Freelance Diaries: Part 3 — Lost in Interpretation

February 25, 2016 in Freelance


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.

Review: the Peloponnese and Delphi by Taxi!

June 25, 2009 in Travel

The Temple of Apollo at Delphi

The Temple of Apollo at Delphi

For those visiting Athens in small groups or are willing to dish out a little extra cash, you may want to consider hiring a taxi for a day or two to visit places outside the capital.  As a sucker for ancient ruins and Greek mythology, my family of 4 (parents, wife and myself) took two separate day trips by taxi to the east side of the Peloponnese (Corinth, Mycenae and Nafplio) and Delphi, some of the most amazing and fascinating places in all of Greece.  Here’s what I thought of it.

Why taxi?

All-day taxi hire prices in Greece are generally quite reasonable, and there are plenty of services around that specialize in such tours.  We went with Greece Taxi (which was the cheapest by a slim margin) but there are lots of others such as Greek Taxi and George the Famous Taxi Driver of Greece

The only con I can think of is of course the lack of a knowledgeable tour guide.  Your taxi driver may know a little general information, but they are not experienced guides who will be able to answer all your questions.  However, if you are like me and like to read things up for yourself in your own time (either before or after), or if you are or are with people who just like to see things and know some basic stuff without going into the intricate details (such as my parents and my wife) then it might not make much of a difference.  Most of the sites provide a short outline and have information boards anyway.

My experience

Booking online in advance with Greece Taxi was easy and straightforward.  They were very fast in responding to inquiries and wrote and spoke excellent English.

Both tours were also pleasant, though if I were to pick one I would go for Delphi (which I’m told is the msot popular one-day tour).  Before I arrived in Greece, I was most looking forward to the Peloponnese trip, but if you were going to visit just one place outside of Athens, I would recommend Delphi.

The Peloponnese (Corinth, Mycenae, Nafplio)

Corinth Canal

The spectacular Corinth Canal

Our driver Bill arrived a little late due to traffic, but when we called up the office to check they were very apologetic and good about it.  Bill was pretty funny, and spoke enough English to communicate and tell us a bit about the places we were going to.  The funniest thing was that he printed off info off the web for us and added his own comments and corrections to them.

Bill drove like an absolute demon, going up to 160-180 km/h, but for the most part he was in control.  The first stop was Corinth Canal, which was spectacular to look for a little while.   Then we headed to the archaeological site of Ancient Corinth (at one time one of the 3 major powers in Greece), where we got to see the majestic Temple of Apollo (there seemed to be quite a few of these in Greece).  Much of the place was in ruins but there was enough to see (including a small museum) to get your money’s worth.  Entry was 7 Euros per person (free for EU students!).  About 60-90 minutes was sufficient for us.

Ancient Corinth

The Temple of Apollo at Ancient Corinth

Next we headed to the ancient city of Mycenae, also worth a look but probably the one place I would personally skip if there was something else better (and there probably was, read on).  The Mycenean acropolis is perched on a hill and you have to walk up to see the various archaelogical finds.  The highlights include the Lion Gate at the entry and Grave Circle A, which dates back to 16th Century BC.  Roughly 45 minutes to an hour is ample time.  Entry is 8 Euros each (students free).


The Mycenaean acropolis

The third stop was the beautiful seaside town of Nafplio, we we had a lengthy albeit expensive lunch, while Bill went to visit his cousin and grandmother.  After lunch we went to visit Palamidi Castle up on the hill, one of the most underrated attractions on the Peloponnese.  The castle was most probably our highlight of the day, and we spent about 2 hours there as there was much to see and explore.  You can go right in and see the well-preserved bastions (as it was built in the early 19th Century) – it was a true architectural masterpiece, and the views overlooking the sea were magnificent.  Entry is 4 Euros (students free).  We had a feeling that you can easily spend a couple of days in Nafplio.

Palamidi 1

The very underrated Palamidi Castle in Nafplio

Unfortunately, Bill told us that time had run out and it was time to head back to Athens.  Here’s an important tip: make sure you know what’s on your itinerary.  We didn’t, so we didn’t know that we were supposed to visit Epidavros (or Epidaurus) and its famous theatre on the way back.  We did inquire about it but Bill told us there wasn’t enough time to fit it in the schedule (even though we stuck to his time recommendations at each location).  I had a feeling Bill was trying to get home early for the day, as we arrived back at our hotel an hour earlier (so our trip was 9 hours instead of the 10 we paid for).  So it was a little disappointing because I was really looking forward to seeing the theatre, and we actually did have time to go see it but were kind of tricked out of it.  Apart from that bitter pill the rest of the trip was awesome.

Palamidi 2

Some views from the top of Palamidi Castle


Our driver today was David, who spoke perfect English (as he was originally living in Melbourne).  David also drove like a demon, but he maxed out at around 160 km/h.  It took a little while but we eventually reached the town of Levadia, where we stopped to take some photos.  There wasn’t enough time to see the Castle there but we did get to see the water wheel, some running water, stone bridges and a nymph statue – all very pretty.


The Nymph at Levadia

We had another short stop (for coffee) just before reaching the town of Arachova (popular in the winter for skiiers), where we took some fantastic shots of the little houses perched on the hill.  Then we drove through the town’s narrow streets and eventually reached the brilliant, must-see archaelogical site of Delphi.  In my opinion if you see Delphi then you can live not seeing any other archaelogical sites in Greece.  It’s not only huge but also extraordinarily well preserved and there was so much to see (including a small museum).  It was, after all, considered by ancient Greeks as the centre of the world, and was where the Oracle once sat and delivered advice from the gods.


The bustling town of Arachova

The combined entry ticket (site and museum) is 9 Euros (students free again!).  For me, the highlights were of course the Temple of Apollo, the Theatre (to make up for the one missed in Epidavros) and the Hall of the Knidians right at the top.  The view was amazing and only got better and better as you walked up.

Note that the Sanctuary of Athena Pronaea is literally just down the road, but as we didn’t see any signs pointing towards it we missed it.  Make sure you don’t!

We actually spent a little too much time at Delphi (like 3 hours) because we liked it so much, and consequently decided to skip lunch and head back to Athens early.  We arrived only a few minutes to the 9-hour limit we paid for due to traffic.

The Theatre and Temple at the Sanctuary of Apollo in Delphi

The Temple and Theatre at the Sanctuary of Apollo in Delphi


I would definitely recommend getting a taxi for day trips from Athens (or even a couple of days to go further inland like Sparta and Oympia in the Peloponnese or Meteora).  The price is reasonable if you have 3 or more people, you save a great deal of time and the drivers are friendly but don’t get in your way.  Particularly in the summer it can be great getting back to a nicely air-conditioned car.  Just be smart and be aware of your itinerary and the places you want to visit so you don’t miss out on anything like we did.  If there are changes you would like to make then it’s best to discuss them up front with your driver.

PS: Due to a request I have enlarged the photos by, wait for it, 2%…seriously, I’m working on it.