Why the word for interpreters sometimes has to be "non"

Post date: Oct 07, 2010 8:28:14 AM

Just back from three-and-a-half weeks in France - one week on a training course, the rest of the time interpreting at a power plant.

I am talking about a very specific kind of interpreting here, of course: working all day in such a highly technical environment is exhausting - even though I like the technical discussions best (how sad is that). The length of the working day means that interpreters need regular breaks in order to continue functioning effectively. Somewhat paradoxically, it's not so bad if you are on the move around a plant, or an industrial facility of any kind - the interpreting is often less intense, and your brain can "breathe". But if you spend hours stuck in a meeting room, you need to be able to step outside every hour or so for a drink or a "comfort break".

Some interpreters don't have the confidence to do this, but I have found over the years that the client will respect you for it - particularly if they think they are going to get optimum performance from you throughout the day. So if there is a natural break at an appropriate time, jump in and let the clients know - politely, of course - that you are just stepping outside. You don't even need to specify what for, but it's usually appropriate to say "excuse me, I'll be back in a couple of minutes". Or suggest to the client that they could do with a coffee.

If there isn't a natural break, you can wait for any kind of slight lull in the discussions to state your need for a break. And don't be too timid - be confident, and the client will tend to respond positively. Although obviously you shouldn't be nipping out every 10 minutes!

Whatever tactic you adopt, remember that it's perfectly legitimate, and ultimately beneficial for the client, for you to take breaks, provided that you do so at appropriate times and frequencies. You should, of course, agree general guidelines for taking breaks with the customer in advance.

And as for overtime - don't get me started. Extra hours may be appropriate provided a suitable framework has been agreed, of if you are working for a high daily rate as a kind of "consultant" with wider duties than a conventional interpreter, or even if your clients need to reach an important agreement or clinch a vital business deal. But "overtime" is often foisted on interpreters unexpectedly and without proper agreement - and that's when "non*" is often the right answer for the tired and beleaguered language professional. Once again, ultimately the customer will respect you for it, and get better performance out of you.

Before I am inundated with examples of exceptions to this rule (I wish), just let me point out that I am perfectly aware that flexibility, adaptability and customer focus are vital assets for an interpreter. But we can't always just say "oui"*. Allowing ourselves to be exploited brings a whole series of problems in its wake, some of which are very hard to shake off. But that part of the debate is best left for another "Word"...

*Please adjust to reflect your language of choice. Obviously.