Specialists in oral translation services

Wednesday, October 26, 2022


 Por Felix Ordeig, AIB

So-called booths in the plenary

During the COVID 19 pandemic more than a few interpreters never felt comfortable at the prospect of practising RSI (remote simultaneous interpreting) even though they recognized that it was the only option to continue working in most instances. The reasons for their unhappiness at this disruption can be easily understood: working on one’s own in one’s home studio, having to multitask, being on edge at the possibilities of Internet outages or power cuts due to electrical storms, distracted by extraneous and loud noises which interfere with one’s concentration (such as renovation work in a neighbouring apartment, or repairs to the lift, or the fire brigade rushing to the site of some incident on your street, all adversities which I have experienced) are all factors which make distance interpreting rather more tiring and stressful than usual.

Plus, above all there was the paramount issue of substandard or toxic sound due among other factors to speakers not using the appropriate microphones or doing without them altogether. But much has been written about all this, we are all familiar with the drawbacks of RSI (and its positive consequences, let us not forget, not least among them new sources of work) and in any case RSI is not the subject of my scribblings on this occasion.

I mention the above because many interpreters – at least in Europe – are getting back increasingly to in-person meetings. I count myself amongst those who look forward to the move back to “normal”, with co-location with your colleagues, proper consoles, most participants in the conference hall, savvy technicians and above all decent sound; we have nonetheless to accept that RSI is here to stay and has its place in the market.

Now, I never thought that the day would come when I would miss the relative predictability and cumbersome certainties of RSI routines; after all, during the pandemic many of us felt a certain nostalgia, I am sure, for let’s call it “classical” interpreting where so many things as mentioned above could be taken for granted. But we erased from our minds those instances where in-person events went badly wrong because the equipment didn’t make the grade, or technicians weren’t up to the task of ensuring decent sound or at troubleshooting, or the booths were substandard or placed in such a way that interpreters had no view of speakers or participants… and so on.

That day came on a very recent assignment with an international organization in a fairly remote location: the capital city of an ex -Soviet republic on the fringes of Europe (and that is stretching geographical definitions) where, on arriving at the venue - a vast cavernous sports hall which probably hadn’t seen a coat of paint since the collapse of the USSR - early on the first morning, our hearts sank: there were desks with small partitions -which reminded one of black and white photographs of the interpreters at work during the Nuremberg trials – plus absolutely no sound-proofing, no direct view, and most importantly, no sound whatsoever. There were some rather ancient-looking consoles, and hardly any headsets to be seen; there were technicians with whom communication was a big challenge as for most of them Russian was the only second language, they didn’t seem to master the equipment (they certainly didn’t know how to set up channels) and they obviously felt quite out of their depth.

“Big boss know everything. Where is Big boss? Later, later” when 30’ remained before the first opening address.

So, faced with such a challenging situation what does one do? I can say what ensued in this instance. The situation at the outset was that no “chef d’equipe” had been appointed and the 12 interpreters recruited - 2 teams with ‘retour’ for five languages plus two local language colleagues - didn’t really know each other that well (and it soon emerged that there wasn’t much love lost between those that did). There was an officer who had been appointed by the Institution to liaise with the interpreting team, but it became clear that this person was multi-tasking and overwhelmed at having to solve many other pressing issues.

So we felt we were on our own, certainly at the early stages, and decided on a damage-limitation strategy; four colleagues, one from Geneva, one Spanish speaker plus a Russian speaker and one of the locals - who was familiar with the fallout from dodgy tendering procedures and knew on which doors to knock - agreed to try and contact the local organizers and the representatives of the international organization to find solutions (by this time the inaugural speeches had been delivered in English with no interpreting ) and also make quite clear that the fault of this mess did not lie with the interpreters.

It also transpired that the meetings where interpreting was essential were the parallel workshop sessions, some with Spanish, others with French, and one or two with Russian. National experts had travelled huge distances from Latin America and Africa and were reliant on interpretation being provided, so we made it our business to get in touch with the workshop coordinators and explain the situation (two colleagues per booth were involved) and getting them to put pressure on the local organizers to find solutions (in the workshop rooms there were empty booths, devoid of any trace of equipment (see photograph) and offering to do consecutive and whispering while the equipment was slowly set up when “Big Boss” finally appeared and started barking orders (which didn’t really make any difference). 

A new definition of a “pure booth”?
Cooperation and complicity with the workshop coordinators and participants were essential to “get them on our side” maintaining a constructive atmosphere when, after a sound system and consoles (only one per booth!) had finally been rigged up, the system kept breaking down. Receivers often didn’t work as they were of different makes and not always compatible – interpreters had to alternate between working from the booth and moving into the room to provide loud whispering for participants plus consecutive.

The Guardian of the equipment storeroom
One step we all agreed was important was to keep the Chief Interpreter staff back at HQ in Geneva informed at all times, plus keeping the local contact officer in the loop; one Geneva-based colleague who worked there regularly was responsible for that.

All the above was very stressful and exhausting, but it had positive outcomes: due recognition from participants and workshop coordinators, as well as the interpreting service at HQ. Also, adversity did have a certain “bonding” effect on the interpreters; even the more “short-fused” colleagues quickly realized that loud anger, shouting and wringing one’s hands wasn’t going to get us very far, and we did end up getting on fairly well together for the duration of the event

My takeaway in a situation of such total non-functioning was what to do what we ended up doing: take a deep breath, keep calm, agree on steps to be taken, share out responsibilities and try and make sure insofar as possible to get all stakeholders informed and in particular get session organisers and participants on board and on your side.