You're only as good as your last interpreting session

Post date: Oct 31, 2012 9:32:41 AM

As an ice-breaker for the "team meal" during a recent interpreting assignment, the team leader suggested we discuss our best and worst interpreting moments. It struck me that since, as an interpreter, one is only as good as one's most recent performance, the only really valid subjects for a discussion like this are the best and worst interpreting moments from the previous day.

What I really mean by this is that there is no point in looking back to one's moments of glory (or one's moments of disaster, for that matter) if one has just had a dreadful (or, conversely, brilliant) day. Just like a sportsperson, it's only your latest performance that really defines you as an interpreter. You can improve over the years (one would hope that good interpreters would aim for this, by improving their knowledge of the background subject and terminology, and by improving their interpreting skills), or, perhaps more pertinently, you can deteriorate over time; either way, your past performance is totally irrelevant to today's client.

That being said, discussing one's best and worst interpreting moments can be fun, not necessarily because of the anecdotes themselves (although they can be entertaining), but because of what they, and people's reactions to them, reveal about individual interpreters. Many will try to big themselves up by telling a supposedly "negative" story about the time they were interpreting, say, for the President of Brazil at a vital summit meeting and were rebuked for using the wrong fish fork at dinner (although of course they were completely up to date on their fish fork terminology). Others will be unable to prevent themselves from rejoicing in a colleague's bad performance when a "worst interpreting moment" is recounted. It's certainly tempting.

My personal approach was to "sex up" an embarrassing interpreting situation that occurred 20 yeas ago, in which a difficult client told me I had completely misunderstood something. The client concerned switched from French to English when conveying this information to me, enabling the English-speaking clients to understand what had happened. This anecdote certainly went down well with colleagues, although I am not sure whether this was due to the quantity of wine consumed, my skill as a storyteller, or their glee at my interpreting failure. Which do you imagine it was?

The serious point remains, though: while we should certainly learn from past mistakes (and triumphs), we should always focus on our current performance: just like footballers, it's all about taking one game at a time.