Biofeedback for Booth Jesters


If you have been a conference interpreter long enough chances are you may have found yourself in a situation where comments or jokes privately shared with a partner in the booth eventually got across to the audience. I once had it happen twice in a single week. Luckily I was only making suggestions to my booth mate. It was not like I was clowning around, foolishly pretending to speak German in front of a composed delegate standing across the window from us and who rather than suffer through my jokes simply wanted to remind me that the event had started and that it was no longer time for a mike check. That was the day before.

Interpreters’consoles –the little switchboards we use to activate our mikes, select our input languages and outgoing channels– can be tricky. They come in all shapes and sizes. ‘Cough’ buttons –used to momentarily pause interpretation for whatever reason– can go by different names like ‘mute’ or ‘off’. Color codes for microphones may vary, too. Most mikes turn red when they’re active and green when off (go figure). Others will alternate between amber (on) and green (off). On a dual mike console, placing the microphone switch in the middle position may cut off both mikes or activate both, depending on the make and model. Some old shared consoles have individual cough buttons which surprisingly work only on one’s own microphone, and your colleague’s microphone will continue to capture whatever you say, even with your cough button down. That was exactly what tripped me up that day.

Whatever their cause, these mishaps drive an important point home: jokes and derogatory remarks have no place in the booth. Nor do idle chit-chat or utterances of frustration at a speaker’s high speed or incoherence. So, here are some valid, if belated, pieces of advice (mostly to myself) that will save us all some embarrassment:

  • resist the temptation to be funny in the booth. Limit your comments to the absolute minimum once the meeting has been called to order or whenever your booth equipment has been switched on. When hundreds of heads turn back to locate you in the booth, let it be for the right reasons.
  • test your equipment first and don’t try to learn as you go. Make sure you get absolutely acquainted with its many features.
  • make a point of testing every button if you haven’t seen that type of equipment before.
  • make a point of testing every button even if you have seen and worked with that type of equipment before!
  • all good things come to early risers (a lesson I learned the hard way, given my typical Brazilian punctuality).

Let me reiterate this last point: be sure to come in early and test your every move before you go live, so that you can start strong. The first five or ten minutes of a conference are crucial for an interpreter. It’s your only chance to make a good first impression. It’s your chance to build rapport and offer listeners a reliable delivery that is easy on the ears. It’s not a good time to mess around. Once lost, this rapport and confidence may be hard to regain. Especially if you’ve been a bozo for everyone to listen.

But if like me you can’t help playing the jester once in a while, here’s something else you may want to try. It is a trick I learned from a good friend and mentor:

Have a receiver with you in the booth and an ear bud that you can place under your interpreter’s headset in order to hear your own interpretation. Volume should be kept as low as possible. This adds a layer of complication to an already complex equation. It takes some getting used to but can be a life-saving device for forgetful types. It allows you to monitor what listeners are getting out there. It also helps you modulate and spare your voice, speaking softly yet ensuring good delivery. Finally, it makes you aware of any interference or undesirable noises you might be producing while scratching your face, lip smacking or swallowing water. Think of it as a type of biofeedback loop for funny interpreters.

Make sure you allow several days for practice if you intend to experiment with this. The system, though effective, can be distracting to some.

Of course you don’t have to try my system. You can create and enforce your own protocol for when shoot happens. Better yet: you can develop a system to ensure it does not happen in the first place. For the technology-averse among you, here is a much easier, time-tested, low-tech variety that will likely yield the same results: keeping your mouth shut until you start interpreting. 


by Ewandro Magalhaes

0 thoughts on “Biofeedback for Booth Jesters”

  1. Dissimilar to back to back elucidation, in which the mediator encourages a discussion between two persons and intercedes amid stops, gathering understanding has its own necessities and confronts particular difficulties which, if not tended to legitimately, can crash a meeting and strip it of its esteem and profits for members.

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