Mistake of the Year

Because few things are as fun as poking fun at myself, I wanted to share my most horrifying interpreting error of the year, which actually had nothing to do with interpreting, and everything to do with protocol. Just like all translators and interpreters do, I make mistakes, but I do try to go to great lengths to avoid making the same one twice. I am quite certain I won’t be making this one again.

A few months ago, Dagmar, my twin sister and business partner, had the unique opportunity to interpret at the meeting of a large international organization, and I was to be the backup interpreter. Even though I would only be interpreting briefly, I was very excited about the possibility, as this was to be the most prestigious event at which I had ever worked.

The setting in Vienna’s regal Imperial Palace (Hofburg) was amazing, and the permanent booths were top-notch. They even included extra seating, a foyer, and plenty of space to spread out. As a U.S.-based interpreter, I’m usually very impressed by anything resembling a permanent booth.

We checked out the other booths, which were located on the third floor high above the stage, to meet our colleagues from the Spanish and Russian booths, but no one was there, so we reviewed our material and got ready for the big moment. I was a bit nervous, but that’s to be expected. I think it was tennis great John McEnroe (known for his skills, not his even temper) who said that not being at least a little bit nervous means you probably don’t care enough, which is a good point. However, we both felt quite ready and prepared, as we’d spent a lot of time reviewing pertinent material and preparing for the tricky subject matter.

Showtime was just about 15 minutes away, and we were ready to go. The water had been poured into our glasses, the pencils had been sharpened, the audio had been tested, and we had done our warm-up vocal exercises.

After we sat down, a distinguished looking gentleman walked in, extended his hand (without introducing himself), smiled, and said (in Spanish) that he was delighted to see us. I thought—don’t ask me why—that this lovely gentleman was the colleague from the Spanish booth, since no one else ever ventures up to the floor where the booths are located.

I immediately started in with some very casual small talk, and yes, I addressed him informally. As if I knew him. As if we were colleagues. As opposed to English, in Spanish we have two pronouns, the formal usted and the informal (which I used). Among colleagues, we usually use the latter. In case you’re wondering, here’s what I said, verbatim: “¿Cómo estás? Me da mil gusto conocerte.” (Basically the Spanish equivalent of “Hi! How’s it going?”) Ouch, ouch, ouch.

The problem here was that this gentleman wasn’t a fellow interpreter, but the ambassador to Austria from a South American country. Dagmar had the good fortune of getting a glimpse of his badge, which had been facing away from me, and recognized the name. (Research pays off, as the badge didn’t say “ambassador.”) She immediately greeted the ambassador with something appropriate along the lines of “Good morning, Your Excellency.” This is when I realized my error and was completely mortified.

However, the ambassador didn’t miss a beat, didn’t take offense, and just chatted away. I did recover enough to apologize, to thank him for coming upstairs and for hiring us (yes, he hired us!), and to exchange some other pleasantries. So yes, I committed a pretty big faux pas at a high diplomatic level, and I lived to tell about it. It’s a nice reminder that people at the top can be very kind and forgiving, and I’m grateful for it. My lesson for next time is when in doubt, err on the side of being too formal.


Judy Jenner is a court-certified
Spanish interpreter and a Spanish
and German translator based in Las Vegas, Nevada, where she runs Twin Translations with her twin sister. She is a past president of the Nevada Interpreters and Translators Association. She hosts the translation blog, Translation Times (www.translationtimes.blogspot.com). You can also find her at www.entrepreneuriallinguist.com. Contact: judy.jenner@twintranslations.com or judy.jenner@entrepreneuriallinguist.com.

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