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Ewandro Magalhães
Int'l Civil Servant, interpreter, author, speaker, trainer. This is a personal blog not in any away associated with ITU.
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Senior Interpreter:

Chief Interpreter
Int'l Telecommunication Union, ITU

MA in Conference Interpretation
Monterey Institute of Int'l Studies

Member, TAALS, IAPTI

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Former Contractor with State Department, IDB, ICC, IMF, World Bank, OAS, IADB, IADC, PAHO

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The Interpreter

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There are arguably some disadvantages to being a chief interpreter. One does not get to interpret as much (not at all, in my case). One has a clock to punch, reports to write, long staff meetings to sit through and scores of managerial chores that are not necessarily fun. And while one free-rides occasionally on collective success, failure is no longer circumscribed to one's own mistakes. If an interpreter on my team falls flat on his face, I have a lot of explaining to do.

Obviously, the job comes with many perks. You are suddenly cleared into circles you didn't know existed, where guidelines are discussed and decisions made that have a direct impact on working conditions, technology transfer and the overall pace of progress in the industry. The opportunity to help shape the field of interpreting and leave the profession better than you found it is real. And did I mention the welcome promise of a steady income to weather the seasonality of freelancing?

But beyond the evanescent elite membership privileges and pecuniary incentives, what I like most about being a chief interpreter is the amazing learning experience it provides; it is the different outlook that comes from being on the other side of the counter while knowing full well what it is like to be a freelancer. It gives you a completely different perspective. It tells you a lot about diversity and human nature, while revealing many attributes of your own personality, some reassuring, some you'd rather sweep under the rug.

Now, just over two years into the job, I realize the many things I wish I knew in my days as a freelancer. Knowing then what I do now would have greatly improved my performance and earned me an extra buck in the process. So, for the benefit of those freelancers who do not aspire to become chiefs, I thought I'd share some important lessons learned. 

Lesson # 1: Quality is a package

One's interpretive abilities, accuracy and smooth delivery rank high up on any chief interpreter's checklist, of course. But so do punctuality, teamwork skills, flexibility and, most importantly, manners, — both in and out of the booth. The best interpreters are the ones that get the job done unassumingly while making it easier for everyone to do the same, including the chief. They work diligently on their languages as well as their people skills. By contrast, arrogant, overdemanding colleagues make it all about themselves and risk having relative gains in performance (if any) overcast by the toxic atmosphere they end up creating. All things considered, I guess any chief interpreter would prefer a really good interpreter with a great attitude over an excellent interpreter with a poor attitude. Take-home point: be good, but be nice.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

It's interesting how the same rules apply to different industries. In film crews would rather work with someone who's good as well as punctual and nice than with someone who's excellent but constantly late and obnoxious.

As for interpreters, I met the head of an important Latin American company who chose to hire someone who was bilingual and not at all an interpreter over the professional interpreter he normally used because he just couldn't stand the pro interpreter.

And thank you for mentioning manners! I'm in interpreting school and I WISH there were a whole class on manners because it seems to be a dying trait for many. When I try to imagine my classmates as co-workers (or heaven's forbid booth mates) I mostly cringe, especially at the younger ones. They're all good, in fact they're much better than me, but as an older person with previous (real life) work experience, I can see how unpleasant it would be to work with these classmates, or to have to deal with them as clients.

Ewandro, I’m glad you point out manners as part of good professional quality, extended,even, to smelling good in the booth.:-) While one can learn booth manners through interpreting skills courses, one should come to the booth or to the interpreting class with manners learned at home, which unfortunately, not all are leveled from this point. So, like in any other profession, the good quality package professional is stable, secure, reliable and considerate; he / she is seen not only as a great professional, but also as a great one to be around and to work with.

Hi, Thais and "Anonymous".
Thank you for your comments. While most of us can keep our cool heads under normal circumstances, some people tend to lose balance under severe stress. And that, I think, is where more training is needed. Finding aplomb in a crisis is a learned skill.

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Excellent advice for all the prima donna interpreters out there.

Thank you for posting these great tips for all of us to follow. When I get to refer interpreters I go for the competent, punctual, and polite who are not full of themselves, just like you said. First and foremost, we work in teams that means being a good team player not a prima donnas.

Anonymous said...

I wish this concerned only the 'prima donnas', I had a huge problem and the worst booth day because a not very good interpreter used the wrong channel (retour instead of A language for speaking in his A language) and got furious when I calmly switched them back... He screamed with his mic on, spilled coffee on my iPad, etc... and just to be spiteful, went on speaking in his A language on the B channel:-)

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