To interpret it not to interpret: that is the question.
When I first went full-time freelance I had no intention of doing any interpretation. I was perfectly content to stay at home and take my time translating everything from movie subtitles to corporate documents. It was what I knew and what I was comfortable with.
Over the last three months or so, however, things haven’t quite turned out the way I expected. While I still do text translation mostly, I’ve also taken on a bunch of interpretation gigs of various shapes and sizes. I’ve interpreted for a couple of Q&A sessions at a film festival; I’ve interpreted for a couple of concert productions, one big and one small. I’m typing this part of the post at 9pm on Thursday night after a marathon 11.5-hour day where I interpreted for more more than 7 hours in three separate sessions lasting at least two hours each. It was one of the most brutal work experiences I’ve ever had (more on that shit later).
These are my stories.
Types of interpretation
As an intro, I just want to offer an intro into what interpretation work entails. It’s not just translating from one language to another — it’s doing it orally, within a limited time frame, without any outside assistance, and with all ears on you. In other words, it’s a whole different universe of pain.
The reason why I love translating text is because I get to do it at my own pace. There’s no problem if I don’t know the word because I can take my time to think about it or look up other resources (Google Translate is actually a fantastic resource at times when you want a precise definition to a single word or phrase).
When I translate text, I like to make sure I get my shit right. I can go back and forth for ages to ensure the shit is perfect. You throw all those luxuries out when it comes to interpretation. All you’re doing is hoping you can remember what was just said, hoping your brain can process the words, and hoping something that makes sense spews out of your mouth before the people in the room start getting embarrassed for you.
The difficulty of the interpretation varies depending on the type. The easiest is probably sentence by sentence — dude says a sentence (sometimes just a word or part of a sentence), and you translate it into the relevant language. Provided each segment is relatively short, it shouldn’t pose much of a problem.
If that’s too fragmented (as I have found that to be), you might go with a whole block of speech — be it a paragraph or a few sentences. This often becomes a memory challenge more than anything else, so it’s always a good idea (as I discovered the hard way — more on that later) to have a notepad ready to jot points down.
The hardest absolutely has to be simultaneous interpretation, which is when you have the interpreter talking at the same time and over the voice of the speaker (usually into a microphone that broadcasts into headphones worn by members of the audience). This means the interpreter needs to be able to listen and talk at the same time — in two different languages. And that’s just insane.
The pay of course also varies wildly. Corporate gigs tend to pay more, while those related to the arts — such as concerts — tend to pay less, apparently because a lot of people are willing to take less money for the opportunity to be close to celebs. Meetings are considered different to lectures or forums. Sometimes you just need to follow people around at all times and provide assistance when needed. Other times it might be a combination of a bunch of different duties. Sometimes the interpreter even becomes the errand boy. It’s all part of the job.
I’ve found that if the client asks you what you want you should never sell yourself short. They won’t make a deal that breaks their budget, so don’t be shy — just make sure you can back it up when the time comes. And you must get the terms and conditions straight before inking the deal, especially if the event goes beyond specified times.
The main reason I took on interpretation cases is the pay. One day of interpretation work could equal a week of pay or more as a text translator. One week of interpretation work could equal a month of pay. One of the cases I took that lasted two weeks paid me as much as three months of what I earned in my old day job.
It sounds fantastic, but honestly, it evens out a fair bit when you consider the two things I want to discuss next: preparation and exertion.
It’s easy to look an interpreter and think — that guy is getting paid a lot for the amount of hours he’s doing. I used to think that too. What people don’t see is all the work that goes on behind the scenes. I’m talking hours and hours, sometimes days or even weeks of preparation. You never know what will be said or how things will turn out, so you must always be ready for whatever comes your way.
If there is a script or rundown you need to study it. You have to research the people or company you’re working for/with. You have to research the industry if you’re not familiar with it. You have to look up common terms and phrases used in that industry. Sometimes you might have to read/listen/watch a bunch of related documents, songs or movies or video clips. Above all, you gotta practice because it sharpens your mind. Whatever it takes, really. On the one hand it is about being competent enough to interpret on the spot, though for me it is probably more about being mentally prepared so that I can be confident. Because when you stress out, you blank out, and when you blank out, you freak out.
Preparation is essential; it might not always help, but occasionally it could save your butt. One of the first interpretation cases was a post-screening Q&A with a documentary filmmaker. As part of the preparation I watched the film, but I also did a bunch of research about the background and also the director. Lucky I did.
On the night of the Q&A, while we were backstage, the director told me she’d keep her responses short and sweet — I believe her exact words were “one line at a time” — so that it’s easier for me. I was so relieved I didn’t even take my notepad up with me. But as it turned out, “one line” was 3 minutes of uninterrupted monologue. First question — 3 minutes. Second question — 2 minutes. “Oh sorry, was that too long?” said. Third question — 3 minutes.
I should have been shitting bricks, but I only shat pellets instead because I came prepared. During my research I had read a couple of interviews with the director about the making of the film, and fortunately most of the questions were about the production process, so I already knew what the answers were going to be. It saved me from turning into a stuttering beetroot on stage in front of hundreds of people.
By exertion I am referring to the mental exertion required for interpretation. It’s the stress of being put on the spot in front of other people and the laser focus you need to maintain so you can preform an incredibly difficult task.
