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Hi everyone, this is my first ever question! I am finishing my course in conference interpreting and recently during a 'field practice' assignment I came across a stumbling block. The speaker I was interpreting suddenly announced that she was going to show a video to illustrate the kind of project she had in mind. The video was very short (3 minutes), but I was at a loss for what to do - I had not been told that a video would be shown and, in short, did not feel up to the job of interpreting a documentary on tequila making! I ended up switching off the mike, feeling disconcerted. At the end of the meeting the 'video incident' was not mentioned and the delegates thanked us for our interpretation...

What would you have done? I have the feeling that this sort of incident can be avoided just by having a checklist of questions to ask the speakers beforehand, but I'm still not sure if I did the right thing.


asked 30 Apr '12, 06:33

Louise's gravatar image


edited 02 May '12, 06:16

Delete's gravatar image

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Thank you so much, everyone, for your thoughtful replies!

It's good to know that as interpreters we are in control of what we interpret or not - thus the clause/caveat in our contract - but as always in this field communication and solidarity with the other booths are key. In that sense informing the listeners on mike that interpreting ad hoc is impossible/you're going to give it a go is a really good tip.

Thanks also for the aiic Young Interpreters Coordinator tip, Tanja.

(02 May '12, 05:51) Louise

Dear Louise,

thanks for sharing this here, because the hope is that it will save others who read your contribution the experience. Otherwise let me assure you that probably every colleague I know (of course including myself) once (or several times) had this frustrating experience. Here are my thoughts: It is true that you should have found out before, but we are all only human and we all forget to ask questions, especially sometimes when the focus was on other things that were tricky in the context of the preparation or organisation of a conference. A checklist is a good thing. However, it is even more important to have a clause in your contract that says that, as a rule, you won't interpret videos that you have not seen before or have received the transcript of in good time for preparation (same applies, by the way, for texts that are read out). So you can always refer to this clause, and it would give you the chance, legally speaking, to simply refuse to interpret any unexpected videos.

How do you politely "refuse" without "just" switching off the mike? My phrase is "The interpreter apologizes, she has not seen this video before and therefore cannot interpret it ad-hoc". A good-will modification would be "The interpreter apologizes, she has not seen this video before, and even if it is difficult/a challenge/ to translate videos ad-hoc she will try and give you a summary of what is said." However, it is important, that, in fractions of seconds, you to decide whether you refuse altogether or whether you can afford to have a go at the summary. Once you have started, you cannot stop in the middle. With more experience, this decision will become easier, though.

However, I would also like to share the following positive experience with you: I was at a conference with several colleagues, and we found out at very short notice before the conference was resumed after lunch that the next speaker would show a video. We were given the chance to get a glimpse of it, and realized that the sound quality was extremely poor and the people spoke heavy accents. It was, however, very much also the mood that was to be brought across. My colleague had this great idea: we asked the speaker to show the video and to announce before running the film that she (the speaker) would give a short summary of what was said afterwards. That was very professional, because, without interpretation, the mood of the film was conveyed very well and the "information" came across afterwards when the speaker gave her summary, which we interpreted. I look forward to other colleagues' ideas! Julia

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answered 30 Apr '12, 07:58

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edited 02 May '12, 06:11

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Hi Louise and welcome on board, I'm sure you'll enjoy the ride ;-).

Here goes chapter and verse:

  • ideally, the organizers should have been forewarned by means of some form of "Advice to Organizers" inter alia covering this issue: "Projection: If films, slides or transparencies are to be shown and require interpretation, please ensure that the screen is clearly visible from the booths and that the interpreters have received a script or a copy of the texts to be projected in advance."

  • and your contract should include: "If films are shown during a meeting, no interpretation of the sound-track shall be provided unless the sound is transmitted directly to the interpreters' headphones and unless the script has been supplied to the interpreters beforehand and the commentary is spoken at a normal speed."

  • plus speakers should have been given a "Speakers' Guide" also covering this: " If you wish to show a film, slides or transparencies, please make sure that the interpreters receive the script or a copy of the transparencies. The booths are often situated far away from the screen and it would be helpful if the interpreters had copies of the projected text in front of them."

...or words to that effect :-).

Now, of course sometimes and irrespective of our efforts, films are sprung on us... and if you get no cues from the Head of Team, my advice in that case is to tell your delegates that a film has just been announced and insofar as this is the first the interpreters were told about it interpreting it will unfortunately be unfeasible; if you're feeling generous, you may add that you will have to determine by listening whether the soundtrack will let you provide a running commentary or not even that... and if it does you may do just that, it'll get you brownie points - you should however take the matter to the Head of Team ASAP so that the team will react in unison if it happens again.

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answered 30 Apr '12, 08:11

msr's gravatar image


edited 30 Apr '12, 08:26

I agree with all of the above. Also, it might be a good idea to make eye contact (if possible) with the other booths to find out if they feel up to the task (it might be a bit awkward if e.g. the English booth makes an off-the-cuff decision to interpret whilst, for instance, the Chinese booth remains silent).

