Interpreting: Stepping into the Booth for the First Time

The text below is aimed at individuals who have been trained but are stepping into a booth as professionals for the first time. These are my thoughts —nothing scientific about them, just good old experience, gut and gumption.

So, the first thing you need to do is RELAX. The second is practice. You have most of the skills and now it is a matter of aligning those you have and maybe adding a few more.

There are a few sites on the internet to help you (later) and a few things I can share:

  1. Remember, at a conference, you will not interpret word for word: Pay attention to the whole message.
  2. Breathe. You will start to speak after a complete idea is put forth: Good Morning is a complete idea; The good, kind, honest [??] is not a complete idea because you do not know the noun all those adjectives apply to (doctor, professor, man, kid?).
    • Learn to pace yourself
    • During your practice, play with decalage [time between hearing the message in L1 and delivering it in L2] and allow yourself time to understand the message
  3. It is important for conference interpreters to identify the speaker’s style.
    • Loves to fill in the gaps: You know, well, let me just tell you… >> they allow you to jump through these empty nuggets of sound and get to the real subject with less pressure.
    • Runs like the wind: Speaks at 180-210 words a minute >> if they are also like the example above, that means you can breathe easier, otherwise, there isn’t much you can do other than switch more often with your colleague.
    • Knows how to present: You got an ally, just pace yourself.
  4. The conference website is a treasure trove of information you can use to strengthen your performance. Even last year’s website, especially when the material on the current event is hard to come by.
    • Look up who the speakers are.
    • Check if YouTube has any of their previous appearances and listen to them (accents, language vices, speed).
    • Copy their bios and read them. Try to summarize the texts because very likely they will be read at breakneck speed:
      • Mary Strider Naggut-Lo, President and CEO of Lo & Behold Inc., has a Ph.D. in Martial Arts, a BA in Marketing; served as Marketing Manager at We Got It International, with headquarters in Qatar, General Marketing Advisor at News For You, with main offices in Austria, Head of Marketing at One, Two, Take Off, Inc, with offices in Paris …. >> write down the relevant information: name, current employment, most important degree; summarize the rest. Held many administrative positions at various international organizations [or whatever works in your case]. Do listen during the actual event in case there is an update.
    • Unusual vocabulary: You can find out a lot about the company and speakers and create a glossary based on that.
    • Check their competition online just for extra vocabulary.
  5. At a conference, you are helping the speaker tell a story so
    • Listen attentively.
    • Write down specific data (dates, numbers, amounts – things you might forget – MAR 20, 2K = 2000, >5 = more than 5 [I am especially horrible with numbers!].

Here are the websites I use when speaking about interpreting. I strongly suggest you check them out but choose only one or two to work with at a time—you do not want to overload.

Once in the booth, you and your colleague will take turns on the microphone because your brain will melt after 30 minutes (not literally) and you will not notice—just like the frog in boiling water. And yes, it is a generalization but with lots of data to back it up. There are a few instances when one can go for longer than 40 minutes without losing quality, and that will depend a lot on the speaker and the interpreter’s knowledge of the subject. Another thing to mind in the booth is your manners, but that would take a whole new article; for now, just read the second link below.

Still curious? Here is more on simultaneous interpreting:


Feature image by William Cho, licensed under cc-by-sa-2.0.
woman with grey hair, in a red dress
Brazilian-born Giovanna “Gio” Lester, Co-Chair of NAJIT’s PR Committee, started her career in translation and interpreting in 1980. Gio is very active in her profession and in the associations she is affiliated with. In 2009, she co-founded the Florida ATA Chapter (ATIF), served as its first elected president (2011-2012), and later as president of its interim board. As an international conference interpreter, Gio has been the voice of government heads and officials, scientists, researchers, doctors, hairdressers, teachers, engineers, investors and more. Gio has been a contributor to The NAJIT Observer since its inception in 2011, and its Editor since 2016. In 2017 she was appointed Chair of the Miami Dade College Translation and Interpretation Advisory Committee, which she had been a member of since 2014. In 2018, Gio was elected to the Executive Committee of the Brazilian Association of Translators and Interpreters,  Abrates, as its General Secretary. You can follow her on Twitter (@cariobana) and she can also be reached at gio@giolester.com. Click here to read other posts by Gio.

15 Comments
  • Carmen L. Saenz
    Posted at 17:24h, 26 April Reply

    Great article, Gio! Very informative and useful. Thank you!

  • Radovan Pletka
    Posted at 19:10h, 26 April Reply

    Dear Gia, in my experience, interpreting and translation is like journalism. I am not an US native speaker. I have a communist PhD in journalism and no translation or interpreting formal education. Both in journalism field and also as translator and interpreter I met a lot of people, who were on the top of their professions like me without any formal education. It seems to me that the gift from your parents in form of good genes and IQ, or from God, take your pick, is much more important that education from any university, where you often have teachers, who can’t make a living in the real word, so they took easy way out in academia and often are lecturing us about the stuff they never tried in real life. I know there are some exceptions to this rule, I had similar discussion about this on FLEFO more than 20 years ago, but the situation did not get better, only worse. All those student debts those poor kids have for mostly useless education, no skills to handle adversity, disagreements, and live in general and when they go to social media, everybody is selling them even more snake oil with false likes and other useless stuff. Real life is excellent (and often best teacher). But it often collects high educational fees for its lessons. I am very lucky guy, I do not have to work any more in order to make a living, so I can tell any PM, who calls me, and starts to tell me or sorts of the stuff, what I have to do, Sir/madam, you called me, because you want me to work for you. Translation/interpreting agencies are dime a dozen. I do not need your work. I can take it, if you can afford my rates and want the quality I provide. Do I have your attention now? So please continue and start with the money first. If you don’t, you surely can’t afford me, so let’s not waste each other time.

