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Team Interpreting Boundaries

Team interpreting* is a process. There is no one single way to work as part of a team. There is no formula you can apply that will make it run on wheels every time. It is all going to depend on the chemistry between the team members.

We don’t always get to choose our teammate, unfortunately. When we do, we usually know each other’s preferences already and have great synergy, so there is very little that needs to be laid out before getting started with the interpreting assignment. It flows!

But what about those times when we are paired with someone we don’t know? Or know but have never worked with as a team? I’d say, “get to know your teammate, and let your teammate get to know you.” Find out if they have ever done team interpreting before, and what their experience has been (good? bad?). This should be a “do unto others” moment. Don’t make your teammate feel you are being judgmental in any way.

Being part of a team does not mean “you do your thing and I do mine, and we just stay out of each other’s way.” Once this relationship starts, you both need to have each other’s backs for the duration, i.e., the interpreting assignment. You both need to have clear ground rules, expectations, and boundaries.

Perhaps the most basic rule on which you need to agree is how long each one will be at the microphone. No one likes a “microphone hog”, or a colleague too quick to shorten her turn at the mike. Different proceedings and different participants may call for longer or shorter turns. Whatever you two agree, that’s the rule for the duration of your assignment, unless you both decide to change it by mutual agreement. For example, when someone starts to speak really fast near the end of the day and you are already tired, or when a highly technical witness takes the stand and is a true challenge to your mental stamina, you may both decide it’s time to take shorter turns at the mike.

The way in which you switch your turn at the microphone will have a lot to do with the equipment you have. Do you need to push a button or pass a microphone? Are you okay with switching even if you’re in the middle of a sentence or would you rather wait for the next natural pause to pass the mike on to your colleague once your time is up? If one of you prefers to wait and the other doesn’t; just agree on what each other prefers and respect that agreement.

Now, once you pass that microphone, do you get up and leave? No! Unless you have an urgent need to use the restroom or have some other emergency, you stay by your partner’s side and pay attention in case she needs help with a term or turn of phrase, or maybe something she did not quite hear. This is essential to team interpreting. Otherwise, we’re back to “you do your thing and I do mine.” That’s not a team.

two people working on a grey tabletAnother thing you should do is discuss any technical terms that will be coming up in the case, or as they come up, to make sure you both agree on the best rendition and both use the same equivalents throughout the assignment. Sometimes interpreters come from different countries and even the everyday words they use are different. This can be confusing for the non-English speaker.  If that happens, find a neutral or standard term you can both use. This is one of those times when professionalism has to be king (or queen), and we must abandon nationalist pride in favor of clarity in our renditions.

It’s also a good idea to discuss how you prefer to be helped if you get stuck on a word or can’t hear the speaker. Should your partner whisper the word you’re looking for? Pass you a note? Do nothing and let you move on until you find a solution? What will be your signal so your partner knows you want help, or don’t? This can make or break a good working relationship. Abide by the Golden Rule and always be respectful of your teammate’s requests and preferences (even if you would do things differently!). Of course, your partner should do the same for you.

What if you cannot agree on something? This is where the team spirit should kick in. Talk! Work out the differences. Be mindful that this is your colleague and sooner or later you may end up working together again.

What if the team has more than two interpreters? We must assume these 3 or 4 or however many interpreters did not end up working together by happenstance. Someone “created” the team. These teams need a “point person”, a team leader, someone to coordinate the internal mechanics of the team and any external interactions, if needed. If the team was assembled by one of the interpreters who is also a member of the team, that person should be the team leader. If the team was assembled by a supervisor or anyone else who is not a member of the team, that person should appoint the team leader. The rest of the team then lets the leader be the leader.

Having a team leader makes the work flow because you don’t have two, three, four bosses all wanting to make decisions at the same time. It also simplifies the process when there is a need to communicate with the client (i.e., the court or the party that hired the team.) The team leader makes sure everyone has had some input into the decision-making process for the way in which the team will work, and once the decisions are made, the entire team should honor them.

Finally: do not forget that when you are working in a team situation, whatever you do is going to reflect on your teammates, and vice-versa. Always be on your best ethical behavior and, when in doubt, consult, consult, consult!

*You may learn more about Team Interpreting in this NAJIT Position Paper on the subject.

Photo by from Pexels || Header photo by Gio Lester @2014


Janis Palma has been a federally certified English<>Spanish judiciary interpreter since 1981. She worked as an independent contractor for over 20 years in different states. Her experience includes conference work in the private sector and seminar interpreting for the U.S. State Department. She joined the U.S. District Courts in Puerto Rico as a full-time staff interpreter in April 2002. She has been a consultant for various higher education institutions, professional associations, and government agencies on judiciary interpreting and translating issues. She is a past president of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators.

Read other posts by Janis Palma.

