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Why interpreters must work in pairs?

[ Article written by Denise Bobadilha, a conference interpreter working in between English and Portuguese. Check out her LinkedIn profile or her website listed at the end ]

A regular Q&A with clients

I need an interpreter for a two-hour event, three hours at most. And I was told that two interpreters are needed for this job. But two hours is such a short time!

I’ll use a very simple metaphor to answer you. Let’s say you want to bake a special cake. You start working with care on the base, a classic recipe that comes out perfect. Then, you start to prepare the cake filling, but suddenly realize that some ingredients are not there. Still, you improvise, resulting in something similar, but bland. The cake icing, though, is a disaster: besides missing ingredients, you got tired of the whole process and the cream melts, spoiling everything that had been previously done. Actually, studying the recipe and starting well were useless efforts: you could not sustain the following steps and those who tasted your special cake had a very bad impression.

There are many studies that prove that conference interpreters, who always work at the highest level of concentration, cannot perform steadily for long. They may even start well, but after a while they will miss the « ingredients » that were just there the minute before! Simultaneous interpretation requires that three efforts occur at the same time: listening in one language, processing the message, and then reproducing it in another language*. These three efforts happen at the same time, repeatedly, demanding an exhausting level of concentration. Some interpreters manage to work perfectly for 15 minutes, then begin to have difficulty understanding the speaker, indicating that one of the three efforts is suffering more than the other. Others hold up to 30 minutes. However, there are no superheroes here: the speaker’s message will not be interpreted correctly for long by an interpreter alone doing simultaneous interpretation.

But how does the speaker get to speak one, two, three hours alone? How about that?

Well, speakers can go on for up to 12 hours alone without any help – though no one can listen to it for so long! – because they are telling a story that is theirs, a research they have developed over the years, or reporting a work that is fresh in their memory. If they decide to improvise, cut a phrase abruptly, start a story out of nowhere, correct themselves – no problem: the narrative is theirs. They know what lies ahead. Interpreters can be experts in the subject or at least have studied for several days before the event, as recommended. But they only find out the text that will come forth as the speakers proceed. It is another cognitive and concentration effort.

But I know there are interpreters who speak after the speaker, using notes. These interpreters are taking a break, sort of, right?

You are referring to another type of interpretation: consecutive interpretation. In it, the speaker presents their part and then enters the interpreter repeating it in another language. It is a good solution for business meetings and some smaller events but can be strenuous for an audience in a longer event. Therefore, consecutive interpretation is recommended only for some occasions and for shorter presentations – and, before you ask, yes, the interpreter can work alone in such context.

Got it. But there is something else: do clients have to pay a full daily fee for each interpreter even if it is a three-hour job?

An interpreter’s daily fee involves six hours of work – and after that, overtime is counted; or the client has previously hired a trio of interpreters to avoid extra fees, which is the international AIIC’s standard, also applied to the Brazilian market. In fact, working for one, three, or six hours will also require a full day’s dedication on the date of the event and several other days prior to it. Yes, you’ve read it right: interpreters don’t just work on the date of the event – they prepare glossaries, read surveys, watch videos, and carry out an extensive study routine to be able to communicate the message correctly on the day or days they are hired to interpret.

I’m sorry, but I found someone who does simultaneous alone and for a whole day. And charging half of your fee.

Oh dear, there are people like that on the market. There are people like that in every market, don’t you agree? In addition to everything I’ve already mentioned above about the importance of working in pairs, there is another thing: interpreters work in partnership inside the booth. One assists the other when a more difficult term appears, when a reference is lost, when one has a coughing fit (it happens!) or wants to pee, even if they are in their 15 or 20 minutes « break ». If I were you, I would try to know more about the work of this professional who claims to do everything alone so as not to risk a bigger investment in the name of a small budget economy.

Yeah, yeah, I suppose you’re right, after all. Even so, your proposal does not fit my budget. Besides the pair of interpreters, I have to pay for equipment, booth, a technician, headphones … It’s a lot of money for a day’s work.

We all know the size of our own budgets or the tight requirements of a purchasing department. Some things, however, must be established: interpreters are hired to bridge the communication between different cultures. Someone has surely invested a good sum of money to bring one or more guests from abroad and make their message well understood by the audience, whether they – the audience – are paying or not. Or maybe someone has invested so that foreign guests understand the client’s role here in Brazil (in my case) and then, after the event, they can get their planes back home impressed by what they’ve heard. The guests may be great stars, but rarely their mere presence will be the focus of the visit. In fact, they came to make a presentation that needs to be fully understood. In addition, they need to understand what clients and the audience provide as feedback. After all, their names are printed on invitations, banners, and social media posts; their faces shine on large panels inside the gorgeous venue, decorated with flowers, attended by receptionists, and served by a tasty and plentiful coffee break. The point is: it’s all about an investment – and proper communication is a key part of it.

We take it very seriously at House of Words.

* They are called Gile’s Effort Model, and were presented for the first time by French translator and professor Daniel Gile in the early 1990s.

** This article was originally posted in Portuguese. Versão em português aqui.

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