  • Joan Milligan
    Posted at 19:24h, 26 April Reply

    Obrigada Gio!

    Thank you so much for the article. Even for someone not new to conference interpreting but who hasn’t logged hundreds of hours in the booth it’s a great refresher. Also, you’ve provided resources I don’t know and will check out. I’m sure there are good nuggets to be found there. And I always appreciate good sources for practice. I am constantly striving to be better and you have to do reflective practice to work on your weaknesses and keep improving.

    • Gio Lester
      Posted at 15:05h, 27 April Reply

      Thank you, Joan. I just added Cyril’s comment (from LinkedIn) and a resource he recommends. Check it out.

  • Katty Kauffman
    Posted at 22:02h, 26 April Reply

    What a great summary, Gio, of many of the things we do to prepare for a conference. And the list of resources is terrific as well. Much of what you say should also be helpful to newcomers to conference organizing, as sometimes it’s hard for them to really understand what we do and how we do it. I would like to stress, however, that the leap from court (or medical) to conference level interpreting is often not quite as simple as you seem to suggest. Yes, we need to relax and remember our training… but we DO need that training. Ideally, of course, we would all hold at least a Master’s in Conference Interpreting, but since for many of us that is simply not realistic, we need to find other ways to hone our skills, adapt our style and rise to the occasion. There is an important learning curve in acquiring the skills needed to prepare adequately for a conference assignment, to perform effectively in the booth (and get along with your boothmate(s)!) and understand what to do (and what not to do) after an event. I would caution colleagues against rushing into it, thinking that because they do simul in court, they will do just fine in conference. So, yes, relax… but only after you study, train and practice, practice, practice!

    • Gio Lester
      Posted at 23:24h, 26 April Reply

      Thank you, Katty! And no, I am not suggesting it’s easy. Read the disclaimer in the beginning: “The text below is aimed at individuals who HAVE BEEN TRAINED but are stepping into a booth as professionals for the first time.”

      You are absolutely right. There’s a whole lot more and that’s the reason for all the resources. But you know that is not an exhaustive list. Please do add some more!

  • Jorge Davidsin
    Posted at 00:29h, 27 April Reply

    Muito bom, Gio! Parabéns!

    • Gio Lester
      Posted at 15:06h, 27 April Reply

      Obrigada, meu querido. Nos vemos em São Paulo!

  • Victoria Palunite
    Posted at 07:53h, 27 April Reply

    Thank you for this informative article! It is a good overview of the main professional aspects an interpreter has to keep in mind!

    • Gio Lester
      Posted at 15:07h, 27 April Reply

      Thank you, Victoria. Check Cyril’s comment below for more information and resources.

  • Elvira Puebla S.
    Posted at 13:54h, 27 April Reply

    Thank you Gio, great resources.

    • Gio Lester
      Posted at 15:07h, 27 April Reply

      Thank you, Elvira. Check Cyril’s comment below for more information.

  • Gio Lester
    Posted at 14:06h, 27 April Reply

    Cyril Flerov [https://www.linkedin.com/in/cyrilflerov/] allowed me to share the comment he made on LinkedIn here:
    “Very well written congrats.

    Re # 2:

    – if you do not have a complete syntagm/meaning unit then learn to use stalling and pausing – that is one of the ways to “play” with decalage. See my writeup from 2016: https://app.box.com/s/wtdkdee73x1ovndujzw1
    – I personally like to test myself and try probability prediction: occasionally I begin to translate “good, kind, honest “ even before I hear the noun. It is even more fun with languages that have gender in adjectives. If the noun I hear is a different gender I pick up a synonym to it to fit the adjective. It stimulates your brain and is a very important skill to handle false starts. If it happens spontaneously in “real” life your brain will have an automatic habit to handle it. Think about other strategies to handle the situation when you have a long chain that you cannot translate “as is” immediately. Eg you do not even wait for the noun and “ Good, kind, honest boy” becomes: “goodness, kindness, honestly. These are the qualities the boy has”. This transformation is important in actual simul if you have a long string you cannot immediately interpret but cannot use stalling either because it will overload your short term memory.
    – Playing with decalage is a very important skill especially learning to increase it instantly by using stalling and reduce instantly by using omission, digestion and compression. So, leaning to keep decalage is one half of the equation. The secret is to understand that it is dynamic and changes all the time like the percentage of the computer processor load. ‘

    That link again: https://app.box.com/s/wtdkdee73x1ovndujzw1
    And the original comment: https://tinyurl.com/yxnnfklb

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