11 thoughts on “Team Interpreting Boundaries”

  1. Meenu Batra says:

    Thank you for wonderful advise Janis! I am saving this article to share next team mates.

  2. Mercedes Avalos says:

    This is an excellent overview of team interpreting practices. It is also imperative to recognize each team player’s strengths and weaknesses, including our own, hence, affording the team the opportunity to lean on each other without apprehension. Having an open and mutually-agreed-upon team structure makes for a very solid synergy and a stellar performance.

  3. Heidi Cazes says:

    Thank you Janis for this post!!
    As they say, common sense is the least common of all senses…. You give basic logical tips, that once we read them we say “Of course, that makes so much sense!”, but are not always followed.
    I agree with you that the most important point in team interpreting is COMMUNICATION. No matter how experienced and how good each interpreter is, there has to be an initial conversation to establish guidelines and preferences. It issomething so simple, that when it does not happen can have a very important effect.

  4. Nicely written article from a very nice colleague.
    Here is my reality Czech on it:
    1. The only reason you do not get to pick your colleagues is that you chose to work for somebody else under his conditions. That means if you are full time interpreter for somebody else, YOU decided to accept your employer rules and YOU have to take them (if you want to keep your job). I do not like other people controlling my working conditions and therefore I am working for myself since 1991. I always ask who will be working with me and as they usually call me first, I offer to find an experienced colleague and it is often accepted.
    2. The second issue I feel is completely missing here is the money. I work for money and as interpreter I am selling my time. I am also full time freelance translator. Long time ago I learned from airlines how to sell my time for the most profit, because my time is like airplane seat. When the day start, and I am not interpreting or translating, I am flying for free. So when I negotiate the price of my services, I never quote a rate, I usually ask what is the best the customer can do and still stay in business and then I wait for the response; as long as it takes. If you speak first, you lose. And when I get the number, I ask again, is this really the best you can do; and repeat the silence. If the second number is acceptable, we usually have a deal, otherwise I reply: let me think about it, and if I will get a better offer in the mean time, I will give you the opportunity to match it.
    3. I also see a bit differently the issue of the colleague whom I am working with. If I know him/her, we worked before and I do not have to worry, because I know that the person can handle anything. If I have to worry about babysitting somebody, my customer has to pay for it, because this is unnecessary additional work, usually resulting from low budget customers. Also I like to do my own stuff on my time in the booth, so I am either resting or catching up with some other stuff. I remember the shock of my colleague when I took my break and fired up my first laptop – Compaq 286, borrowed from work and started translating, typing in DOS operating system into WordPerfect 5.1. You could set it for Czech keyboard and even do your own spellchecker by adding words one at a time for Czech. I explained to my colleague that that this translation pays so well that I have two options, work during breaks because of tight deadline for translation, (this is why it paid so well) or walk away from interpreting job and do it in much better conditions. She decided that she prefers me to stay and work my half of interpreting. Later I got my first color Compaq 386, and later Toshiba Libretto CT50. They were not cheap, but I was able to afford it.
    4. Bottom line is, I still interpret even today, but not as much, as flying to interpreting jobs is not as much fun as before, and even if good interpreters are paid fairly well, if they know how to negotiate, I nearly always make more per hour translating.

    1. Judith Kenigson Kristy says:

      Radovan, from your post I assume that you work mostly in conferences, rather than in court. But even so, and while I appreciate your contribution, I cannot agree with your cavalier attitude toward your fellow team member when you are not on-mic! I realize this may be a long-standing habit of yours but I would never work with someone who didn’t “have my back” when I’m the interpreter using the microphone. It is important (and ethically correct!) for the off-mic member to be paying attention and helping out his or her colleague who is performing the interpreting function. It’s an opportunity to look up and pass along difficult terminology that may not have shown up in the prep materials and also to help out by writing down numbers, names, dates and other facts that may be whizzing by so fast that is is difficult for the on-mic interpreter to get them all straight. It’s definitely not a time to abandon your partner so you can “rest” or do your own extra work. That seems very self-centered to me and not at all what “teamwork” is about. I’m curious to know if your partners treat you that way as well, and how that makes you feel.

  5. Vinka Valdivia says:

    Agree. Agree. Agree.

  6. Susana Gee says:

    Excellent article! Thank you!

  7. Very good article. Thank you!

  8. Ariela Edelson Torenberg says:

    Great article!

  9. Alfredo Babler says:

    And how about that upscale hotel buffet style conference food, eh? Sorry, as usual, Janis is so thorough… I have nothing.

  10. Rebecca Thatcher Murcia says:

    I appreciate this article very much. I do, however, have one picky point. The trend is to call the people we interpret for people of Limited English Proficiency because we need to dispel the misconception that we interpret for people who do not speak English. We interpret for people who do not feel proficient enough in English to participate fully in the proceedings and need interpretation into their native language. So I have a little quibble with the “non-English speaker.”

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