People Management: The Secret Job of the Interpreter

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!

11 Comments
  • Bethany Korp
    Posted at 15:07h, 29 August Reply

    Lovely, Athena! I always say that interpreting is 90% thinking fast on your feet and at least another 5% owning your decisions. By which, of course, I mean people management–convincing people you know what you’re doing.

  • Kevin Mercado
    Posted at 12:39h, 02 September Reply

    Great piece. I always try to stress professionalism to new interpreters and focus on it in my own work. The more time spent in courthouses and courtrooms the easier it is to develop a certain comfort level. I like to remind folks that court is generally public. You can spend an hour or two just sitting in on arraignments and while you may hear 70% of all the legalese you need to get started, the comfort level you develop in learning the parties and procedure is priceless. Once you are comfortable and professional, you are in a great position to use your tools.

  • Gio Lester
    Posted at 13:21h, 02 September Reply

    At times, this is the actual problem:

    “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.”

    Note-taking is very important.

  • Agata Baczyk
    Posted at 14:26h, 02 September Reply

    Well said, Athena! I really enjoyed reading it. So honest and insightful. I hope it reaches many interpreters as not only beginners but also seasoned interpreters can learn from it.

  • ANNA WATROUS
    Posted at 23:02h, 02 September Reply

    Many years ago, I realized that an interpreter is like a cat: You throw a cat off the roof of a 5-story building. The cat will right itself mid-air, and always land on its feet!

  • Janis Palma
    Posted at 23:32h, 02 September Reply

    Ah, your article reminds us that interpreting is not just about words. There is a lot an interpreter must juggle: a human component, a social component, a legal component… Keeping everything nice and balanced is not easy at all. Thanks for this insight, Athena!

  • Jennifer De La Cruz
    Posted at 00:54h, 03 September Reply

    One of the most difficult interpreting situations that I ever endured was with a relay interpreter in a very loud courtroom. I did my very best to hear and be heard during about 10 minutes of plea agreement and sentencing on the record. I remember contorting my face and closing my eyes just to “hear” better. I did everything I could to not have to ask for the noise level to be reduced, but I knew I could if I needed to. We interpreters end up kicking ourselves for not speaking up soon enough, and at the same time we could be left wondering whether it was just “us” but at the end of the day, all of us are striving for that brass ring of perfection. Thanks for the article!

  • Evelina Quiroz
    Posted at 02:44h, 03 September Reply

    Wonderfully said! I really enjoyed reading this. I am a beginning Spanish interpreter and this will definitely help me out in future assignments and to improve on my “people management” skills.

  • Athena Matilsky
    Posted at 11:30h, 03 September Reply

    It’s very interesting to hear everyone’s reactions and personal experiences. Just yesterday I experienced several of my aricle’s examples at once, with an interrupting attorney and a plaintiff who woudn’t stop for breath. As I was interpreting I could hear my own writing scolding me to do better…I feel that I need to practice my “arsenal” phrases in front of the mirror so they don’t make me look like a stammering fool! It really is difficult to step out of the conduit mode and assume your own speech while you are interpreting. I agree with Janis that this is quite the juggling act.Likewise as Gio commented, note-taking is really important. Ultimately the only way we will improve is by taking a good look at ourselves, but then again, as we’re striving for perfection (which is totally true, Jennifer!) we do need to cut ourselves a break sometimes. Hooray for finding the happy medium…

  • Janet Perez Eckles
    Posted at 17:47h, 03 September Reply

    So agree. You mentioned, “interpreters, we must develop a firm and decisive
    way of appropriately asking people to pause once we have reached maximum
    capacity…”
    I believe there is a fine line between being firmly decisive and appearing
    aggressive. Mastering the tone, the clarity of such requests, blending
    empathy and professionalism have been my best weapons when dealing with
    rough situations to prevent them from going out of control.
    Having specific phrases to express our requests reduces stress, promotes
    concentration and shines with professionalism.
    http://www.janetperezeckles.com

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