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 carefully on the batter, with a classic recipe that comes out perfectly. Then, you start to prepare the cake filling, but suddenly realize that some ingredients are missing. You improvise and manage to get a similar result, except it’s rather 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 you had already done. So studying the recipe and beginning carefully were not enough: you couldn’t keep it up in the next steps, and those who tried your special cake had a very bad impression.
There are many studies that prove that conference interpreters, who work at the highest level of concentration, cannot perform steadily for a long time. They may start well, but after a while they will be missing the “ingredients” that were there just the minute before! Simultaneous interpretation requires that three actions occur at the same time: listening in one language, processing the message, and then reproducing it in another language.* These three actions happen at the same time, continuously, 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 actions is suffering more than the other. Others hold out for up to 30 minutes. However, there are no superheroes here; the speaker’s message will not be interpreted correctly for long by an interpreter working alone doing simultaneous interpretation.
But how does the speaker manage 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, or speaking of 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, as 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 know what will be said as the speakers proceed. It is a different level of 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 this type, the speaker presents their part first, and then the interpreter transmits 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 certain occasions and for shorter presentations — and, before you ask, yes, the interpreter can work alone in such a context.
Got it. But there is something else: do clients have to pay a full day rate for each interpreter, even if it is a three-hour job?
An interpreter’s day rate involves six hours of work — and after that, overtime is counted; or the client can hire a trio of interpreters to avoid overtime, which is the international AIIC standard and is also applied in the Brazilian market. In fact, working for one, three, or six hours will still require dedicating a full day on the date of the event and several other days prior to it. Yes, you read it right: interpreters don’t just work on the day 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 on which they’re 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 in the market. There are people like that in every market, don’t you agree? In addition to everything I’ve already mentioned about the importance of working in pairs, there is also this: interpreters work in partnership inside the booth. One assists the other when a more difficult term appears, when a reference is new, when one has a coughing fit (it happens!) or needs to pee, even when they are on their 15 or 20-minute “break.” If I were you, I would try to learn more about the work of this professional who claims to do everything alone to avoid a bigger investment in the name of a smaller budget.
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 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 take their planes home, having been impressed by what they’ve heard. The guests may be great stars, but rarely will their mere presence be the focus of the visit. In fact, they went 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.
* 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.
DENISE BOBADILHA is an English/Portuguese interpreter and problem-solver in translation/communication, based in São Paulo, Brazil. Previously, she was an award-winning journalist and had 23 years of experience in writing for magazines, newspapers, websites, and corporate projects. Denise is certified by the most prominent Interpretation and Translation courses in Brazil, including Alumni and Versão Brasileira. For more information, visit her business site at House of Words.