Situation plays a big part in the stress and focus levels. The rule of thumb is more people, more stress. Interpreting for one person is less stressful than interpreting for a meeting; interpreting for a meeting is less stressful than interpreting in front of an audience; and interpreting on TV is…well, I’m about to find that out in a week or so.
On the other hand, the amount of focus you need to have as an interpreter is incredible. Normally when I have a meeting or listen to a seminar or whatever, I’m selectively focused. I can zone out momentarily, think about how the Indiana Pacers are doing in the standings or what I’m going to have for dinner that night. When I translate, I can take mental breaks (and often physical breaks) every few seconds and end up spending hours on YouTube checking out film trailers. With interpretation, you need to be locked in at all times. You never know what’s going to come next, and sometimes you won’t know when it’s coming. Your brain is churning constantly, listening, processing, translating, talking. You can’t take any time out. You can afford to.
It’s such an intense and draining experience that I feel like I’m totally burned out after, but at the same time your mind is buzzing so much that it becomes impossible to relax immediately afterwards. It is why simultaneous interpreters are typically hired in pairs so they can rotate in 15-minute blocks. The focus and concentration required is so high that you can only sustain it for 15 minutes at a time.
When I used to sit in sessions with an interpreter I would put myself in their position and try to interpret everything that was said to see if I could handle it. And I used to think it’s not THAT hard and occasionally I would think I’d probably be able to do a better job. But that’s because I’m an idiot. When you’re in the actual interpreter’s chair it’s a whole different story. When you’re practicing on the side while someone else does it, you can take short mental breaks, you don’t have any of the pressure, and you don’t actually have to speak out loud. It’s apples and oranges. So next time, spare a thought for the poor red-faced interpreter struggling to get the right words out — he or she is likely much more capable than you think.
This is probably the most important issue for interpreters. When you’re fully focused and trying not to screw up the interpretation, the last thing you need is to be busting to go to the toilet. It makes an already difficult situation a living hell. It’s tempting to drink the water or beverage they offer you because you’re so parched from talking non-stop, but it’s really an evil trap. The interpreter can’t excuse himself/herself to go take a leak. The show cannot go on without you. You’re being paid to hold it in. So my advice is that it’s always better to be dehydrated than feeling like you’re bladder is about to explode when you have more pressing concerns. Trust me, I learned this lesson the hard way.
Every case is different
It’s a great thing to gain more experience, because with more experience comes better skills and vocabulary, and that in turn creates more confidence. But the reality is that you can’t think that every case will be the same, and that if you’ve done one well you can handle them all. You must assess each case on its own merits when deciding whether or not to accept because they’re all so different.
For instance, I once took on a case as the interpreter of a foreign production team staging a concert for local performers. That turned out to be exhausting because that consisted of consecutive 16-18 hour days but also a lot of fun. I became the go-between for every unit, from the producer to the stage set-up crew to the lighting people to the video crew to the talent to the venue staff. I was doing everything from interpreting meetings to general discussions to translating work schedules. I learned so much about concert production in just a week or so, made lots of great friends and thoroughly burned myself out for some very good pay.
More recently, I was invited to do work on another concert, a much smaller one that only required my presence for one night and a full day, and for less pay (and less hours). I was fully prepared to be helpful and super busy, but also for some fun and learning. Instead, it was mostly a very boring experience. Instead of being the only translator for every unit, we had three interpreters for essentially three people — ie, the three of us were assigned to a foreigner each. They needed a little assistance but not much at all, and all the work could have easily been done by one person (of course I do realise it is better safe than sorry). However, all we did was stand around and follow them everywhere while they figured out how to solve their own problems. Standing around in my opinion is the worst — it was a waste of our time and made the people we’re supposed to be assisting uncomfortable. I’d rather spend that time doing something meaningful and I’m sure the foreigners would have preferred to be left alone.
Another major difference between the two experiences was that for the larger concert, I was a direct hire by the boss, whereas for the smaller concert I was hired by the translation company assigned to provide all the translation and chaperoning services. In the first case I was given autonomy to try and help out in any way I can, even in capacities that went beyond my job description. It was tiring but it was fun, and it made me feel like I was part of a team where everyone was working towards a common goal — to deliver the best show possible to ticket-buying audiences. In the second case, the boss was always hanging around with panicky and untrusting eyes, making everyone feel really uncomfortable. I understand it’s her business and she’s trying to make a good impression to her client, but it just made everyone really tense even when there was absolutely nothing to do, and it sucked the joy out of the experience. It felt like everyone was just covering their own backsides and didn’t care about the bigger picture and purpose.
So I guess that’s just a long-winded way of saying: There are good cases and bad cases. Never assume; expect the unexpected.
When it’s all said and done, I don’t regret any of my interpretation cases. As exhausting and stressful as it is, I think they are all valuable experienced that build not only competence but also character. While I still prefer — by far — the comfort of translating in my own home, I do look forward to taking on more interpretation projects in the future to expand my horizons.
PS: For the record, the best interpreters I’ve ever seen are the ones working for the Communist Party of China. I saw these nuts in action when I went to cover the 18th National Congress in Beijing in 2012 and they were seamless. I don’t think I could have done as good of a job had I sat down and took my time and had all the resources at my disposal. These guys were machines, I tell ya. Probably machines that have been trained since infancy and terrified that they would “disappear” if they disappointed the government.