many different clients so you are less vulnerable to the situation in a single organisation or with a single private market client. The pattern of work is changing in all sectors (the gig economy, cloud working) so we can no longer think in terms of entering a career in our twenties and retiring in our sixties. You may find that interpreting is no more than one service among many that you offer. Give yourself some time to get a foothold on the market but if the work is simply not coming, cut your losses and do something else.

Phil SMITH is a professional interpreter and member of AIIC


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