Interpreting nightmare

I’ve been away interpreting for two days in Hastings. This meeting certainly pushed my adaptation skills to the limit, as I had to deal with three very different styles of presentation, all with their own challenges. I think that, although I found it very hard on the whole (more so than usual), I’ve learnt some useful lessons that might help me improve in my work. The context: one big table, 14 English people, two French: one of the project partners and me, who had to simultaneously whisper in his ear the translation of what was being said.
For the first presentation, I had been sent a lot of information beforehand, including the presentation itself. I always do my best to get as much background material as possible before an interpreting job. Preparation is crucial to become familiar with the vocabulary used and the topic discussed; it also helps avoiding those awful moments when a word fails you and you lose the thread of what is being said. The style of the presenter, however, was tricky to deal with. He had a tendency to trail off in the middle of sentences and to go off on tangents, which made it difficult to produce a coherent translation. Instead of starting interpreting after a couple of seconds of the person starting their sentence, like I normally do, I chose to leave it longer and take notes, to make sure I obtained a better idea of where he was going. It meant I had to speak very fast to catch up with him, but it worked well.
The second presenter was very different. She was very focused on her message, which meant I could dive straight in with my interpreting, knowing she wouldn’t lead me down dead ends. She was so clear and coherent that I would have had little problem following her and conveying the presentation even if I hadn’t seen it beforehand (which I did). The only difficulty was the rhythm of her speech; she rarely paused and it meant I hardly stopped speaking for a whole hour. However, timing your intake of mineral water so as to not lag behind isn’t really the worst problem interpreters have to deal with.
For the third presentation, I hadn’t had any sight of the presentation in advance. However, this is not uncommon and I’ve always been confident in interpreting with little preparation in these meetings, as I’m comfortable with their general theme (environmental matters). As the presentation began, the first difficulty became immediately clear: there was an awful lot of information to cover and he was racing through his slides. I managed to adapt my rhythm of interpreting to his delivery, but a new challenge arose: the content of his presentation took a very technical turn. I was soon out of my depth and struggled to keep up while conveying the meaning. It got to the point where I actually couldn’t understand what he was referring to. I had no choice but tell the French person I was interpreting for that I was very sorry but I couldn’t understand all of the presentation, let alone interpret it. I assured him that I was going to do my best to convey whatever I could to him, but that the level of detail wouldn’t be the same. He was very understanding and we agreed to talk to the presenter afterwards to make sure he would send him the presentation and notes to be translated. Everyone was very aware of my predicament, as most people found the presentation extremely difficult to follow, even in their own languages. At the time, the confused glances from the English people in the room were actually of little comfort; an overwhelming feeling of personal failure had taken hold of me.
I went home still feeling awful about failing to do my job properly. Then I talked to my friend Beth, who has been experiencing difficulties in her job. She told me that when she feels out of her depth, going back to the office and sharing her experiences with her team really helps. The more senior people, according to her, can immediately relate to her situation and are always very helpful in providing reassurance and comfort. Unfortunately, I don’t know any other interpreters and I think hearing how others have dealt with difficult situations such as this one would really help me to understand how to deal with them in the future, should they arise. So please, tell me about your own interpreting nightmares and how you reacted to them; let this be a cathartic space for all of us lonely interpreters!

By | 2016-10-18T15:52:08+00:00 March 5th, 2004|Interpreting|6 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. Jemima March 5, 2004 at 5:19 pm

    That sounds awful, but I think most people can relate to it, regardless of profession. In some ways, the more you care, the more it hurts when you can’t perform as well as you would like. You should be encouraged that you don’t feel like this all the time, and that you care enough about your job to mind when you are not performing as well as you would like.

  2. Robert Castelo March 8, 2004 at 7:33 pm

    This is quite a common situation, where the original source material makes little sense even in the language it was written in – particularly in technobabble pieces by marketeers, who have no real practical knowledge, so just drop as many industry buzz words as possible to sound like experts.
    On an interpreting job this is a no win situation, specially if there is little time for preparation.
    On a translation project, there is usually time to clarify with the author what they actually want to say, and in many cases this leads to the translation being more clear than the original source material!

  3. steve March 9, 2004 at 1:51 pm

    I don’t interpret, but I can relate to the feeling you’re describing – feeling a bit lost in the lonely sea of linguistics without anyone to dump on 😉
    All I can add is that it sounds like you handled the situation very professionally. Interpreters can’t be expected to know a language in its full entirety – native speakers don’t even come close to that. You prepared to the best of your ability – that’s all one can do.
    I wouldn’t call it a failure, either. The next time it happens, it probably won’t seem so awful. So it’s a learning experience.

  4. tania March 18, 2004 at 8:32 pm

    Do you work alone?

  5. céline March 18, 2004 at 8:40 pm

    Tania, for this client I do, and I can tell you I’m completely braindead at the end of a day of interpreting for them.

  6. tania March 21, 2004 at 5:36 pm

    I guess, that makes it even more difficult.
    a) having to work at least twice as hard and
    b) noone with whom to share what the job was like.
    Maybe you could talk to the client again?
    Still. Good luck, anyway and I really like your translation blogg.

Comments are closed.