Yes, Conference Interpreting Is a Thing

“What are you studying?” During graduate school, when I was living in Toronto and constantly traveling back and forth between the U.S. and Canada, I got used to this question as the customs agent saw the student visa in my passport. It took me awhile to come up with a short answer because when I said “conference interpreting,” I was just met with more questions about what conference interpreting actually is, as if I would make it up.

I tried my best to give a succinct, scripted 15-second response that explained exactly what conference interpreters do, where they work, the rigor of the training, and that, no, your niece who spent the summer in Mexico isn’t ready to be an interpreter. In the end, it was all in vain and I resigned myself to a simpler explanation: “You know that movie The Interpreter with Nicole Kidman? Yeah, it’s like that.”

It’s not surprising that customs agents, or any non-interpreters, don’t know what conference interpreting is. But what has surprised me is the number of professional interpreters not working in conference settings who don’t know what conference interpreting is. Even more surprising are the interpreters working at conferences who don’t know that there is indeed special training for the very same work they’re doing.

To be fair, I’m in the Midwest, where conference interpreting as I was trained really isn’t a thing. We don’t have international institutions here, and any competent interpreter who works with English and Spanish doesn’t have any trouble getting work without a graduate degree in conference interpreting. So, how is it, then, that I decided to go to graduate school for something that is generally done by any court-certified interpreter whose price is right? Why would I bother with this graduate degree? What did I even learn? Well, it’s just like me to want to dedicate two years of my life and lots of financial and psychological resources to some obscure degree that can only be explained with an early-aughts Nicole Kidman movie. But there’s more to it than that. I did learn a few things.

How to be a good team: Good turn-taking, passing over the microphone in a way that doesn’t stun, deafen, or confuse your listeners, not choking your boothmate with the scent of your perfume and/or hand lotion, sharing resources, writing down numbers and names, looking up acronyms and keywords when you’re the “off” interpreter, and arriving early. Does it really take special training to know to do these things? Maybe, yes.

The listener’s experience: Because I spent half my time in graduate school listening to my classmates interpret and the other half being critiqued on my interpreting, I’m extremely sensitive to the experience of those listening to me. And I’m not even talking about the accuracy of the interpreting. It’s the delivery. I’ve worked with interpreters who laugh, cough, rustle papers, ask me questions, make comments about the speaker, all on an open microphone. My finger can’t reach the cough button fast enough. In fact, I would say that thinking about the listener’s experience was one of the cornerstones of my training. It makes sense when you think about it.

Learning to prepare by not being prepared: During my training, I felt somewhat tortured interpreting for multiple events every week (some mock and some live) with little to no preparation materials given to me in advance. That was exactly part of the training. We were taught how to work with as little as speakers’ names, or the name of an event, and gather a ton of information quickly that would help us prepare. Because we worked at live events, I also learned how to scout out materials at the event itself when none had been provided in advance. That detailed program for attendees at the registration table? Yep, I’ll take two: one for me and one for my boothmate.

What good is the text of a speech when someone hands it to you right before the speech starts? First things first. You’re going to do a super-fast sight translation of it. One exercise that seemed particularly horrible at the time was being handed the text of a speech, marking it up, and then going into the booth 15 minutes later to listen to and interpret the same speech. Then we would get another text and have 10 minutes before we interpreted it, and finally we would be left with just five minutes to prepare the text before interpreting it simultaneously.

On one of my first assignments as a conference interpreter, on the first day of the event, someone walked up to the booth five minutes before the opening session and handed us the text of the speech that was about to be given. And I knew exactly what to do with it.

Terminology is just a part of a larger picture: If your “interpretation” is just a spreadsheet of words strung together without any actual thought or analysis of what’s being said, it’s not meaningful. You can very easily have all the correct terminology, yet say the exact opposite of what the speaker meant. The goal is not to be constantly speaking, but to say things that actually make sense. Remember that thing about the listener’s experience?

Crisis management: We were prepared not only for not getting materials in advance, but also for last-minute scheduling and venue changes, how to cope when the speaker begins speaking in a language you weren’t expecting, what to do when the speaker begins speaking in a language you don’t understand, what to say when the person asking a question in the Q&A session doesn’t speak into a microphone, coping with lightning-fast speakers, obscure quotes and references, and jokes. We were also taught to arrive prepared with food and water in case you don’t actually get the breaks you were expecting.

Why on earth would I put myself through all the above, knowing I could likely do this work without the training? I suppose it’s because I could. Because I knew I wanted to continue working in interpreting, it would give me a solid foundation to build skills, and because I knew the training would set me apart. And, hey, doing something that seemed impossible, like quitting my job and temporarily relocating to Toronto? It was irresistible.

I would love to hear from you. What did you learn in your training that you couldn’t live without?


Liz Essary has over 15 years of experience as a Spanish interpreter and trainer in a variety of settings. She has a BA in Spanish from Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis, where she is an associate faculty member. In 2016, she earned a master’s degree in conference interpreting from the Glendon School of Translation in Toronto. Since graduating, her work as a conference interpreter has taken her from interpreting at large sales conferences to smaller venues in film and academia. She is certified through the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters and the Indiana Supreme Court. She is currently a freelance interpreter based in Indianapolis. You can read her blog at https://thatinterpreter.com. Contact: hello@lizessary.com.

Interpreters are a vital part of ATA. This column is designed to offer insights and perspectives from professional interpreters.

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