Just how hard is it to be a good consecutive interpreter?

Post date: Dec 01, 2011 4:10:20 PM

Working on a two-week assignment in France recently, it struck me just how tough it is to maintain a consistently high standard of consecutive interpreting on a sustained basis (i.e. throughout the working day) - particularly in a highly technical environment.

At one point I was mentally checking a series of boxes (fluent English - tick; sufficiently fluent French - tick; good technical understanding - tick), and wondering why I was still struggling to put together fluent sentences in French. There were no obvious misunderstandings; the clients seemed happy. But I was aware of a slight drop in precision at my end.

Admittedly, I was tired; who wouldn't be at 4 pm on a day when you have started interpreting at 8.15. And the subject matter was highly technical, as it always is. Plus the client with whom I was mainly working was a non-native English speaker. Fine - but I can't use these factors as excuses - interpreters need to keep delivering high-quality "content" right to the end of the day.

So in a spirit of continuous improvement, I tried to analyze what was happening: I was interpreting both ways (i.e. English into French, and French into English), but it was only in the into French part that I felt I was wilting slightly. As I said, there were no misunderstandings, but I was aware that I was struggling slightly to arrange my words and phrases in French.

As a result of my musings, several things struck me:

- speaking a language fluently doesn't automatically make one a good interpreter (this should be obvious) -

- I actually needed to speak, and think, slightly more slowly, particularly given my tiredness; trying to maintain a rat-a-tat pace just wasn't feasible

- I needed to think about "translating" my client's ideas more carefully when tired; stuff that goes into French automatically at the start of the day needs a little more careful thought when both client and interpreter have been on the go all day

- The ideas need to be straight in my head, otherwise they won't be straight on the tongue - in other words, if I am unclear about what the client is trying to say (and this does sometimes happen), then I won't be able to render it clearly myself

- I need to get the client to speak in smaller chunks, so that his/her ideas remain clear, and there is no risk of confusion or of conflating different points. If this makes the discussion seem slightly slower and more disjointed, then so be it.

I also need to cut down on the exertions outside the working day while interpreting - if that means less squash, then tough. I was absurdly tired after two full weeks interpreting.

So next time I'm flagging at the end of the day, after 8 hours interpreting in a power plant, maybe I'll bear these points in mind. Let's hope I'm not too tired to do so...