The Couch – When success depends not only on you

The Couch is a learning place, not only for its contributors but also for our readers who engage in the ensuing discussions. In spite of our best efforts to train and prepare for an event, an interpretation’s success depends not only on us. A special thank you to this week’s Couch contributor, who went through this situation herself (and who has refrained from revealing the outcome).


You are interpreting at a difficult event – an international association of judges – for which you’ve spent weeks preparing. The content is advanced, heavy on the terminology side, and the speakers are moving very fast. But things are going reasonably well for you; your preparation is yielding results, you feel confident and are able to follow the speakers accurately, and you’ve had a good night’s sleep. Of course, nor are you an interpreting machine, and so you and your boothmate are observing the customary handovers every half hour.

You’re an hour away from lunchtime, so the morning portion of this all-day event will wrap up soon. You’ve just handed the microphone over to your boothmate when you see someone gently but urgently motioning for you to step out. He takes you aside and tells you that your boothmate’s performance is catastrophic; several people have complained about him, and the organizers don’t want him there anymore. They want to hear your voice in their headsets, and that’s it.

The speakers’ presentations are packed with content, and presenters are talking fast. Passing the message on to your boothmate could be ill-advised since he can’t afford to break focus even for a moment. When it’s your turn to take the mic again, you obviously won’t be able to tell him then, either. And you don’t even know if you want to tell him; the idea of being at this by yourself for the next four or five hours creates a bottomless pit in your stomach.

What would you do?


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Body photo by dexmac from Pixabay.

5 Comments
  • Carlos Benemann
    Posted at 16:06h, 15 October Reply

    An hour from Lunchtime. 11am.; …ok…mike is with boothmate for next half hr. till 11:30. You have half hour till 11.30 to tell organizer that it’s his responsibility to have a replacement at hand at 1pm after lunch. You tell him that your performance will not be sustained without breaks. Ball out of your court..
    YOU also tell organizer it is his responsibility to convey message to boothmate,
    Take mike from 11:30 till noon.
    After Lunch at 1pm you take the mike for half hour and call for break. as needed. Repeat procedure as needed if no terp shows up.
    The issue is that it is better not to have a fried brain and misinterpret sensitive matters. The length of time is not your lookout.
    Carlos Benemann

  • Molly Gordy
    Posted at 16:31h, 15 October Reply

    Unless you have personally hired your boothmate it is not your job to resolve this — it’s the job of whoever hired them. It is always unwise to put yourself between a fellow interpreter and your joint employer. Let them work it out directly. And if they fire the other interpreter, they of course have to pay you double. Still, I can’t see anyone being able to stay the course for 4-5 hours without a break.

  • Katty Kauffman
    Posted at 17:49h, 15 October Reply

    This is a conference interpreting hypothetical for which our court interpreter codes of ethics really do not provide guidance.
    It IS, however, a topic that comes up often in conference interpreting classes on ethics. In those discussions, the only solution that is automatically off the table is for one interpreter to work the rest of the conference alone. That is not going to happen. What to do, then?
    Unfortunately, the post does not contain enough information for me to venture an opinion. Is the person complaining someone in a position of authority/a decision-maker? Who hired the interpreters? Was it through an agency? Was it a direct hire (each interpreter separately)? Is the person responsible on-site or reachable by phone? Or was it a situation in which one interpreter invited the other to work? If so, who invited whom? If the “good” interpreter hired the “bad” one, it’s one scenario. If it’s the other way around, a very different one. Is a suitable replacement available? (Unlikely given that apparently weeks of preparation were involved in this case, but it’s still an important question). In the absence of such crucial data, I’ll refrain for positing a solution.

  • Margaux Burton
    Posted at 17:55h, 15 October Reply

    I think that as interpreters we need to know how to be masters at finding solutions when things go up in disarray. I actually had this happen to me with a person that I had recommended that was certified and my former instructor. There were two other interpreters besides myself and we were switching over through a messaging app because all was done through ZOOM. This was incredibly exasperating but I kept my cool because I decided to trust my team. You have to bring your street smart skills into this. Take your head from the eloquent interpreter that you are used to be seen as and if you need to interpret for hours on end…, Well this unfortunately comes with the territory. I wish you all good luck in maneuvering through sticky bosses, unprepared coworkers, ill advised tech support, and other discrepancies this job might have you face. Just know that it’s ok to make mistakes. It’s also ok to find your own solutions to problems you would never think you’d face.

  • James Clark
    Posted at 21:27h, 15 October Reply

    First of all, being in the booth is like performing in a concert or a play. The show must go on so unless the errors are so terrible that you feel justified in cutting your partner off, you can’t much about it until your shift comes around or you have a break to discuss it. There are many factors. Is the client just being picky or are the errors really that bad? You must pay attention to what is going on in the booth with your partner. Is the sound quality or the speed of the presentations so terrible that even a great interpreter would have a hard time? If it is a normally reliable colleague who is just having a bad day or a health issue (or terrible sound?) that is one thing, but if you get partnered with an unqualified interpreter, the fault lies entirely with the employer who failed to hire a good team and one interpreter should not be expected to take up the slack for the entire day OR be put in the terrible position of “firing” a colleague. Many of us have been in similar situations, though perhaps not as extreme. In my personal experience, there have been times when an accent was extremely challenging for me to understand, but no trouble for my booth mate and we quickly agreed to switch and I have taken over for my booth mate also many times for similar reasons. Flexibility like that is normal, but it does not mean that if the employer puts you in the uncomfortable position of working with someone is not up to the task that you must clean up their mess. The moral of the story here is that we should seek to exercise some control over who we partner with. We all have regular booth mates that we prefer and we should make this clear to employers. The agency or event organizer is not obligated to put you with the booth mate of your choice, but conference interpreters should include a requirement that they be partnered with a qualified booth mate in their initial communications about terms, payment, conditions, etc.

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