The Trials and Tribulations of a Community Interpreter: Conference Interpreting, here we go! – Part 2

By Pency Tsai


Here it is! Part 2 of “The Bird’s” venture into conference interpreting. We would love to hear from you on your own experiences delving into other venues of interpreting, so don’t forget to leave your comment.


Read Part 1 here

[Wooded forest]

Conference interpreting is an altogether different kind of beast.  I still remember my first attempt at conference interpreting and how all the experience that I had accumulated up to that time went out the window the moment the mics were turned on. Sitting in that booth was nerve-wracking and I couldn’t keep up with the presenters.  I blanked out.  Thankfully I was saved by my colleague who took control of the situation and jumped in. I am forever grateful for his presence that day as it showcased his skill set that was vastly superior to my own. It was a humbling experience and to this day, I am still shaky when approaching that booth, traumatized as I was.  A sense of helplessness overcame me then, as I struggled to pick up everything that was said; all the details, all the jargon, and even the industry’s inside jokes.  I realized that day how much work I needed in order to survive in the conference interpreting game.  First thing on the agenda: improve my simultaneous game.

Since much of my work occurs in recorded environments, I am familiar with the consecutive interpreting format.  This is the first hurdle that I encountered when treading in the conference world of interpreting.  I did not have the confidence to match my consecutive work when placed in a simultaneous assignment.  To overcome this, I took on every opportunity to work on my simultaneous skill-set.  I familiarized myself with this type of interpreting but I still found myself intimidated when placed in a conference interpreting setting.

Now, I recall attending a seminar where the guest speaker was a renowned conference interpreter.  She was magnetic, with a presence and charm emanating from her as she effortlessly spoke about the experiences that shaped her into the respected professional who stood before us.  She said two things that stood out that day.  One was her comment that we interpreters are better known as interrupters — never has a truer statement been made.  The second thing that has been etched into my mind is her suggestion for those who follow in her footsteps. Her tip for up-and-coming conference interpreters was to keep working at it and to be creative — don’t be afraid to fake it.  It was something that I had heard from other successful conference interpreters.  However, try as I might, I just couldn’t grasp the concept.  I always came back to the same problem.  My personal rules for interpreting stated that faithfulness to the original in terms of accuracy and completeness was always to be followed.  That little voice in my head always reminded me not to stray from my rules.  I made up these rules and I couldn’t change them now, even though I wanted to.  That crazy little bird inside my head kept reinforcing these longtime unconscious habits.

A couple of years ago, I stepped back into the booth and was prepared to work the floor again, eager to prove to myself that I could make it happen.  As the clock ticked closer to the beginning of the conference, bad news arrived — my assigned partner would not be coming. Thankfully, the organizers had the foresight to bring in a local interpreter to the conference, a third interpreter who turned out to be a godsend. As I broached this individual about divvying up the workload, I hoped that she would be open to taking on the English-to-Mandarin part of the conference, as I had spent much of my prep time on the Mandarin-to-English interpretation.  Karma has a funny way of showing how fair the universe is.  My relief quickly turned to despair when my suggestion was rebuffed.  The third interpreter was more of an escort interpreter and would not be partaking in the day’s ceremonies. I was on my own.

You never know how great the human mind can be until it faces a crisis. To be honest, the seconds became minutes and the minutes became hours.  Switching back and forth between languages and controlling the switchboard became second nature.  Truth be told, yes, I forgot to switch the board a few times.  I can also say that the interpretation was not exactly a work of art, but I survived and at the end of the day, the client was happy with the performance under the circumstances. The greatest relief was that nobody complained about my subpar (at least in my mind) rendition of the subject matter.  This gave me the confidence to continue working at conferences, but the nerves still hit me when the word conference is mentioned.

More recently, I made a small breakthrough when interpreting in a conference setting.  But I’m going to leave everyone hanging and stop now as this column is getting a bit too long winded.  Part 2 of this rant will finish where I left off.  By then, many of us will have met and chatted in Miami at the ATA 56th Annual Conference.  I’ll be able to share some insights from my more capable colleagues and maybe some new goofs from my own escapades.

I’ll leave everyone with thoughts on some things that I found difficult during this ongoing journey from community interpreting to conference interpreting.

  • simultaneous vs. consecutive
  • trying to capture every detail
  • getting stuck on a word or phrase
  • preparation
  • bias or no bias
  • note taking

Comments and suggestions, lectures and teachings are all welcome.  I need them if I am to keep this ship from sinking.




[Pency Tsai]Pency Tsai has been interpreting and translating for nearly 10 years. Since her first foray into community interpreting six years ago, she has worked steadily to broaden her experiences in the field. Today, she enjoys taking on assignments ranging from courtroom and tribunal hearings to medical assessments and the occasional conference. The “Bird” is currently serving as the ATA Chinese Language Division’s Administrator.


Image by Michael Moroczek via unsplash.com

Permanent link to this article: http://www.ata-divisions.org/ID/pency-tsai-the-trials-and-tribulations-of-a-community-interpreter-part-2/

1 comment

  1. Josephine Bacon

    I am astonished that you were hired as a conference interpreter when you were untrained and had never done anything like that. I did an intensive course but because I only work sporadically because one of my languages (French) is well covered by other interpreters and the other (Hebrew) is pretty rare, I do not get enough practice, which makes me clumsy with the equipment. Unfortunately, in the insane rush to save money, a lot of agencies will use an untrained interpreter unversed in simultaneous technique for conferences so they can pay less and pretend they are sending a trained conference interpreter so as to get the money.

    Only today, there was a request for a Hebrew-English interpreter in Spain, when I applied they informed me they would only hire people living in Spain because they would not pay fares or accommodation. Good luck with that! They probably used an Israeli tourist!

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