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answered 30 Apr '12, 10:52

Tanja's gravatar image


I agree with the above. In an ideal world we would all get a contract stating that you wouldn't interpret a video without getting the script or seeing it beforehand but we live in a less than ideal world...

As a general rule, never, ever switch off your mic without explaining why. If the sound is less than perfect you can say "the interpreter apologises but the sound is not good therefore I can't interpret the video" If there is no sound problem you do your best and at the end you can always say "that the interpreters didn't receive the script beforehand"

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answered 30 Apr '12, 14:05

Marta%20Piera%20Marin's gravatar image

Marta Piera ...

I also include a caviat in my contracts saying: “If films are shown during a meeting, no interpretation of the sound-track shall be provided unless the sound is transmitted directly to the interpreters' headphones and unless the script has been supplied to the interpreters beforehand and the commentary is spoken at a normal speed.” I therefore feel covered if I decide not to interpret a video. I usually announce that a video will be shown and that “the interpreter will let you follow it directly” (or something to that effect).

However, if the team leader asks me to try and provide a running commentary, I will try and do it, provided 1) the sound is transmitted directly to my headphones; 2) there is no background music preventing me from understanding the message; and 3) the speed is reasonable. Otherwise, I’ll try my best, but will either stop if the attempt is futile, or announce at the end that, unfortunately, no script was provided. I also check what the other booths do, so that we all do the same thing. As you can see from the various responses, we all tend to react in the same way.

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answered 30 Apr '12, 15:05

Danielle's gravatar image


I have the feeling that this sort of incident can be avoided just by having a checklist of questions to ask the speakers beforehand, but I'm still not sure if I did the right thing.
  • As an afterthought: aiic's standard contracts often work as a kind of checklist because clients are very good at reading all the helpful small-print (which not only clarifies points like the one you raised but also lots of other details such as interpretation during dinner events etc. )

At uni, one of our lecturers brought a few hard copies along and told us to get in touch with .aiic's Young Interpreters Coordinator should we need more. If you are from Germany you might want to contact Conrado for further information? - On an unrelated note: I would be careful not to say anything about sound quality before switching off the mike. I know that such a comment is not meant to offend anyone and many interpreters use this strategy. Yet, one very useful advice a colleague once gave me was: "Be nice to the technicians." It is not only a matter of courtesy (saying there is a problem with the sound is understandable because it is a problem for us when organizers did not arrange a direct sound feed of the video's audio into the booth). However, I feel it is similar to the situation where speakers suggest there was a problem with the interpretation to save face when they don't get the question. Hence, I would not say anything about the sound being bad before switching off the mike. It makes the technician look bad, not the person who botched up the logistics when preparing the gig (usually speaker or client) and whilst I have never heard any of the technicians complain about it I feel it must be highly frustrating if you just do what you are being told and then get blamed in public for "sound quality".

Also, usually the tech guys get all the films and power points in advance. If they understand that you are on their team they might tip you off;)

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answered 01 May '12, 01:55

Tanja's gravatar image


... "be nice to the techs" hear, hear!! :-) Hoping to be pardoned for quoting myself: " (...)Upon getting there, well in advance, introduce yourself you shall, in any case, to the other members of the team, interpreters and technician: the latter’s goodwill - his/her competence being taken for granted just like yours, can make a world of difference (...) All’s well? ... if not, let the technician know, s/he may he able to fix it straightaway. S/he’s also the one to go to for a different headset or one that works, or a spare bulb, or extra volume - do use bass/treble controls though (...) or info on how to operate the system, or how to get above-zero temperatures out of the air-conditioning or...see why I told you to be nice to him/her??" ;-)

(01 May '12, 07:52) msr

:) this advice from a former lecturer-cum-colleague has definitely proven worthwhile, so I completely agree with you.

(01 May '12, 11:07) Tanja

In my market, we are coming across a growing number of videos embedded in the speakers' powerpoint presentations. Sometimes speakers let the sound technicians know about the fact, sometimes the sound technicians find out themselves because they are smart and take enough time to prep speakers, which allows them to arrange for this audio to be fed directly into our headphones, but more often than not the speakers won't let anyone know about it in advance, for they are not even aware that a dedicated connection will be required if interpretation is to continue while the video is playing. The latter situation is a pity, especially when there is more than one video per presentation, which tends to be increasingly the case. We've found that asking the speaker the extra question of whether they have any embedded video links in their ppt before the conference starts does help avert the awkward experience for all involved.

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answered 01 May '12, 22:35

Laura's gravatar image


edited 01 May '12, 22:37

Where I work, the (I think) unwritten rule is that videos are only interpreted when they are announced (or even distributed) beforehand and when interpreters have the transcript. So far, so good. When a video comes out of the blue, the knee-jerk reaction would be to switch off the mike and do nothing. But often, they seem perfectly doable and I have a bad feeling about letting my audience down in a way. The key issue here, as Tanja pointed out, is "solidarity": all booths should do the same.

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answered 01 May '12, 14:17

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question asked: 30 Apr '12, 06:33

question was seen: 10,140 times

last updated: 02 May '12, 06:18

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