People Management: The secret job of the interpreter

Throwback Friday! This post originally published in the summer of 2014.

These days, when people ask me what it takes to be an interpreter, I tell them one part language skills, one part interpreter technique, and one part people management.

When we embark on our interpreting career, learning interpreting technique is a good beginning, but it is just a beginning.  Quite separate from the hours we spend repeating simultaneous exercises and performing note-taking drills, we must learn how to manage the people we encounter in order to interpret effectively. This is what I term “people management.” The phrase refers, for example, to the capacity to address the sinister-looking judge who is an incomprehensible mumbler. It refers to the ability to deal with the litigant who becomes emotionally worked up and doesn’t stop for breath. You know her: the one who, every time she pauses to ostensibly allow you to interpret, begins talking again once you start. It means managing the attorney who objects to his client’s utterance in Mandarin before the judge has heard it in English, or diplomatically explaining to the packed courtroom that you need a break because no-one realized that an 8-hour trial requires a team. It means having the confidence to request a moment to review documents before plunging into sight translations. We are often the only ones who know what we need to do our job right; if we cannot communicate this and obtain what we need effectively, we are not good interpreters.

By way of explanation: You may give a beautiful English rendition of the testimony you have just heard in Russian, but if the litigant is still speaking, the judge will not hear you.  As interpreters, we must develop a firm and decisive way of appropriately asking people to pause once we have reached maximum capacity, and not simply begin speaking in the hopes that they will stop. We need an arsenal of quick phrases such as “Your honor, the interpreter was not able to hear the testimony as both parties were speaking at once.” We must be polite but decisive. And when we are in the interpreting zone, it can be difficult to formulate our own sentences, so pre-loading our “arsenal” to prepare for these situations is a must!

We must also be empathetic. I understand that sometimes people keep talking on and on because they are worried they won’t get another chance. One of the phrases in my Spanish arsenal is, “one moment please, then you can continue.” In this way I can quickly obtain the pause I need, and the party is now reassured that they will be able to say everything. My interpretation into English will end in such a way that the judge understands the party has not finished their thought, and I can then prompt the party to continue.

Of course, good technique and people management are mutually beneficial; while we must firmly and politely request that people pause to allow us to capture everything said, it is absolutely essential to know how to take notes in order to allow people the freedom to express themselves without being interrupted. 

Moral of the story: Technique is essential when working as an interpreter. However, we also must be aware of the importance of navigating our surroundings and delivering accurate renditions no matter what the circumstances are. Through observation of other interpreters and critical self-analysis, we can improve our professional skills. When something doesn’t go the way we wish it would have gone, trouble-shooting and planning for next time will make it go smoother in the future. We are always encountering new challenges, but the more we are able to effectively manage the people involved, the more we can put our interpreting skills to good use.

Please feel free to share your own stories and words of wisdom in the comments section below!

3 thoughts on “People Management: The secret job of the interpreter”

  1. constance marina says:

    Wonderful post, Athena! I forget who it was who in a previous post wisely called ours a “practice profession,” in the way of a doctor’s or lawyer’s. It is only over time that one acquires this important, “people management” skill, as you call it. Without this ability, one is truly not an effective interpreter. I loved your blog.

  2. Markhabo says:

    Very well said! As a manager of LSP, I often find myself in a situation where even very seasoned interpreters find it hard to understand these concepts. Most professionals have the tendency to just gauge their skills based on the quality of their rendition or their speed. Working on Emotional Intelligence (EQ) which comes in handy with people management is almost as important as increasing your knowledge of industry related terminology.

    Thank you for sharing.

  3. Matthew Herbert says:

    Nice post!

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