Specialists in oral translation services

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Reminiscences and musings

By Martha Hobart, AIB


Recently in this blog we've talked about new approaches to simultaneous interpretation and the growing use of modern technologies, especially remote interpreting. These two posts highlighted the many changes rapidly taking place in our profession in the past few years and the effects they have had on our job, and will lead to more changes in the coming years. All at what seems to be warp speed.

Reflecting on what Pilar and Felix wrote about led me to think about the changes that were taking place in the profession when I started many years ago. I speak mainly about Spain because that's where I've worked for most of my career.

At that time simultaneous interpreting was fairly new in Spain and starting to take off in the private sector, which has traditionally been a major source of work for us in this country. Companies and other groups organizing conferences had little or no experience with the technique and didn't know what to expect. Working conditions were pretty primitive compared with today and could vary enormously from one assignment to another. Surprise seemed to be the norm.

Likewise, there was no training available in Spain and aspiring interpreters had to acquire the necessary skills however they could, although there were colleagues who had trained in other countries and became de facto trainers for us newbies.

(By the way, I wouldn't recommend this method of trying to break into the profession. The profession has matured, interpretation is a more complex task than it was years ago and conference goers have higher expectations of interpreters who call themselves professionals. Better to find a good training program and start off on the right foot.)

There was a core group of interpreters in Spain who were in contact with AIIC colleagues and often worked with them. Around the time I began, the association became established in Spain, which was a great boost to sorting out some of the issues facing us and helped improve working conditions.

Then there were the booths. Tabletop booths were rampant, more or less workable if there were only two languages because only one interpreter was speaking at a time. But more languages meant more voices and, to top it off, the booths were usually placed side by side, all in a row if possible. A cacophony of languages and voices, which caused no end of pain for interpreters and audience alike.


Plus poorly designed built-in booths, to the extreme of a row of one-person booths in some cases. Well, we could always tap on the glass and use gestures to communicate with our partner in the booth next door.


A lot could be said about booths, but we'll leave that for another occasion. The ISO booth standards (built-in and mobile) are now more widely known and have done much to improve booth quality.

I digress to an anecdote, one of many but this one stands out in my mind after so many years. I was hired to interpret for an interview with a fashion designer, fortunately very short and I was working by myself. The setting was the rooftop swimming pool of a luxury hotel in Barcelona, crowded with interviewer, guest, models, cameras and audio equipment and staff of all sorts.

So where did the interpretation booth fit in all this? It didn't. Interpreter and technical crew were stuffed into one of the rooms on the top floor. The room was given over entirely to equipment, including the SI equipment, and the booth was — the bathroom.馃槷

They put a board across the sink with mike and console on top and a stool for me in front of it. With the door closed the sound-proofing was perfect.馃槒

There are two things that have always stood out in my mind when in the booth. One is what I can best describe as connecting with the speaker. This is the strange feeling I've often had when interpreting someone who is relaxed and at ease, a feeling of being somehow connected to the speaker at a level more than just words.

Some people have a firm grasp on what they are talking about and are able to express themselves clearly and in an organized way. They are able to connect with their audience and the interpreters as well, and make both listening to them and interpreting them an enjoyable experience.

As opposed to people who are not accustomed to speaking in public and are nervous about it. Their uncertain feeling is transmitted to their listeners. As an interpreter in such a situation I tend to feel rather disconnected and not really in communication with the speaker.

Then there is the issue of speed, a common complaint among interpreters in general. But I’ve had the experience more than once that it’s not so difficult if a fast speaker has a well organized presentation, which makes it much easier to pick out the salient points and deliver a coherent interpretation.

I end with some thoughts on distance interpreting, including videoconferencing.

The first hint of this mode was interpretation over the telephone, which was in use long before it was even thought of as a "special" system that required special treatment. It is still in use today.

Then videoconferencing came along and with it the idea of speakers, interpreters and audience not all being in the same place. At first it was limited to a speaker in a remote location with audience and interpreters in a different place but together. Little by little the three components — speakers, audience, interpreters — came to be treated as separate units, and we all know where that has led us today.

In the early days of distance interpreting, satellite connections were recommended to avoid the unreliability of telephone lines. AIIC attempted to make this a requirement but with limited success. Sometimes there were satellites in the connection chain, but there was almost inevitably a telephone line somewhere along the way, usually at the start or at the end.

Then came the Internet which, believe it or not, was thought to be a good solution back in the day when Wifi was still in its infancy. Wifi has greatly improved but is limited, unreliable or lacking in many parts of the world.

As often happens when a new technology appears on the scene, the possibility of videoconferencing and distance interpreting sparked much excitement in the conference world. It was seen as a panacea for getting around the expense of bringing interpreters to a meeting venue. After a time, however, conference organizers realized that a remote setup could only be efficient with proper equipment and properly trained technical staff. Which often turned out to be more expensive than bringing in a team of interpreters.

We are still in the process of learning how to use this new technology in a way that makes it truly useful rather than problematic. It's a complex issue and there are no simple answers. New ideas are often not well thought out and are put into practice by people who have little experience or knowledge about what is involved.

What were once called new technologies are now becoming standard and involve a whole range of complications in working conditions never imagined by any of us when they first appeared. Once again we find ourselves in a time of rapid changes that can leave us feeling uncertain about our future, but I am confident that today's interpreters will be capable of coping with the challenges just as their predecessors did in their day.